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Bruce Willis looks polished to a Beverly Hills shine. He’s trimmer and less bulky in person than you might expect—there doesn’t seem to be an ounce of excess fat anywhere on his 52-year-old frame. He’s wearing an expensive-looking gray suit and a crisp white shirt. On this rainy late-May morning at the Crescent Court Hotel, he keeps his BlackBerry close at hand, making certain to check e-mail in between interviews.


He has that air of effortless authority that can only be cultivated through years of being treated like the most important person in the room. When, for instance, he forgets the name of a stunt person he worked with on the third “Die Hard” film, he asks a publicist to make a few phone calls to Los Angeles to find out. Not unlike Meryl Streep’s character in “The Devil Wears Prada,” he doesn’t need to raise his voice to make it perfectly clear that he expects this information to be retrieved immediately.


cover art

Live Free or Die Hard

Director: Len Wiseman
Cast: 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)

Review [2.Jan.2008]

In three words, he is calm, cool and collected.


And try as you might to penetrate his guard—to get him to reflect on his two-decade-plus career in Hollywood or consider the possibility that he’s never gotten the credit he deserves as a serious actor—Willis will steadfastly resist your efforts.


“Fifty percent of the time I’m right, but 50 percent of the time I’m just as wrong,” he says in response to a question about his knack for choosing projects like “Die Hard” (1988) and “The Sixth Sense” (1999)—critical and commercial successes that also redefined their respective genres. “I’ve made just as many mistakes in choosing as I have successes. I really don’t know more than anyone else does.”


When you ask him when he began to develop such evident confidence as an actor—a confidence that has allowed him to take some vastly underappreciated risks, in movies as far ranging as “Nobody’s Fool” (1994), “Twelve Monkeys” (1995) and “Unbreakable” (2000)—Willis even more quickly dismisses the question.


“I still don’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “I’m still learning how to act. Every film ... you have to put on a different set of clothes, a different set of armor, a different set of acting muscles. I’ve learned that that’s the process.”


On June 27, Willis will turn up once again as John McClane in “Live Free or Die Hard,” the fourth installment of the “Die Hard” franchise (and the first “Die Hard” movie in 12 years). It sounds like one of those ill-fated attempts by a fading star to rekindle his past glory—the kind of movie that could turn an icon into a laughingstock (see Sylvester Stallone’s recent “Rocky Balboa”).


The thing about Willis, however, is that he’s never really faded, despite having appeared in his share of notorious bombs, like “The Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990) and “Hudson Hawk” (1991), and despite the fact that he hasn’t had a huge hit in years.


Instead, his brand of simmering American cool—the unflappable tough guy who plays everything very close to the vest—only seems more appealing in our modern era of the pretty-boy, eager-to-please action hero (paging Orlando Bloom and Tobey Maguire). Willis’ work in dramatic roles has proved even more remarkable, being both understated and unpredictable.


Willis would probably never fess up to this himself. It would require him to let down his guard—and that’s clearly not something he’s about to do. But behind this glistening and steely movie-star facade is one of the most accomplished and original actors working in movies today.


“The day after Fox agreed to pay me $5 million to do that film, every male actor’s salary in Hollywood rotated up to that number,” Willis says of his record-breaking salary for the original “Die Hard.” “I didn’t get any cards. No thank-yous. No Christmas presents. I remember there were studio heads who predicted that it would be the end of film, to pay an unproven TV actor that much money for a film. They were predicting doom.”


At the time, the studio heads’ concern certainly seemed legit. Willis was known mostly for his role as David Addison opposite Cybill Shepherd on the ABC series “Moonlighting.” He was also known as the former bartender from New Jersey who partied all hours of the day and night. The idea that this likable but fundamentally lightweight TV actor could anchor a major summer movie seemed hard to fathom.


