This article has been updated to include two new films – Precious Cargo and Marauders.
It’s not exactly clear when Bruce Willis went from being a big star whose name filled seats and sold tickets to being a guy whose name you see on the cover of so many direct-to-DVD and VOD outings (albeit ones that sometimes get a week or two in a cinema, in essence to promote the VOD release), but I’d like to go out on a limb here and say that Kevin Smith’s mouth might be partly to blame.
During one of his filmed Q&A sessions that ended up winging its way to eager fanboys and girls like myself on DVD back in the late oughts, Smith talked at length about what it was like to work on the much-anticipated fourth instalment of the Die Hard franchise, Live Free Or Die Hard (or Die Hard 4.0, as it was known over here). Not only did the film ultimately end up being a disappointment for many, Smith’s tales of on-set barbequing, re-writes for fun and hundreds of thousands of studio dollars wasted on days waiting for Willis to bother showing up for work pulled back the curtain on just how out of control Willis’ ego had gotten.
Later, Smith’s publically fraught direction of Willis on 2010’s Cop Out ended up pouring more fuel for the fire, and he talked at length about how awful the experience was. His toast at the Cop Out wrap party – “I want to thank everyone who worked on the film, except for Bruce Willis, who is a fucking dick” – triggered gasps all round, and he even took to comedian Marc Maron’s popular podcast to describe the whole thing as “soul crushing.”
It feels like that’s when the wheels started to come off in earnest for Bruce Willis and it’s this particular period – 2008-present – that I’ll be covering here. There have been a few cinematic highlights in that time to be sure, such as Looper, Planet Terror and Moonrise Kingdom, but are some of the many bargain bin films he’s been involved with since Live Free Or Die Hard even worth a look? And how many have interestingly-Photoshopped front covers?
Reader, let’s examine…
Now this is the one that I imagine many of us have sat through, even after the underwhelming experience of 2009’s Surrogates, and for valid reasons. We still feel like, at the very least, Bruce Willis and sci-fi/fantasy are a good match. Past rides like Twelve Monkeys, The Fifth Element, Looper and Unbreakable might have inspired joy-joy feelings within us that consequently released a Bruce+genre surge of anticipation into our bloodstream, but sadly, Vice is a dud.
Bruce himself coasts through the promising, Westworld-ian plot as the owner of a holiday resort where people can go and be naughty with robots to their heart’s content, while grizzled cop Thomas Jane – here resembling a child’s drawing of Michael Hutchence if he came back to life and had to immediately sit through more than one Thomas Jane film – tries to shut down the hedonistic robot resort once and for all.
The washed out visuals and quasi-clinical sets don’t do anything to draw us in, unfortunately. The low budget is felt throughout – for a futuristic movie, everything still looks pretty current and the exterior locations are kinda still just Alabama. If this was a TV show (and it sure does look like one at various points) we might enjoy watching it weekly, but as a film it just kind of comes off like a pilot that got stretched out to 92 minutes and shunted into a rushed, but inevitable, conclusion.
The primary blue and red colours lighting the set of this not-very-taut action-thriller, vibrant against the glowing orange of the actors’ skin, let us know what we’re in for here: nothing original.
Our Bruce – apathetic and side-smiley as ever – is in trouble at the start of Extraction. We get to see him Widow his way out of an interrogation room and stop to warn a bad guy “don’t ever threaten my family again” before immediately shooting him in the head. Not sure you gave him much chance to follow through there, Bruce, but you’ve given us an idea on the capabilities of the script we’re about to sit through, so thanks.
Later, Bruce is being captured again. This time he’s not going to get out of it by himself, so his capable but hapless (at least, we’re relentlessly told he’s hapless) manbrick of a son, Kellan Lutz (Twilight), is off to extract him with the help of ladybrick Gina Carano (Deadpool), his one-time lover and love interest for these purposes.
We then realise that despite being the central focus of the front cover, Bruce isn’t going to be in this very much. Instead, we get D.B. ‘toe pick’ Sweeney wandering around, chatting us through some exposition and hoping you’ll still remember he exists when he pops up in the climax later to chat us through yet more exposition.
