It’s hard to keep track of Bruce Willis’s filmography, especially since 2015. In recent years, the star’s IMDb page has swollen with a torrent of action productions that drown out the occasional ambitious work like “Motherless Brooklyn” or “Glass.” Mnemonics are useful to keep track of the banal titles: “Hard Kill” followed “First Kill”; “Trauma Center” takes place in … a trauma center. But really, anybody would be forgiven for mixing up “Reprisal” with “Marauders,” or “Acts of Violence” with Willis’s most recent paycheck, “Breach” (available in select theaters and on-demand, which is where most of these movies begin their careers).
Title aside, “Breach,” a horror flick set in space, does stand out from the ever-growing pack in a couple of ways.
The first is that Willis gets decent screen time as a crew member who helps Cody Kearsley (“Riverdale”) battle a parasitic life form that’s turning people into murderous ghouls. That Willis would commit to a Willis movie is not a given because he tends to average 15 minutes per outing in his VOD oeuvre — it’s his (quickly waning) reputation the star rents out, not his actual presence.
But more important than Willis clocking in and out is that “Breach” is watchable — a modest but, in this context, rarely achieved quality. Add bonus points if unfamiliarity with “Alien” and John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” from which “Breach” heavily borrows, create surprises; add some more if you are amused by the sight of Thomas Jane hamming it up while wearing sunglasses inside a spaceship.
In Willisworld, this counts as exuberant praise.
As Jeff Ross said at the actor’s Comedy Central roast in 2018, “You’re like Elmer Fudd if he hunted bad scripts instead of wascally wabbits.”
It’s true that these films are mostly bad, and I take no pleasure in writing this: I really wanted at least some of them to be enjoyable, not because I am a die-hard fan of the man behind John McClane, but because I have long admired B movies. At their best, they display an ingenuity and resourcefulness that I prefer to the bloat of Hollywood’s big-budget popcorn fare; they also often make room for idiosyncratic, ridicule-embracing performances (it bears repeating that Thomas Jane is wearing shades in space).
So the snarky articles mocking Willis’s vehicles, or rather creaky jalopies, only made me more curious: Could these movies be that awful? And what do they say about the state of low-rent action?
Watching a dozen of the Willis movies from the past half-decade, patterns did emerge. What struck me most is how much they rely on gunplay. It’s not just that violence is always linked to firearms, and vice versa, in this insular filmic ecosystem — it’s that guns and rifles and assault rifles are the whole point. I saw more shootouts than I could count, with an absurd number of bullets flying about in orgies of macho one-upmanship and terrible aiming. “Hard Kill” (2020), which is among the worst of the bunch, actually starts with such a display, then goes downhill.
And it’s not just guns — usually carried tucked in the small of the back, an action dude’s idea of accessorizing — that are fetishized, but tactical gear. The S.W.A.T. cosplay in movies like “Reprisal” (2018) would be laughably self-important if the real-world version wasn’t so chilling. The idea of masculinity these movies project is troubling, to say the least — which is doubly weird because Willis in his prime was not your typical pumped-up action hero.
I get it, this is a fantasy, just like the kitchen in a Nancy Meyers rom-com. But in purely cinematic terms, the problem is that gun violence has replaced any attempts at coming up with decent plots. Why exert yourself thinking up twists when you can just insert a shootout? For that matter, why bother thinking up a new story when you can have a heist and be done? Between their planning, execution and aftermath (hint: it never goes well), heists are the engine powering an outsize number of those movies.
As for Willis himself, he takes the back seat — often literally. In the normal world, a second billing could still indicate a meaty role; in Willisworld, it means little. Sometimes he plays men who prance around in suits, looking sarcastically superior, for a minute or two at a time. Sometimes he plays tired cops or former cops who spend a lot of time on the phone. (More is not necessarily better: One of Willis’s biggest roles in recent years was in the 2017 comic-action hybrid “Once Upon a Time in Venice,” which is an embarrassment from top to bottom — that’s the one in which he skateboards naked.)
Mostly Willis lets the designated lead carry the action, such as it is. The best of the guys doing the actual work are the most grizzled, and they, perhaps uncoincidentally, tend to be in the better movies, like Frank Grillo in “Reprisal,” Michael Chiklis in “10 Minutes Gone” and Christopher Meloni in “Marauders” — a 2016 release that recently popped up in the Netflix Top 10 and is directed by the low-teur Steven C. Miller, one of his three Willis flicks.
It might not be a coincidence that the movies that bother giving good parts to women tend to be above average — except for “Extraction,” from 2015, which manages to make Gina Carano call Kellan Lutz for help. In “Trauma Center” (2019), for example, the Willis proxy is a woman, played by Nicky Whelan, who must evade the crooked cops trying to kill her in a closed-off hospital wing. This is as close to the “Die Hard” formula as a Willis movie gets these days.
The favorite in my action binge was “Precious Cargo” (2016), a “Miami Vice”-esque caper that gives Willis proxy Mark-Paul Gosselaar not one but two worthy female foils, played by Claire Forlani and Jenna B. Kelly. “Precious Cargo” was also the funniest movie in my excursion into modern pulp cinema, which is not that hard to accomplish since most of the competition seems to consider humor an anathema to masculinity, along with basic English — though this question from “Hard Kill” did make me laugh: “You got anything for tonight planned?”
And there is so much more to look forward in 2021, with Willis slated to appear in more science fiction with “Cosmic Sin,” a human hunt in “Apex,” crime-y stuff in “Out of Death” and a thriller called “Midnight in the Switchgrass.” There is still time to rename that last one “Sudden Justice” or “Lethal Vengeance.”