Willis proved the naysayers wrong—and then some. Funny, gripping, and breathlessly paced, “Die Hard”—about a cop who must single-handedly rescue a group of hostages from a skyscraper—earned almost universally favorable reviews and ended up grossing $83 million. Willis brought to the movie the same smirky charm he displayed on “Moonlighting.” But he also showed an forcefulness we hadn’t seen from him before—a kind of blue-collar tenacity that made the McClane character tremendously appealing.


Still, one big hit doesn’t necessarily translate into an enduring career. (Just ask Willis’ fellow `80s action heroes, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme.) And Willis miraculously managed to survive one commercial and critical blow after another, among them Blake Edwards’ period-piece comedy “Sunset” (1988) and Robert Benton’s inert adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s “Billy Bathgate” (1991).


So was there a secret to Willis’ early success?


“I guess it’s that I get to mix it up,” he offers tentatively. “I don’t know. But I got to do different things and play supporting roles. I think the first time I did that was in `Mortal Thoughts.’ My agent and everyone who advises me said, `You can’t do this, you’re going to lower your price, it’s a bad idea.’ But it turned out OK.”


Well, actually more than OK. Indeed, it was in a number of supporting parts that followed—in Benton’s “Nobody’s Fool” (1994) and Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994)—that Willis began to develop his trademark style. In his best performances, he keeps one foot firmly planted in the old-school tradition of Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne, maintaining an ultra-cool and stoic demeanor amid so much chaos.


But he also reveals a more modern, metrosexual side: He’s the tough guy who’s not afraid to admit that, sometimes, he’s falling apart on the inside. (In the case of his supporting turn in Ed Zwick’s “The Siege,” he’s the tough guy who’s not afraid to admit that he might be a raging, paranoid lunatic on the inside; this underrated thriller makes you wish Willis would play a bad guy more often.)


By the time he paired with M. Night Shyamalan for the now-classic “The Sixth Sense” (1999), he was a major movie star. But that movie—in which he played a mysterious psychiatrist who befriends a young boy who has supernatural visions—revealed that Willis had also developed the sort of complex interior life that we associate with our very greatest actors. Haunted without being mopey and (just as in real life) commanding without being especially loud, Willis is heartbreaking in “The Sixth Sense,” finally reducing the audience to tears. It remains one of the biggest Oscar oversights in the past decade that he was not nominated for a statue alongside co-stars Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette.


“Live Free or Die Hard” arrives in theaters after a string of disappointments for Willis: Some of these films, like “Hostage” (2005) or this year’s “Perfect Stranger,” were ill-conceived from the start; others—namely “Hart’s War” (2002) and “16 Blocks” (2006)—were modest genre pieces that never quite found the audiences they deserved. But Willis insists that he’s not reviving the McClane character out of desperation; in fact, he says it took the studio years to persuade him to do it.


“There was a lot of trepidation when I was considering it,” he says. “The potential to fail was really high. We had to have a great script, and we needed to get a great director.”


When Willis visited Dallas last month, Fox still didn’t have a finished print of the film to show journalists. Instead, the studio screened the opening 20 minutes, in which McClane is called to help the FBI track down a young computer hacker (Justin Long) and bring him in for questioning. It’s a promising start, lean and confidently directed by “Underworld’s” Len Wiseman. And it’s immediately evident that, despite all those years high on the A-list, Willis hasn’t lost his ability to play a working-class cop. He falls into the role like a man putting on a pair of well-worn jeans.


Will the movie appeal to today’s bigger-louder-noisier action fans—mostly teenage boys who were still in diapers when the last “Die Hard” movie opened in 1995? Will the crowds just stay away and wait until “Transformers” hit theaters a few days later?


If he’s worried, Willis certainly isn’t about to let you see him sweat. Quite the contrary, he seems so relaxed and authoritative talking about “Live Free or Die Hard” that the actual success or failure of the film almost seems beside the point. You get the sense that, one way or the other, Mr. Cool will weather any storm.