The whole thing ends up being not totally awful, but just kind of dull and predictable – with Willis’ brief acting chops being the opposite of tested.
Side note: have you noticed in so many action films that there’s always something explosive and badass going on in Prague? Have you ever been to Prague? There’s more going on in Norwich.
Catch 44 (2011)
Catch 44 is a film that desperately wants to capture the Rodriguez/Tarantino vibe of filmmaking, but doesn’t quite crush it in the way that it hopes to. It has a decent colour palette, but the script is woeful. Scenes tend to go on forever, filled with dialogue that doesn’t exactly crackle, and character motivations are questionable at best.
There’s also the casting. Malin Akerman (Watchmen) is the star here, playing a small-time crim who has reached the end of her usefulness in the seedy underbelly of drug trafficking, and it’s never possible to buy into it all. She maintains a pristine, supermodel-like appearance throughout and it’s just laughable that she could be tending bar and lifting wallets to get by. Her actressin’ isn’t exactly top drawer in this role either, and against her powerhouse co-star Forest Whitaker (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) she basically withers.
Bruce is in familiar territory as a crime boss who appears at the very start of the movie, swinging his dick and pecan nuts (don’t ask) around and setting up all the main players to kill each other off in a climactic showdown at a roadside cafe, preceded by literally zero tension.
Weirdly – as the film doesn’t pose itself as a meta, tongue-in-cheek affair – halfway through, there’s also a bizarre moment when the girls listen to Respect Yourself as performed by Bruce Willis on the car stereo and laugh about how bad it is. It’s a surreal jolt.
An additional small appearance by cult fave Brad Dourif doesn’t make this deliberately, but tediously, convoluted film any more watchable. I would advise you to avoid it, if you can.
The Assassination (2008)
The front cover of The Assassination – touting Bruce Willis as the main character in a film filled with explosions and guns – is hilariously mis-selling you a movie on an epic level. The gun on the cover, a paintball gun, is just one McGuffin in what was once a film entitled The Assassination Of A High School President, an indie high school noir comedy that Bruce Willis appears in very briefly.
He plays the Principal of a school where our main character Bobby (Reece Thompson – Rocket Science), a sophomore wannabe journalist, wants to write the next big Woodward and Bernstein piece on the theft of SAT papers from Willis’ office. He does, but that’s not where his investigation ends.
Bruce himself is fine in The Assassination, although a little off kilter. He obviously decided to have some fun on the few days he was scheduled to appear on set and it shows, albeit in a slightly distracting way. It’s still nice to see a brief glimpse of a Death Becomes Her-era Bruce and, ehh, I’ll take it.
As this was the only DVD cover that had a review quote on the front – “INTENSE” – MTV News – I decided to pull that review, out of curiosity. It turns out the original quote was “Bruce Willis is hilariously intense.”
RIP, I died.
The Prince (2014)
The Prince opens with Bruce’s family being horribly murdered in a car explosion and then he disappears for a long time. There’s definitely a pattern to how he’s cashing these cheques – he puts in a few days’ work on a 20-30 day shoot and, in exchange, the distributor gets to sell the movie based on his name, positioning him as the main character in another explosive thriller. By the time you get to the end of the movie and realise you’ve been duped, who cares? They’ve already taken your time and money. It’s a nice little system for everyone involved.
Story-wise, we’ve got ourselves another Taken knock-off. Jason Patric’s daughter has been taken (or has she?) and he happens to have a very particular set of skills in his arsenal. He will look for those that took her, he will find them, and he will kill them, and so on. The added element here is that during Patric’s past career as a top notch killer he kinda accidentally murdered Bruce Willis’ family and it turns out Willis is still pissed about it, as you would be.
So off goes Patric to retrieve his lost daughter, continuously accompanied by her really hot friend from college for Reasons (peril, a hot girl to look at), and attracting the attention of Willis by coming out of hiding.
