When at his peak, Bruce Willis was the guy we all knew from somewhere busting people’s heads, sarcastically shrugging his shoulders and smoking a billion cigarettes with that trademark grin of his, the one that suggested his characters were mostly losers with a good heart, losers who, if given the chance, would take one last shot and make it count. Many of his contemporaries lacked that relatable quality. The truth is, you didn’t watch Bruce Willis on the silver screen; you hung out with him.
The son of a German immigrant and an American soldier, and with that, as Willis himself described, “a long line of blue-collar people,” the movie star was always able to bring his humble beginnings into most of the parts we now love him for. Willis was the underdog, but unlike Sly Stallone’s Rocky, Willis was the underdog in the form of a man who had been somebody once, but is no more. He was the underdog with a fractured nose, a broken back, bruised knuckles. He was the underdog who, in order to become the hero of the day, needed to overcome his own fatalistic world view.
Three of my favorite performances of his attest to the fact that Willis could be great whenever the material he worked with alluded to his blue-collar swagger. The characters he portrayed didn’t need to be superheroes, didn’t need capes and fake muscles. In The Last Boy Scout, directed by Tony Scott, Willis portrays the ultimate heroic fuck-up – Joe Hallenbeck; an ex-secret-service agent turned private eye whose wife is screwing his best friend and whose own daughter calls him an asshole. Hallenbeck has very little respect for himself. Upon waking up in his car with a massive hangover, the detective looks at his own reflection in the rear-view mirror and says to himself, “Nobody likes you, everybody hates you. You’re gonna lose. Smile, you fuck.” This little opening scene, in a way, encapsulates the essence of a Bruce Willis protagonist.
Hallenbeck used to be a hero (rumor has it that he saved the president’s life during his days as a secret-service agent), but now – in his own eyes – he is nobody. His days are marked by the eventual drink, the eventual PI case and the eventual prank call to the US Senator that had him fired years ago from his prestigious job.
Yet, despite his loser status, Willis plays Hallenbeck like a great folk hero: he fills the screen with machismo, and the ability to look oddly out of place and menacing at the same time. When he says to a bad guy, “Touch me again and I’ll kill you,” in-between drinks, we know he means it. We know he has it in him, the instinct of a violent man who spent years trying to tame that very same instinct.
But above all, Hallenbeck – like a lot of characters portrayed by Willis – has a sense of bruised pride about him. Despite considering himself a good-for-nothing, a has-been, Hallenbeck is still, after all the years off the job, able to tell when something or somebody has crossed a certain line. In other words, he’s a fuck-up who knows when to awake from his slumber, when the situation requires that he act upon his old ways. This, inevitably, makes you want to root for him all the more because yes, he recognizes his own flaws and has a hard time adapting to the daily reality surrounding him, but he’s still willing to call a spade a spade when necessary. Like all the great heroes, he may have given up on himself, but he hasn’t given up on the rest of the world just yet.
Similarly, Willis’ performance in Pulp Fiction as Butch Coolidge is another example of how the actor was able to contrast his character’s fatalistic tendencies with a re-emerging sense of pride. After all, Butch – the boxer who wants out of the game in Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic – is introduced in the scene where the gangster Marsellus Wallace is asking him specifically to take the fall and lose the upcoming fight. In return, Butch will get a whole lot of money. Butch knows what the consequences are if he were to decide and double-cross Marsellus, but does it anyway. Why? Because something deep down reminds him that he got to where he is now not by taking bribes, but by working hard.
Despite being confronted with the sad reality of gangsters, pimps and gambling, Butch still has a moral compass. The same moral compass that in the end will convince him to save Marsellus Wallace’s life.
Later in his career, a few scattered gems still spoke to the movie star’s ability of bringing an unparalleled relatability to his performances. Besides Sin City and Looper, Willis’ brief yet pivotal turn as Police Captain Sharp in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom is one of the more delicate highlights in the actor’s filmography.
In the quirky universe of Anderson, where everything is perfectly controlled, calculated and measured, Willis turns his blue-collar swagger into something even more impressive – a kind of blue-collar sensitivity, wisdom and understanding. As the local police chief whose duty is to capture a pair of teenage run-aways, Willis is entrusted with the difficult task of making his character once again the moral compass of the movie.
The characters that populate Moonrise Kingdom are largely disinterested in the hardships of the two young run-aways. Whereas the local community seems more interested in propagating unfounded rumors about them, Captain Sharp is the only one willing to listen to their story. Sharp is perhaps the only adult in the movie who’s able to empathize with the fears of young people, and as a result, is the first one to step in defense of Sam, the film’s protagonist, when he is threatened to be taken in by Social Services. Willis perfectly understands his own character’s frustrations as Captain Sharp is a lonely, forgotten man whose job in a way represents his entire existence.
When Sam asks him, “Did you love someone ever?” to which Sharp replies with a nod, and Sam probes him further with, “Well, what happened?” Sharp simply replies, “She didn’t love me back,” Willis underplays this scene with incredible skill and profound honesty. With those words, he sells you the essence of Captain Sharp. Just like with Joe Hallenbeck or Butch Coolidge, you immediately know who you’re rooting for.
Many have tried to emulate Bruce Willis over the years. Later generations have tried in vain to replicate his working-class charisma, the mix of macho bravado and dry humor, the features of an action movie star and the instincts of a skilled character actor. Some attempts were more successful than others, but ultimately nobody ever came close to selling the pain brought by the acceptance of failure the way Willis did in his best roles. With the actor’s recent retirement announcement, it’s worth looking back at the career of a man who, on his best days, sounded like the guy we might know from across the street. He was one of us. And he made it to the big time.