It’s no wonder that Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to don a lot of prosthetics to resemble Bruce Willis in the new sci-fi film Looper, since they don’t make young stars quite like Willis anymore. That may have proved a good thing for the 57-year-old actor, since the lack of competitors keeps him employed, but has he watered down his brand with too many negligible movies as of late? To take stock of his current career path and to find out whether Willis is still held in great esteem as a movie star, we polled industry insiders to ask one simple question: If Bruce Willis were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: Willis came to fame on the clever detective dramedy Moonlighting, but by the end of the TV show’s run, he’d virtually vanished from it: Not only was he warring with costar Cybill Shepherd, but Die Hard (1988) had made him a huge big-screen star. That film gave him one franchise, and Look Who’s Talking the next year gave him another, even if it was in voice only.
In the nineties, after a string of big-budget blunders (including The Bonfire of the Vanities and Hudson Hawk) it seemed as though Willis was entering a new phase of playing fascinating characters, regardless of their size. He set up Paul Newman for zingers in 1994’s Nobody’s Fool and delivered a small but unforgettable turn that year as Butch Coolidge in Pulp Fiction (with the keeper “ Even his leading roles became more eclectic: Twelve Monkeys and The Fifth Element were auteur works (we could even say the same, of a sort, about Michael Bay’s Armageddon), his muted, gentle “Okay” in The Sixth Sense lent gravitas to Haley Joel Osment’s whispered bombshell, “ ,” and we’ll even give him points for trying as unhinged Pontiac dealer Dwayne Hoover in Breakfast of Champions (also 1999).
It wouldn’t last. For most of the next decade, Willis would profitably relegate himself to the “Four C’s”: commandos (Hart’s War, Tears of the Sun, Grindhouse), cops (Hostage, Sin City, Cop Out, Surrogates, Live Free or Die Hard), criminals (Bandits, Alpha Dog, Catch .44), and contract killers (The Whole Nine Yards, The Whole Ten Yards, and Lucky Number Slevin, as well as Red, The Expendables, and the sequels to both). The fact that Willis showed up in the considerably different Moonrise Kingdom this year is now an anomaly.
Peers: The only actor who is both a peer and contemporary is the Kevin Costner (57), but as one talent agent points out, “peers are not necessarily contemporaries”: This agent notes that Willis is often offered roles that ultimately go to Sylvester Stallone (65) and Jason Statham (44), men separated from Willis by a decade on either side. Willis has never been considered part of the pinnacle of leading men, lacking chops of Mel Gibson (56) in his prime and the Oscar-stuffed shelf of Russell Crowe (47). Nor, for that matter, is he the town’s preferred action star: Slam-bam tentpoles tend to be offered first to Robert Downey Jr. (47), Tom Cruise (49), and Will Smith (43).
But that’s not to say he’s a weak choice for the action/adventure genre: “He still commands a real following — in the right movies,” says one agent. “The Expendables, Red, that sort of stuff. He’s still the ‘action guy.’ There aren’t many of them left, to be honest.”
And as one top producer notes, “Bruce is younger than his peer group — 57 — versus Arnie, Harrison [Ford], etc. And he has taken really good care of himself and hasn’t done weird surgery. He is also considered cool still, especially with all his appearances on Letterman and . So, I think that’s why he is getting more calls now.”
Market Value: All over the place. At the beginning of his career, Willis had a few $100 million hits, and then in the late nineties, he hit his personal bests with Armageddon ($201 million) and The Sixth Sense ($293 million). But throughout his career, the prolific Willis has had more than his share of bombs and underperformers, and they’ve begun to crowd out the successes. These days, most Willis vehicles come in under $50 million (like Cop Out, Surrogates, or Perfect Stranger) unless he’s doing a Die Hard sequel or insulating himself in a strong ensemble (The Expendables, Red). The studio is relying on Willis to generate the most mainstream interest in Looper, but that didn’t quite work for his recent bomb The Cold Light of Day, which hasn’t even grossed $4 million.
What Hollywood Thinks: You need to be careful once you make “movie money,” as the old Hollywood saw goes, because it will allow you to become the person you’ve always wanted to be. In the case of Willis, to hear directors and their agents tell it, that person would be “insufferable.”
“He is a nightmare to work with,” insists a second talent agent. “Totally pissy. Gets in little spats and childish arguments. He’s a nice guy off the set, when he’s not working. In fact, I’ve been out with him once, and he was really charming. But has a temper. So while he’s really nice to cast … uh … directors, not at all: He beats them up. He kind of does that ‘Do you know who I am?!?’ kind of thing, especially if they’re younger. He’s a pain in the ass, because he can make things slow down.”
