Welcome to the potty, pal
“That ship has sailed, huh?” a friend at a film festival said a couple years ago about the career of Bruce Willis. Nobody argued otherwise and we were all a little bummed about it. After all, it wasn’t too long ago that his terrific turns in Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom” and Rian Johnson’s “Looper” suggested Willis was aging gracefully into the kind of supporting character roles that allow movie stars to really flex after hitting their fifties. But by last fall, things had gotten so bad we were hailing his quick, five-minute cameo in “Motherless Brooklyn” as a return to form for being “unusually alert” and “actively engaged with his co-stars.”
Such faint praise will not be bstowed upon HARD KILL, another anonymous widget from the assembly line of direct-to-video thrillers during which Bruce Willis sits around sulking. He’s made more than a dozen of these in the past five years alone, joining Nicolas Cage and John Cusack in the bargain basement of your VOD menu and making one wonder what kind of gambling debts these guys must have. Originally called “Open Source,” “Hard Kill” was rather brazenly retitled to conjure memories of “Die Hard,” but in this case they’ll be sad ones. Willis mopes his way through his umpteenth single-location action picture surrounded by terrorists and unable to disguise his contempt for the material. Can’t say that I blame him. It took me three tries to finish watching this fool thing.
As usual with these, Willis isn’t even the lead because that would be too much work. The personality-free Jesse Metcalfe stars as leader of an ex-special forces crew of mercenaries hired by Willis’ army legend/billionaire tech giant to recover an artificial intelligence program that the boss’ flighty daughter (reality TV star Lala Kent) has given to a sinister terrorist known as The Pardoner, who shot Metcalfe in the back on a previous assignment. To call all this stuff boilerplate would be an insult to both boilers and plates, neither of which would ever come up with a villain name as lame as The Pardoner.
The whole film takes place in a drab, abandoned warehouse and the action is all that tiresome, training-fetish “tac team” shit I hate where guys with Kevlar vests and long guns lurk behind corners while flashing convoluted hand signals and pointing intently at their eyes. Most of the movie is just actors uttering blatantly nonsensical babble about “full binary” and “extraction” while listlessly standing around the warehouse. Willis gets a chair.
“Hard Kill” follows “Trauma Center” and “Survive The Night” as the star’s third low-budget throwaway with director Matt Eskandari to be released in the last nine months. You watch it and wonder why things had to wind up like this for Willis, whom I idolized as a child for his Motown-singing, hepcat detective David Addison, wooing Cybill Shepherd on ABC’s “Moonlighting” and teaching an entire generation of young men that the best way to get a girl who’s out of your league is by being as obnoxious as humanly possible. Willis was always the most relatable of stars, which is why “Die Hard” is unimaginable with any of the other actors who originally passed on the project, like Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, or Richard Gere. Bruce Willis was a regular guy from Jersey with male pattern baldness, the coolest of your dad’s friends who drinks a little too much and tells dirty jokes in front of the kids.
But somewhere along the line that all got lost, and Willis’ screen presence grew increasingly surly and remote. The invincible asshole John McClane of the later “Die Hard” sequels is unrecognizable next to his frightened, quippy, original characterization. He seems to be more famous these days for films he isn’t in, with acrimonious, high-profile departures from “The Expendables 3” and Woody Allen’s “Café Society” making more waves than the pictures themselves. (Seriously, imagine being the biggest asshole on the set of a Mel Gibson movie?) Kevin Smith has made a small cottage industry out of telling – and re-telling – his Bruce Willis horror stories from the set of 2010’s “Cop Out,” but I’m going to have to side with Bruno on the one where he cussed out the director for not knowing which lens was on the camera while shooting his ninth motion picture.
Preening in an infinity scarf and all but rolling his eyes at the inane dialogue in “Hard Kill,” Willis looks exhausted and sad. He doesn’t like being in this movie any more than you like watching it, which almost makes him seem slightly relatable again. Until you remember that only one of you is getting paid for this.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.