Bruce Willis has announced his retirement, the star’s family confirming what had been long rumoured: he was suffering from a degenerative condition (aphasia, as it turned out) that was robbing him of his ability to perform – indeed to easily communicate. A sad last stanza to his career, but one that puts his recent baffling acting choices into context: Willis was banging out near-cameos in low budget actioners for millions, as long as the hours were short and the travel not too arduous. Fair play, really, and fuck the Razzie Awards, who recently inaugurated a Worst Performance by Bruce Willis category but walked it back when this announcement caught them in the floodlights, revealed for all to see as the joyless, mean-spirited pricks they are.
If we can take some comfort, it’s that Willis’ revelation has people wisely skipping over the last few years of his output to assess his prior body of work, which is the canon of a hugely talented, inquisitive, and exploratory performer who was often at his best when he stepped outside his comfort zone. He first found fame as TV star in the groundbreaking dramedy Moonlighting and tried to cross over to movies with a few middling comedies, but it was pivoting to action that made him a box office star with 1988’s Die Hard. Action became his bread and butter, but it was when he stepped outside of that well-worn genre groove that things got interesting – he did horror (The Sixth Sense), science fiction (12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element), and made a habit of turning up in what could best be labelled as blockbuster arthouse – the kind of outré fare that still attracts (or attracted – these are dark times) a decent audience: Pulp Fiction, Moonrise Kingdom, Fast Food Nation, et al. Even among his failures we find interesting items – Bonfire of the Vanities is not the work of a man treading water, and neither is erotic thriller Color of Night, however you rate the end results.
But it’s action he’ll be best remembered for, which means Die Hard, but everyone will be writing about Die Hard, so instead let’s sing the praises of 1991’s The Last Boy Scout, which sort of has scrappy underdog status in the upper echelons of Willis’ canon. Everyone acknowledges Die Hard as an action masterpiece, but The Last Boy Scott is a little too mean, a little too ugly, a little too pessimistic, and a little too rough around the edges (all out war in the editing room on this one, mes freres) for universal acclaim. That’s what stokes the ardour of its adherents, at least in part – you have to cheer louder for a plucky battler.