Bruce Willis has a new movie coming out today. It’s called Hard Kill in case you’re interested—although you’re probably not. And I’m sad to report that it’s every bit as generic as its title would lead you to believe.
The fact that an actor of Willis’ once-enviable drawing power is now routinely squandering his talent and hard-won box-office capital on instantly forgettable straight-to-VOD action-thrillers isn’t exactly news. His resume over the past decade is lousy with these sorts of films (see Extraction, Precious Cargo, and Marauders…or better yet, don’t). But it is a noteworthy come-down for a guy who once played John friggin’ McClane. And it also says something broader about the new calculus of the Streaming Age, where maturing action heroes who haven’t been lucky enough to snag a recurring role as an august S.H.I.E.L.D. agent or learned how to make peace with the fact that they’ve aged out of the very genre that once made them bankable A-list stars, are trying to figure out how to survive.
In case this is starting to sound like the wind-up for a heartless take-down of the 65-year-old Willis, believe me it’s not. I’m a serious fan dating back to the days of Moonlighting. And, just to be clear, he still does manage to pop up in a decent major-studio movie every once in a while, even if you have to go back to the 2012 one-two punch of Looper and Moonrise Kingdom to find one. Which is probably why I keep finding myself getting sucked back time and again to check out his below-the-radar VOD shoot ‘em ups. Hope springs eternal, and all that. It certainly hasn’t been out of professional duty, since so few of his interchangeable cheapies from the past decade have been considered significant enough to merit proper reviews. Think of this instead as an intervention.
But first let’s talk a little about Hard Kill. Like a lot of his recent VOD releases, Willis isn’t really the lead of the movie. In this case, that would be Jesse Metcalfe, who’s probably still best remembered for his role as the hunky lawn boy on Desperate Housewives. Still, Willis’ role is just sizable enough that it gives the film’s poverty-row distributor the legal justification to slap his globally recognized name and iconic mug on the film’s poster—even if it is the sort of marketing bait and switch that would make P.T. Barnum smile.
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Willis plays a laconic former special ops soldier-turned-billionaire CEO named Donovan Chalmers whose MIT-educated, brainiac daughter (played by Lala Kent…yes, that Lala Kent from Bravo’s Vanderpump Rules) has created a potentially apocalyptic computer program called “Project 725”. This killer app was designed to help the world, but, like nuclear fission, it also holds the power to destroy it if it falls into the wrong hands. Which is exactly why an eccentric (but not nearly eccentric enough) terrorist named “The Pardoner” (Sergio Rizzuto, looking like a doughier Liev Schreiber) has kidnapped both her and her techno-gizmo. Willis’ desperate (but not nearly desperate enough) Chalmers hires Metcalfe and his decidedly uncharismatic band of GI Joe mercenaries to lure The Pardoner and his security goons to an abandoned warehouse, pick them off one by one, and get his daughter and her hard drive back.
Essentially a low-rent siege film minus any semblance of suspense, Hard Kill is distributed by a company called Vertical Entertainment. And if you haven’t heard of them, well, there’s really no reason why you should have. They released Tom Hardy’s recent Scarface-in-a-diaper fiasco Capone, but they’re still probably most notorious for being the folks who gave us John Travolta’s Gotti (which we’ll come back to in a moment).
Needless to say, they must have written Willis a very fat paycheck to be in Hard Kill because even if you squint really hard, it’s difficult to see what the actor responded to in the script. The action scenes are aggressively mediocre, the acting is wooden bordering on soporific, the villain’s only memorable trait is that he plays with a Rubik’s Cube, and the plot is so thin that if it were standing sideways it would be invisible. As for Willis, he spends half the film tied to a chair with not a whole hell of a lot to say. His emotional range runs from a smirk to a glare. It may also be worth noting that there are 22 different executive producers listed in the end credits. Twenty-two! Honestly, if I didn’t have to watch Hard Kill, I would have turned it off after 15 minutes.
