ARTS: CINEMA In defence of Bruce Willis

There are many reasons to hate the star of `Twelve Monkeys'. But David Thomson can't help warming to an actor who defies expectations
Try hard! Try harder!! It really is difficult to muster the straight face, the solemnity or the moral earnestness to dislike Bruce Willis. Not that he is anything but generous in his provocation. Every few years he'll make one of those Die Hard pictures, smirking all the time in the aggressive, sweaty close-ups, as if he wants us to know that he knows that such terminal noise, attitudinal arrogance and moronic violence is sure-fire box-office in these times - and so what! It is Die Hard that made Bruce Willis, so suck on that! And it's you, the audience, who are mugs, scumbags and sell-outs to fall for such nonsense!

So why shouldn't Bruce be all over the place, leaving you to wonder whether the stubble on his shaved head is longer or more abrasive than that on his unshaved cheeks, and raising a riot at one more Planet Hollywood opening where he's wearing combat boots, Bermuda shorts and a ripped T-shirt, and insisting on reprising his spasmodic other career as a "singer"? And, of course, the food at Planet Hollywood is like the dialogue in Die Hard (hard to swallow but spat out?); and, of course, Bruce - and those other musketeers of the menu, Sly and Arnold - are making a lurid fortune on it all. And Bruce is still cackling and lighting up a Monte Cristo cigar big and symbolic enough to offend 81.7 per cent of the public.

And then there's still the Bruce who comes spilling out of international flights with his three daughters - Rumer Glenn, Scout Larue and Tallulah Belle - and the other lady in his life, Demi Moore (soon to be seen in Striptease, for which her $12.5m makes her the highest-paid actress in the world - not to mention her famed cover poses for Vanity Fair, and her performance in Disclosure, in which she raised fantasy torture to new, giddy levels by resolving to fellate Michael Douglas no matter how often he said, "No!").

Put it this way, there's an awful lot of stuff up there on the silver screen that should be scraped off with a spatula. The human ingenuity for finding "eye-candy" (the new term) in trash knows no limits and Bruce and Demi have been involved in more than their fair share. When Die Hard With a Vengeance opened in America - in May 1995 - it began with awesome shots of huge vehicles tossed in the Manhattan air by lavish terrorist explosions. This was a month after America had had to see and explore the astonishing ruin of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. We "knew" how actual bodies were broken into pieces, chops and joints, and how science reconstructed them. We "knew" the scent of human decay in the air as that studious process went on. But we "knew", none the less, that Die Hard With a Vengeance threatened to be a money machine.

As a matter of fact it did modestly in the US domestic market, and grossed only about half of its $90m budget (maybe there was some revulsion). But overseas, it has grossed over $250m - suck on that, all ye who disapprove of America from a distance - thus ensuring that Bruce's $15m fee for the picture was "appropriate".

The one-time "Walter Willison" is 41 this year, and he has already pulled down somewhere between $75 and $100m, to set beside his wife's money. You'd think they might dress a little better, but Willis-Moore are the most prominent "blue-collar" success story in America - ironically in an age when the country is fast abandoning its "hardcore", "mainstream" or "hinterland" elements. They dress that way because they want to put the lustre and camp pomp of quotations (with wings on, preferably) around the word and the concept of "vulgarity".

"Walter" was actually born in Germany, the son of a man in the services. But he was raised, working-class, in Carney Point, New Jersey, which stares across the Delaware Bay at Wilmington and the enormous, noxious factory of Du Pont Chemical. That is where Bruce developed a distaste for manual labour and blue- collar "wages". Despite, or perhaps because of, a severe stammer, he thought about acting. He did time in New York, as a barman (and quite a boozer), watching his hair fall out and looking for work. He had small parts in a few movies, but his break came in 1984 when he was cast in Sam Shepard's play, Fool For Love.

