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Bruce Willis by Sean O'Connell - Review

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Sean O'Connell


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Every casual movie fan “knows” Bruce Willis, but if you ask them to name some Bruce Willis movies, many will have difficulty once they get past Die Hard and The Sixth Sense. And if you asked them to name an excellent acting performance by Willis, they would be completely stumped. Even films people immediately recognize, like Pulp Fiction, are remembered for John Travolta riffing with Samuel L. Jackson, not for Willis’ contribution to the movie. Author Sean O’Connell is a Willis fan, but he’s also a nationally known film critic. He tries to rectify this slighting of Willis’ career with his new study, Bruce Willis. The book gives film buffs like me in-depth analysis and fascinating trivia about some of Willis’ career-shaping performances. At the very least, it will give movie fans a few new titles to add to their streaming wish lists.

Bruce Willis is not a biography of the actor. It gives readers a brief look at the beginning of Willis’s career, including his early appearance as an extra in the Paul Newman film,

The Verdict. It also briefly discusses the sad end of that career, with Willis retiring from acting because of aphasia that has progressed to dementia. But for the many years in between, readers will need to look elsewhere for the incidents that made Willis and his ex-wife, Demi Moore, tabloid fodder for decades. Nor is Bruce Willis a comprehensive analysis of every role the actor ever took on. (The book includes an appendix with Willis’ complete filmography. The author devotes a paragraph to every movie Willis made, including the dreadful direct-to-video shlock in his last years.) Instead, the author highlights a relative handful of movies that he believes capture the essence of Willis as an actor.

The author divides Willis’ filmography into five genres: comedy, action, science fiction, auteur works (for celebrated directors), and, of course, Die Hard. He focuses on 25 movies, devoting an entire chapter to most of them. Willis’ hits are included, like Armageddon and Ocean’s 12 (in which he has a memorable comic cameo as himself). But so, too, are notorious flops like Hudson Hawk and Bonfire of the Vanities. For each movie, the author looks at the film as a whole and at Willis’s specific contribution. He discusses why certain films work and hold up well on repeated viewings (The Last Boy Scout is one of my guilty pleasures) and others don’t. He gives Willis the benefit of the doubt several times; his opinions of Hudson Hawk as a movie and a Willis performance are much higher than mine or those of most others who have seen the film. However, there’s no question that Willis often gave solid performances in movies that were otherwise debacles, like Bonfire.  

Several patterns emerge from reading Bruce Willis. The actor often played the straight man to his co-stars, letting them get the laughs in comedies like Blind Date or Oscar recognition in films like 12 Monkeys. According to a New Yorker profile cited by the author, Willis engaged in “strategic minimalism” in many of his performances. When Willis was at the top of the box office and could get almost any role he wanted, he did not just take paycheck films the way Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone often did. Instead, he chose roles that interested him, either for the script, the director, or his co-stars (like Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool). Willis’ unselfishness didn’t cost him at the box office, but it did in terms of critical recognition. The author believes, with some justification, that Willis deserved an Oscar bid for roles like Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, and The Sixth Sense.

Author Sean O’Connell knows what true film fans like, and he has written the type of book I’d like to think I would have written myself. Bruce Willis is extensively researched and annotated. It includes many interesting anecdotes about Willis (He got the chance to star in Die Hard because his Moonlighting co-star Cybill Shephard was pregnant, causing a production delay.) However, some anecdotes have little to do with Willis or the film being discussed. Before discussing Willis’ role in The Whole Nine Yards, the author talks about why co-star Matthew Perry’s TV series Friends was such a hit (whose success can’t be duplicated in today’s streaming environment). Later, the author ties this digression back to Willis by mentioning that Perry bet Willis that The Whole Nine Yards would be a box-office hit. When Willis lost the bet, he appeared on Friends (winning an Emmy for his efforts).

Sometimes, the author goes off on tangents that may lose some readers. He makes a convincing case in the annual debate of whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie. (The author and I agree it is.) However, he then enters an extended discussion of which sequel was better: Die Hard II or Die Hard with a Vengeance. He follows that with another extended debate on the relative merits of the last two Die Hard movies. You’d have to be a real Die Hard fan to get into that level of detail and analysis on a subject few are interested in. The author also ignores an important aspect of the actor’s later career. Why did Willis appear almost entirely in direct-to-video junk in the last decade? Ultimately, Willis’ limitations made it difficult for him to complete even a handful of scenes in a movie, but for years, he could have appeared in bigger and better films. Unfortunately, the author provides no answers.

Despite my quibbles about Bruce Willis, I really enjoyed the book. I admit I hadn’t viewed Willis’ career the way the author has, and the book should give many fans a greater appreciation for Willis’ acting ability and his body of work. Moreover, the book doesn’t read as a scholarly analysis. Instead, it’s a work written by a film fan for film fans, filled with the sort of fascinating trivia about movies that we eagerly devour, page after page. You can summarize my opinion of the book in three words: “Yippee ki yay.”    

NOTE: The publisher graciously provided me with a copy of this book through NetGalley. However, the decision to review the book and the contents of this review are entirely my own.

Author Sean O'Connell discusses Bruce Willis and this book with the staff of the Pop Pour Review podcast:

 Sean O'Connell is the managing director of CinemaBlend, a globally recognized and industry-respected entertainment news website. He has been covering the film industry since 1999, and his byline has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, and Fandango. He's the best-selling author of Release the Snyder Cut (March 2020) and the Spider-Man film history book With Great Power (November 2022),   

Buy Sean O'Connell books on Amazon:

With Great Power Cover
Release the Snyder Cut Cover
The Films of Bruce Willis Cover

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