If Hard Kill was the only film like Hard Kill on the top third of Willis’ lengthy IMDB page, then it might be dismissed as a forgivable folly, a fluke, one that got away from him. But these sorts of god-awful VOD bottom dwellers are becoming a bad habit for the once-high flying star of Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, and The Sixth Sense. They’re like career detours that lead to further detours that one keeps hoping will lead back to the mainstream Hollywood interstate.
The first one of these Willis cash-ins that I remember sitting through was 2015’s Vice—a chintzy and preposterous Westworld wannabe where the star sleep-walks his way through the role of a tech-whiz who runs a sex-and-sin virtual reality resort that caters to big-bucks clients itching to act out their sleaziest fantasies…until things, of course, go wrong. I don’t remember very much about it beyond the fact that it was every bit as derivative as its plot description probably sounds. That and the fact that Willis looked like he just didn’t care. And maybe he didn’t. Maybe he still doesn’t….
Willis isn’t the only fading star in the back nine of his career who’s leveraged his once-platinum standing with a bunch of quickly cranked-out VOD junk. These films, as disposable as they may be, have become a profitable safe harbor for actors of a certain age that exists on the quiet fringes of the 21st-century Hollywood ecosystem. A place where the offers never dry up, the checks always clear, and the films’ obscurity doesn’t mortally damage the star’s career too badly before the next big studio offer or interesting indie can land on their agent’s desk.
Like Willis, Nicolas Cage, Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, and John Travolta have all logged plenty of time going through this particular (and particularly lucrative) revolving door. It’s the Streaming Era’s equivalent of the straight-to-VHS garbage of the ‘80s and ‘90s—Roger Corman delivered directly to your living room or laptop. And yet, some of these slumming stars seem to put more heart and effort into these movies than others. Take Travolta. After all, say what you will about Gotti and its scarlet-letter 0% Rotten Tomatoes rating—and, no, I’m not about to go to the mat defending it—but at least he really went for something with his balls-out over-stylized performance. Is it a good performance? Maybe not. But he wasn’t phoning it in for a second.
But some, like Willis, can’t seem to mask their disdain for these movies. You can see it all over their faces as they half-step through the motions, showing brief little glimmers of the tics and traits that made them famous, teasing you like a burlesque artist who has no intention of giving you the full thrill. It’s as if they’re so insulted by having to appear in these films—and by the way, they don’t have to appear in them—that their contempt (for the material, for the state of their careers, for that indelible blemish on their CVs) oozes off the small screen like some foul-smelling toxic sludge.
So the question is: Why? Why do Willis and his VOD peers keep making these movies? Some of it, I suspect, is ego. There’s no profit in being an out-of-work actor (literally and figuratively). It’s nice to work and be wanted. Some of it probably has to do with the financial imperatives of keeping a lavish lifestyle running. Once you’ve lived like a star who would want to stop? Some of it may be an inner drive to be seen a certain way by your fanbase. It’s gotta be pretty badass to be known as an international action hero, so why go through the sting of recalibrating to playing grandads in Cocoon III? In fact, there’s a whole Expendables franchise that exists beneath this psychological scaffolding. And then there may be the fact that Willis was never considered to be a plays-well-with-others kind of guy on the way up—and even less so on the way down, as Kevin Smith has exhaustively pointed out in his many one-man stage shows about his surreal and soul-crushing experiences working with the actor on Live Free or Die Hard and Cop Out. So maybe it’s just some sort of karmic celebrity retribution. I can’t crawl inside of his head and say for sure.
Still, in the end, it isn’t Willis who’s the victim here. He’s not the one who should feel superior to or insulted by his flood of bargain-bin VOD release over the past decade. It’s us, the die-hard fans who still cling to a seemingly bottomless reserve of goodwill for the actor to the extent that we’re willing to wager five bucks in the not-unreasonable hope that we’ll be entertained for 90 minutes by a movie called Vice or Catch .44 or Once Upon a Time in Venice or, yes, even Hard Kill. Unfortunately, nine times out of ten these days, it turns out to be a sucker’s bet.
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