Indeed, in Kevin Smith’s memoir, Tough Shit, Willis is taken to task by the director for just this sort of stubbornness on the set of their 2010 action comedy, Cop Out:
At the blocking rehearsal, Bruce took one look at all the unsexy, expository dialogue he’d have to deliver in the scene, and I guess he suddenly decided two pages’ worth of his half of the dialogue would be best not said at all — at least not by him. You can call that an actor making a choice; I call that an actor making a choice for another actor, and then making the double burden he’s suddenly heaped on the guy no easier by barely being present in the scene with him.
In recent years, Willis’s popularity at home has waned, unless he’s playing another of the seemingly unending stream of gun-toting assassins and cops which the Die Hard franchise launched him into nearly 25 years ago. On the other hand, Willis rarely leaves that orbit, having become, quite literally, an actor whose specialty is character assassination: In Looper, he plays an assassin being hunted by a younger version of himself.
“Domestically, he’s an interesting piece of casting,” says our second talent agent. “But I travel all over the world, and he has huge foreign [appeal]: Russia, South America, Brazil, China, Asia, he’s a total rock star. He just still is. If you have a foreign investor, like Millennium Films, and he’s attached even in a smaller role? They’ll make the movie with you. He’ll always work. Die Hard is still completely big, across the world. It’s probably still playing somewhere right now.”
If his overreliance on action belies a lack of creativity or an unwillingness to stretch, at the very least, Willis has at least done himself no harm — which is far more than one could say about many of his contemporaries, who’ve become better known for couch-jumping or drunken, racist epithets than delivering on-screen stunts.
“I’ll tell you what he hasn’t done,” says one top screenwriter who’s a Willis apologist, “He hasn’t blown his brand to bits the way that Nic Cage has. They won’t even do National Treasure 3 unless he’s handing it off to someone else!”
Adds our third talent agent, “When I think of Bruce, I still think of a relevant action star.”
So, apparently, do the big studios:
- This summer, Willis wrapped a fifth Die Hard film in Budapest, and next year will star in the sequel to Red.
- At Sony Pictures, he’s attached to star in Transformers producer Lorzenzo di Bonaventura’s action flick, Five Against A Bullet, in which (here it comes!) Willis plays one of the world’s five deadliest assassins, who are hired to protect the only honest man running to become the mayor of Mexico City while trying to avoid being bumped off by one another in the process.
- Earlier this year, he joined CBS Films’ planned adaptation of the Vince Flynn book American Assassin, in which he plays a vegan yoga instructor who falls hard for a lesbian butcher. (Just kidding, Bruce plays a CIA operative who trains assassins.)
The Analysis: Opinions are split on whether the interesting, character-driven Willis of the nineties is mostly gone for good. “The attitude is too bad,” says our second agent. “I don’t think anyone is going to tell him anything; I don’t think he cares. He’s not saying, ‘I need my Oscar movie, guys!’ to his agents. He wants to get paid and get out. Which is weird, because he could go do something obscure; he has the money.”
But another agent points out that Willis helped bring Wes Anderson his highest-grossing indie of his career with this summer’s Moonrise Kingdom, noting, “Wes Anderson casts who he wants; no one tells him, ‘You have to cast Bruce Willis.’ But for that kind of part, he got paid bupkis, and from what I hear, he has a very expensive lifestyle, and so outside of a few [auteur] filmmakers to whom he really relates and engages with, Bruce just wants to get the money and get out, even if that means making movies that are derivative of all the other films he ever made.”
One top producer who’s worked with Willis defends him, noting, “He has done quite a few interesting movies this year that are about to come out. A Stephen Frears film [sports betting drama Lay the Favorite] and Looper are considered ‘higher-brow’ and ‘elevated’ — for him. I think he is undergoing a bit of a resurgence after the last Die Hard was received well and did well, and then Red was both a critical and commercial success.”
“He’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing,” says our third agent. “I don’t think Bruce Willis secretly wants to do a play. But he’s making money and what he’s doing is doing well, for what it is. And he could do it for another dozen years.”
The Bottom Line: Then again, don’t expect Willis to make it through those dozen years relying solely on his own stardom: Even in his own Die Hard franchise, the studio insists on pairing him with younger actors now (Justin Long in the most recent installment, Jai Courtney as his son in the next one). It’s a reminder that Willis still has value as a name, but there needs to be some extra oomph there to really elevate a star who makes too many bad movies too often. Our advice to Willis: Hold off on the thrillers co-starring 50 Cent, pick only one or two movies a year, and make more of them like Moonrise. We know he’s capable of it.
Buy/Sell/Hold: Strong Hold for value, weak Sell for growth.