Bruce Willis shoots into the hotel suite like a blue-eyed bullet, head shaved, T white, jeans pale as his orbs. The wiry actor is trim, more like a spokesmodel for the imaginary health supplement Diet Hard than an aging action hero flogging a movie franchise last seen during Clinton’s first term.
After an absence of 12 years, Willis’ alter ego John McClane returns to theaters this week in Live Free or Die Hard—or Die Hard 4.0, as it’s called in Europe.
Live Free or Die Hard
Bruce Willis, Justin Long, Maggie Q, Timothy Olyphant, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Cyril Raffaelli
(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 27 Jun 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 4 Jul 2007; 2007)
Willis, 52, reprises the role of the battle-scarred NYPD detective who shoots from the hip and the lip, this time taking aim at cyberterrorists. McClane is an old-school reproach to the Virtual Generation—proof that in a high-tech world where a keystroke can detonate a bomb, the best defense can be a gun and an attitude.
Nice to see Willis. Nicer still to see him in the lead rather than in those forgettable cameos in Grindhouse and Perfect Stranger. But why resurrect Die Hard, why? After all, in the wake of 9/11 didn’t Willis pledge not to make any more save-the-planet pictures?
“Incorrect!” he emphasizes, punching the air with his fist. “What I said was: I was taking a break from action movies because I felt the genre was in need of an overhaul.”
Lest the pride of Penns Grove, N.J., come off as self-important, he mocks himself. “It’s not as if I actually knew how to overhaul it,” he says, rolling eyes and shrugging shoulders. “It was Len Wiseman (the Underworld director who helmed DH4) who brought Die Hard into the 21st century.”
Wiseman’s challenge was to take McClane, a two-fisted, no-nonsense guy who swaggers through the urban wilderness, and make him relevant to the digital age. The way he did it was to team Willis with Justin Long, the amiable young actor seen in the Macintosh computer ads, as a hacker the feds want McClane to escort to Washington for questioning.
Willis dresses like a throwback kind of guy. And he talks throwback, too, peppering his conversations with “that’s cool” and describing DH4 as “the Dorney Park of films” in reference to the Allentown, Pa., fun zone famed for its roller coasters.
In life, though, the actor is Internet-savvy, hanging out in chat rooms under the handles Beedub (Bee for B in Bruce and Dub for W in Willis) and Walter B (his given name is Walter Bruce Willis).
According to Willis, John Wayne is the spiritual godfather of John McClane, a character he reckons is “equal parts Wayne, Steve McQueen and South Jersey.”
“His gallows humor, his hard-ass attytood, those are very Jerseyan traits, as is McClane’s disrespect for authority,” says Willis, who was inspired by Wayne’s performances in Red River and The Searchers.
“Why aren’t those movies remade?” he asks. “I should remake `em,” says the actor, who hasn’t played an actual cowboy, unless you count his performance as western star Tom Mix in Sunset.
The Jersey boy who made his movie debut as an extra in the Frank Sinatra flick The First Deadly Sin (1980) and spent a month hanging with Ol’ Blue Eyes is a Westerner by adoption, with a 40-acre spread in Hailey, Idaho.
It’s in potatoland, midway between Boise and Pocatello. There, he and Demi Moore (who were married in 1987 by the same justice of the peace who wed Sinatra and Mia Farrow) raised their three daughters, Rumer, 18, Scout, 15, and Tallulah, 13. When Willis and Moore divorced in 1998, he bought a house nearby.
Yes, he takes girlfriends up to Idaho, where he is an active co-parent. And yes, he vacations with his ex and her new spouse, Ashton Kutcher. Just look at this month’s photo spread in Vanity Fair, the glossy that serves as the unofficial house organ of the Willis/Moores. In his July Playboy interview, he credits Moore and Will Smith with making him see that he had to do whatever it took to get the kids and spouses together as one extended family.
“When you first start acting, you don’t look outside yourself,” he reflects. “Before kids, there was no line between who I was as a person and who I was as an actor. They say when you become a parent that your life is gonna change, as if someone is gonna take something away.
“But in fact your life becomes richer emotionally. I don’t understand guys who bring kids into the world and don’t look after them. I can’t feature it. Kids make you find more love in your heart.
“The best thing I ever did—and I wish I could take more credit for it—was not to raise my kids in L.A.,” he says. “My kids have no illusions about Hollywood.”
Maybe not. But with roles in her mother’s Striptease and her father’s Hostage, Rumer has hopes of a Hollywood career. While she has been photographed partying with Lindsay Lohan and Nicole Richie, the eldest Willis daughter is no media hound.
“We’ve talked to the girls about the perils of drugs,” he says. “And about how on both sides, they have a predisposition to alcoholism. I hope we’ve sent them into the world with the right amount of information.”
Willis, politically outspoken in the past, at one time an ideological ally of the liberal Tom Hayden and at another the guest of the elder George Bush at the 1992 Republican convention, speaks cautiously now.
“I’m an independent, don’t have a lot of faith in politicians,” he says in muted tones. Movie stars don’t want to alienate any constituency. Perhaps that’s why he adds, as guardedly as any candidate, “I have just as many Democratic as Republican points of view.”
In 2003 Willis was cheerleading the exploits of the soldiers involved in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Today he more quietly advocates on behalf of those vets. “Returning soldiers should be treated better. This administration—or a new one—should commit to those who have sacrificed of themselves.
“How about a tax break for the rest of their lives? How about health care? Sheesh, SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) has a better health insurance plan than the military.”
In speaking out on behalf of veterans, Willis has found common ground with political opponents. “Yeah, Susan Sarandon and I are on the same page as far as that soldiers should be taken much better care of,” he says. Just a Jersey boy and a Jersey girl fighting for social justice.
Lately, Willis admits, he has been having mortal thoughts. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done is grieve the death of my brother, Robert,” who died in 2001 at 42. “Six weeks from his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer to his death.
“Grief is a weird thing. Mine didn’t follow a natural course. I’d hear a song and start bawling.”
Whether he’s thinking of his brother or his daughters, something suddenly pulls him back inside himself, and the charismatic Willis disappears like a turtle retracting into its shell.
“There is something I knew 30 years ago, but I didn’t live by it,” he says, his trademark smirk softening into a smile. “So this is me speaking to my 22-year-old self from the future: `Don’t waste time. Don’t take time for granted.’”
Movie critic Carrie Rickey picks five favorite Willis movies:
Die Hard (1988)
Armed with a wisecrack and little else, NYPD cop John McClane outwits a dozen terrorists who have commandeered an L.A. skyscraper.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
In one of the film’s pretzeling plot lines, Willis plays boxer Butch Coolidge, whose face-off with a pawnbroker is a highlight reel of action-film moves.
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
This time-traveling romance stars Willis as a convict who lands in a virus-plagued Philadelphia of the future.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Willis, a shrink in need of a shrink, treats a haunted Haley Joel Osment.
16 Blocks (2006)
A pickled N.Y. policeman marking time until retirement gets his morals and mojo back when he transports witness Mos Def through a gauntlet of corrupt cops to the courthouse.