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Bruce Willis, the Great Comic Action Hero

On an icon’s retirement.
March 31, 2022
Bruce Willis, the Great Comic Action Hero
Bruce Willis at a movie premiere in London in 2006. (Photo by David Lodge / FilmMagic / Getty)

Bruce Willis’s family announced his retirement from acting on Wednesday, citing his diagnosis with aphasia and his increasing inability to understand where he was or what he was doing while shooting movies. The announcement came after months of whispers about Willis’s condition and years of low-quality straight-to-VOD-and-Redbox pictures; it was also, possibly, meant to come out just ahead of this Los Angeles Times report about Willis’s increasing inability to function on set and questions of gun safety that arose as a result.

It feels strange to write a retrospective of this sort while Willis is still alive, given the funereal tones all such retrospectives inevitably have. But there’s something especially cruel about Willis’s diagnosis, and the resultant robbery of his witty and wicked sense of humor. Because Bruce Willis’s appeal, when he was at his best, wasn’t that he was an unstoppable action star in the vein of Sly or Arnold. It was his sense of humor, his quick and cutting timing, the way his eyes darted about as he pondered the predicament he’d found himself in this time around.

This was a reason Die Hard resonated so well: He wasn’t Superman; his feet bled when he ran across broken glass; and he was a smartass whose tongue was almost as deadly as his gun. It’s one of the reasons my favorite entry in the series isn’t the first but the third, when he teams up with Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus (“he didn’t say Jesus; he say, hey Zeus!”) to take down Jeremy Irons; Willis and Jackson’s banter never fails to crack me up as Willis is increasingly bloodied by Irons and his goons.

Willis first rose to prominence as the wisecracking private detective David Addison on ABC’s* hit sitcom Moonlighting. It’s instructive to take a few minutes to watch the compilations of Addison’s best moments on YouTube and see just how that role was built on classic screwball timing. I might have laughed out loud here when Willis cut off Cybill Shepherd’s “David, I just don’t think—” with “That’s okay, you look good.” It’s silly, it’s rude, it’s dismissive, but most importantly: it’s funny.

Willis’s work was routinely littered with these little comic asides, expertly delivered. When I think of The Fifth Element, the moment that often leaps to mind is Willis’s delivery of “I am a meat popsicle” when asked if he is a human. Armageddon was a smash hit not just because of the enormous effects and the punishing soundtrack, but because it’s deeply funny: Willis’s Harry Stamper firing golf balls off an oil rig at Greenpeace activists—a joke with an extra, puckish resonance, given Willis’s standing as one of the few Hollywood Republicans back when that had a slightly different valence—or chasing Ben Affleck’s A.J. Frost around with a shotgun for sleeping with his daughter.

He didn’t need quippy dialogue to draw a laugh, a fact we, perhaps ironically, see most clearly in Pulp Fiction. What’s the iconic Willis moment in that film? It’s not a smartass line or a well-timed joke. It’s a series of looks Willis delivers after his character, Butch, escapes from a redneck pawn-shop owner’s subterranean rape den.

Butch pauses at the door when he hears what’s being done to Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and director Quentin Tarantino pushes in slightly. Then Butch starts searching. For what, exactly, we’re not sure—and then he lifts a hammer. The hammer’s good, but it’s no baseball bat, which he lifts next. Ooh, but there’s a chainsaw. A chainsaw would go a long way toward righting some wrongs. And then he sees it. What he’s been looking for the whole time. He puts down the chainsaw without even looking as his eyes lock on the new prize, and the camera stays locked on his eyes for six seconds before we even get to see what he’s found: a samurai sword. It’s a great little moment, a comic short story of quickly planned vengeance, a perfect precursor to “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.

One of the crueler aspects of brain diseases like aphasia, the symptoms of which include a difficulty in expressing oneself and understanding what others are saying, is the way it robs people of awareness, self-awareness included. And Willis is one of the more self-aware stars of his generation and one of those most willing to have a bit of fun with his public image.

His appearances on Dave Letterman’s Late Show were great, a collection of interviews in increasingly funny toupées interspersed with fantastically comic bits like “Bruce Willis, Badass Intern.” And that self-awareness is one reason so many of us were so distraught by his late-career slide into crummy VOD action flicks: Whereas once he took the piss out of the outré superhuman sensibility that had come to define his public persona he seemed to be leaning in to it for a quick buck.

Such work led to meanspirited slaps at Willis. For instance, the idiots at the Razzies—the anti-Oscars designed to take artists down a peg by mocking their work—included in this year’s “awards” a “worst performance by Bruce Willis in a 2021 movie” category. He’d been in so many, you see, that he deserved his own category of mockery.

The Razzies are predicated on viciousness by design, but this felt like an especially egregious slap at an icon who was rather clearly cashing a few checks while he still could. In a just world, those in charge of the event would crawl under a rock and let their nasty, meanspirited little affair expire, their sense of shame overwhelming whatever financial calculus necessitates the awards’ continued existence.

Alas, the Razzies will undoubtedly go on. Hopefully their gaffe here will serve as a reminder for the rest of us that we shouldn’t presume to know what anyone—even someone as famous and beloved as Bruce Willis—is really going through. And that a little kindness and understanding goes a long way in a world where casual contempt is more frequently the coin of the realm.

*Correction: ABC, not CBS. My apologies.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association