This wasn't much to go on, but somehow it helped Willis get the male lead in a forthcoming ABC television series, Moonlighting. He would play David Addison, the cocksure, womanising, playful detective in an agency inherited by Cybill Shepherd. The show ran four seasons, from 1985 to 89, and reached the Top 10. By its second season, Willis had won an Emmy as best actor in a drama series. Moonlighting, conceived and guided at first by Glenn Gordon Caron, was funny, sexy, romantic and a knowing play on old movie styles. It developed dream sequences, black-and-white episodes, parodies and the kind of "inside" joke rarely seen on TV. Willis and Shepherd were not the best of friends in life (the series was notorious for shooting problems and missed episodes), but that seemed to fuel their chemistry on-screen. He got under her skin; she slapped him down. Willis reckons the series lost its edge only after the writers let the two characters become lovers - some proof that he has a smart head for drama (and explanation of why he and Demi seldom work together).

Willis sometimes talked like Gable or Grant, yet he was going bald, and far from conventionally handsome. He treated such "handicaps" with disdain: few actors have such innate sexual confidence or such lack of anxiety. Bruce likes to look rough, shabby and unwholesome. In his new film, Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, he has the air of a deranged escapee from a prison where he did latrine duty - and enjoyed it.

Moonlighting re-established the career of Cybill Shepherd - as a TV actress. But it turned Willis into a major star of the big screen and one capable of shrugging off dumb and disastrous pictures like Blind Date, his starring debut; Sunset, where he was Tom Mix to James Garner's Wyatt Earp; The Bonfire of the Vanities; and Hudson Hawk, a very expensive flop for which Willis helped concoct the "story".

The latter was the kind of false step that can end careers. But Willis never seemed downcast. By then the original Die Hard had proved the effectiveness of his sleazy arrogance and laid down the basis for a formula. He was also married to Demi, and reformed in his drinking. In his cheerful, carefree way, he was a busy part of Hollywood "society", a party animal (he was in Taki's Spectator column recently), and America's best advertisement for horny baldness. His natural humour came through in the voice-overs he did for the Look Who's Talking movies. People in the "know" began to reckon that he (and his marriage) had four or five fat years before the public grew weary of Die Harding and Bruce and Demi yielded to natural, well-heeled waywardness.

None of which has happened. The marriage is rowdy, vulgar and showbizzy, yet it outlasts all tabloid rumours. Die Hard lives. Willis is a businessman of skill and energy. And as an actor, he gets better and better. In part, that's because the "star" has been eager to play good, small roles and even go uncredited. For instance, if there had never been a Die Hard or a Hudson Hawk, we might have noticed the remarkable quality of Bruce Willis the supporting actor (and his readiness to be unlikeable), the loutish husband who deserves murder in Mortal Thoughts (the only time he has acted with Demi); a fine cameo as the strutting then weeping gangster who is offed early in Billy Bathgate; his dowdy, hen-pecked husband in Death Becomes Her, where he quietly out-acted Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn; his conniving construction boss in Nobody's Fool; and, of course, Butch the boxer in Pulp Fiction.

It's to Willis's credit as a risk-taker that he read that script and "insisted" on being part of the project: he said he'd work for scale, $1,650 a week plus a cut of the profits. He wanted Travolta's role, but he was happy with Butch. If you doubt his skill and his intelligent stillness, watch the way he absorbs Ving Rhames's harangue, and then study how he moves as he goes back to the dangerous apartment for his lost watch. The man is a very good actor - more skilled and varied, I think, than Travolta - and so sure of himself that he trusts himself to do very little.

In Twelve Monkeys, I fear he does too much - but it's a strange film (a "remake" of Chris Marker's La Jetee) with a nearly impenetrable storyline and a fatuously mannered Brad Pitt. But Willis's commitment got a difficult picture made. Later this year, he opens in Last Man Standing (a Die Hard in period clothes), which is a version of Kurosawa's classic of combat, Yojimbo. By now, one has to give praise to Willis for his talent, and for the shrew trade-offs in his career. I have the hunch that one day he's going to find the movie that requires an extraordinary performance - funny, offensive, dangerous, mercurial. Something that lets him be Bruce.

! `Twelve Monkeys' (15) is reviewed on `The Critics' pages in the `Real Life' section.