You get the sense, too, that he’s one of those enduring Hollywood icons—like Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant or Paul Newman—who will only get better with age. The quality that all of these men share: They’re experts at making everything seem so very effortless.


“When I was learning how to act, doing `Moonlighting’ and the films I was doing then, I felt that I wasn’t really going to get the best roles until I was in my 40s and 50s,” Willis says, barely raising his voice above the rumble of the thunder outside.


“My prediction was accurate. I just know so much more about storytelling now. And I understand that my job has never been to be a movie star. My job is to be entertaining as an actor.”


___


WILLIS ON WILLIS


On his favorite of his own movies:


“I think `Twelve Monkeys’ was the best example of Terry Gilliam’s time-travel movies. He’s made a lot of time-travel movies, but that one was really well-written. It had a great cast. It was just a crazy, outlandish story. To this day, people come up to me and say, `What does the ending mean? What really happens?’”


On first reading the screenplay for “The Sixth Sense”:


“I read it and said `yes’ the next day. I was as fooled reading the script—when I turned from page 105 to page 106—as the audience was seeing the film. And I thought, `If we can even come close to fooling the audience the same way I just got fooled, this will be great.’ I called (writer-director) M. Night Shyamalan the next day and I said, `Yeah, I’m in.’”


On the commercial disappointment of “Unbreakable,” his follow-up collaboration with Shyamalan:


“`Unbreakable’ was really conceived by Night as part of a trilogy. We shot the origin story. I think in talking to Night about it, after the film came out, he feels maybe we should have shot the middle story first. But I love that film. I loved how it turned out.”


On how being a celebrity has changed over the past two decades:


“We certainly live at the height of pop-culture media. People know more about what Paris Hilton is doing today than they know what their congressman is doing today. Twenty years ago, when I started out, I hated the concept of paparazzi and tabloid journalism. I shook my fist against it. But now I accept it as part of the culture. It’s not going to go anywhere. It’s going to be around forever.”


___


FIVE PERFORMANCES TO REMEMBER


1. “Mortal Thoughts” (1991): Willis revealed an unexpected dark side playing a physically abusive husband who ends up dead in this vastly underrated drama directed by Alan Rudolph. The character might easily have been played as a cliche, but Willis finds nuance and even humanity in him. The strong ensemble cast also includes Glenne Headly (as Willis’ wife), Demi Moore (as the wife’s best friend) and Harvey Keitel as the detective investigating Willis’ death.


2. “Pulp Fiction” (1994): Willis’ unique physical presence—the bald head, the bulldog intensity, the smirk that can readily curdle into a venomous frown—has never been put to better use than in this great Quentin Tarantino-directed crime thriller. He plays a laconic boxer trying to escape the clutches of a gangster—and he deserved just as much praise as was bestowed upon his co-stars John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson.


3. “Nobody’s Fool” (1994): This small-scale masterpiece, about a man (Paul Newman) in upstate New York dealing with life, love and getting older, has been inexplicably forgotten in the 12 years since its release. Check it out, and pay special attention to Willis’ subtle and very funny performance as the owner of a steel mill who can’t be bothered to pay attention to his wife (a never better Melanie Griffith).


4. “Unbreakable” (2000): Take nothing away from Willis’ unforgettable work in “The Sixth Sense.” But this second collaboration with director M. Night Shyamalan features the actor’s greatest performance to date. He plays the agonized sole survivor of a train wreck who begins to suspect that he might have superpowers. It’s a moving study of a man struggling to hold it together as the life he’s known begins to fall apart and reconfigure.


5. “16 Blocks” (2006): This thriller slipped in and out of theaters with unfortunate speed last year; perhaps many thought it was a routine action picture starring Willis in Solemn Tough Guy mode. In fact, “16 Blocks” is cleverly constructed and tightly wound—the sort of B-movie gem that Hollywood turned out regularly in the 1940s and `50s. It also gave the actor his best role in years, that of a depressed cop who reclaims the fire in his belly when a routine assignment takes a deadly turn.


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