Bruce Willis: the new star of straight-to-DVD movies?

News Simon Brew
1 Dec 2011 - 14:10

It seems the name of Bruce Willis is no longer enough to get a film seen in cinemas. But does that matter anymore, wonders Simon...

There’s a reason, I’ve concluded, that Bruce Willis’ filming schedule currently finds him in the midst of four sequels. Right now, Willis has completed work, is working on, or starting shortly on The Expendables 2, G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra, A Good Day To Die Hard and RED 2. Each of those should give him a solid box office hit at the very least.

On paper, he doesn’t seem to need it, though. In 2010, he had a trio of films that topped the US box office, in the shape of Cop Out, The Expendables and RED. However, they were his first live action hits outside of the Die Hard franchise in some time (and two of them sold off the back of an ensemble). Before that, the list of box office disappointments wasn’t short: Perfect Stranger, Surrogates and 16 Blocks, for instance, all had higher box office expectations than the final numbers delivered. None of them is a movie I’d particularly ever care to revisit.

However, since Quentin Tarantino shone a fresh light on his career in 1994’s Pulp Fiction, Willis has been wise to mixing up independent fare with his blockbuster choices. Films such as Lucky Number Slevin, Sin City and Last Man Standing have vindicated that approach.

And his willingness to take a gamble led him to the film sets of M Night Shyamalan. Both of them delivered work of a quality they’ve since failed to match, with the pair of critical and commercial hits, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

But is Willis’ box office endurance, which has been through some substantive troughs in the past, coming to an end? Is that why he’s picked four such commercial projects in such succession, to cement his Photoshopped face onto movie posters for the next couple of years?

I ask the question because, for the first time since he became John McClane at the end of the 1980s, a Bruce Willis movie has slipped past cinemas, and gone straight to DVD. In fact, save for a very limited release on a handful of screens, two of them have. Even this time last year, that’d be unthinkable.

Neither film boasts a massive role for Willis, but Setup – where he co-stars with 50 Cent – and Catch 44, a smaller indie project – are both bypassing cinemas screens (it’s the latter that’s down for a small roll-out in the States on 9th December, but nothing more than that).

Appreciating that the power of a star name has different ramifications than it once did, it seems to mark a point where attaching Bruce Willis to a project is no longer enough to get a wide cinema release.

For an independent project, the idea of getting a movie star on board is, surely, to get the film in question some profile, yet Willis can’t guarantee that any more. And, as a result, he’s joined Kevin Costner on the straight-to-DVD shelves of Blockbuster (Costner vehicle The New Daughter met the same fate earlier this year).

I’ve not seen the two Willis films in question, so can’t vouch for their quality of otherwise. CJ Wheeler reviewed Setup on DVD, though, and he concluded that there was good reason why it never troubled your local Odeon.

Should we be bothered about the apparently waning power of the Willis, though?

Well, yes, I’d argue so. And that’s because whatever you think of the man, he’s not averse to a gamble. The film he’s sandwiched in between his four sequels, for instance, is Looper, the upcoming sci-fi movie from Brick director Rian Johnson. That’s comfortably on our list of films to see in 2012, and it’s the kind of movie that also may have had a much trickier job to get a green light had Willis not lent his star power to it.

But he did. I couldn’t tell you if that was the difference between it getting made or not, but sooner or later, if Willis gets a third or fourth project detouring past cinemas, he’ll lose the ability to influence such projects getting the green light anyway.

And while I’ve no wish to revisit two thirds of Willis’ back catalogue, nor do I have rose-tinted specs on when it comes to his acting, it’d be a pity if too much of his film-making power, outside of the Die Hard franchise, was to dribble away.

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