The opening titles look and sound cheap (remember those great opening titles from Hostage with that incredible Alexandre Desplat score? What an underrated thriller that was. Anyway, I digress) but after those initial bad vibes, the movie looks fine and is edited well, with a decent script. You can clearly see where the budgetary corners have been cut: Patric’s stunt double is Spaceballs-level hilarious – at least half his age and a completely different body type – and a car chase near the end of the first act involves cutting from bad guys shooting at Patric’s car to him pushing the hot girl’s head down until she complies so many times that I hope no one unpacks that in the comments.
There’s also John Cusack, with third billing here, who shows up almost an hour in and speaks in a half whisper for a few pages of dialogue. I’m not suggesting that he was trolleyed during the shoot, but he looks absolutely trolleyed.
The Prince ends up being quite watchable and is definitely the best of a bad bunch, but as the credits rolled, I was left with one lingering question: “why is it called The Prince, though?”
Suddenly, a message from the filmmakers pops up: “Produced in association with PRINCE YOOHANHWESA”.
No. That can’t be it. I must have missed something. There must be some other reason? Oh god.
And as that final message remains paused, frozen on the screen, and the camera zooms out from my sofa, through the roof of my house, out from my city, out of the UK, out of the Earth, out from the universe into the darkness beyond, I realise that we are all just stardust floating in an infinite abyss, finite but enduring.
Precious Cargo (2016)
Max Adams directs a full-length version of his 2008 short film here, and he doesn’t do a bad job of it, all things considered. While I wouldn’t call Precious Cargo’s 0% Rotten Tomatoes score breathtakingly unfair, I can think of worse films – and some of those are on this list.
In this bustier version of the original story, Saved By The Bell’s Mark-Paul Gosselaar stars as Jack, a thief who is absolutely 100% done mooning over his sexy-but-ruthless ex Karen (Claire Forlani – The Rock) – that is, until she explodes back into his life pursued by fuming crime boss and all-round bad dude Bruce Willis. After being given the shaft one too many times, what’s Jack’s motivation to help out this unpleasant and demanding damsel in distress? Well, she’s pregnant, and she says it’s his.
That’s rather about it, as far as the plot is concerned, but the whole thing is quite good-natured and fast-paced, so it’s nothing you’ll desperately want to unwatch once the final credits roll. Forgiving some slightly cringeworthy acting from a few of the more minor players, it’s just fine. There’s a boat chase, for example. Hard to hate a movie with a boat chase in it.
But in terms of our Bruce’s role in the film, he’s not around very much, as we’ve come to expect from these straight-to-DVD outings. He occasionally appears to act a bit menacing and move the story along, but it’s hard to imagine his appearance in Precious Cargo was about anything other than making a quick buck.
Marauders is a strange sort of film that’ll serve up a luke-warm dish of déjà vu to anyone who’s sat through any of these other films. While taking up his usual position front-and-centre on the DVD cover, Bruce rolls out his usual set of rules for appearing in these things: an introductory scene during the first ten minutes will establish his character, then he’ll check out until the halfway mark. At this point, we’ll have our “oh yeah, Bruce Willis is in this, isn’t he? I forgot” moment, after which he’ll pop off again until the climax.
The film’s plot, regardless of Bruce’s role, is simultaneously both overly-complex and absolute twaddle. Christopher Meloni (White Bird In A Blizzard) stars as an emotionally exhausted FBI agent heading up an investigation into a series of robberies that negatively affect the financial stability of Willis, a powerful man who may or may not have had his brother killed to establish his current position as the controlling force in the family’s huge company.
Joining Meloni are Dave Bautista (Guardians Of The Galaxy) and Vinnie Chase (Adrian Grenier) as fellow agents who are there to help him out. Or are they?
Putting aside the question mark of a plot, the film is a decent step up from Steven C. Miller’s last Willis vehicle, Extraction (elsewhere on this list) and the central turn from Meloni alone pushes it out from the muddled darkness of The Frustration Forest and into the occasional sunlight that peppers the trees of The Watchable Wood.
And, if you haven’t caught it yet, why not play along as both Miller and Grenier team up once more for the straight-to-DVD Southern Fury (a.k.a. Arsenal), starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack – review incoming.
These films seem to be falling off the end of a very efficient factory production line.
Until next time, I bid you adieu.
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