Bruce Willis, the action hero who has been there and done it, is back to do it all over again. However, he might be bored by this stage as Tony Earnshaw discovers.
IT was a somewhat muted Bruce Willis who presented himself to journalists in London last week as part of the promotional tour for his latest movie Red 2.
The wisecracking star appears to have misplaced his mojo of late, and his reputation has taken a battering after a succession of frankly strange appearances in interviews.
Flash back to his cringe-making spot on The One Show’s sofa in February. Willis, looking spaced out and mumbling his answers to some fairly innocuous questions, gave a new definition to awkward.
There then followed a standoff with a British radio journalist when Willis appeared to be giving answers to completely different questions.
So it would be fair to suppose the hacks that gathered to discuss the superannuated gunplay, stunts and comic interludes of Red 2 expected something of the same torpor from the ageing action man.
Once again, Willis wasn’t exactly fired up. Back in February he blamed his One Show disaster on jet lag. This time he seemed to struggle to articulate his thoughts and barely managed to summon up any energy for the film he was promoting.
One has to feel some sympathy for movie stars on the promotional trail. Hour after hour, day after day they must endure the same 10 or 15 inane questions. After America there follows the UK. Then Europe. Then Japan and the Far East. And if, perhaps, he or she is not a fan of the film in the first place it must be almost impossible to maintain a sense of momentum.
Now 58, Willis may well be suffering from the malaise that afflicts many tough guy actors: what to do when they get too old for the day job. A glance at his current slate of projects shows The Expendables 3 (joining other, older, action heroes such as Stallone and Schwarzenegger), another episode in the Die Hard franchise and the new Sin City flick from Robert Rodriguez.
True, Willis was also recently a part of Moonrise Kingdom from Wes Anderson, joining a meaty ensemble cast that included Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. One gets a feeling that this is where his heart lies.
Red 2 is the continuation of the story of retired CIA agent Frank Moses, played by Willis, who carries the designation “retired, extremely dangerous”. The comedy-thriller and its sequel see him reuniting his former team – including Dame Helen Mirren and John Malkovich – to carry off some carnage involving guns, rockets and explosions.
Asked about creating one-off roles or returning to the same character over several films, Willis is blunt.
“I still don’t think about creating a franchise. That task is the producer’s job: to make the film come together and get everyone together and make sure they’re on time.
“The discipline of film is a specific thing, but if you want to talk about really acting, it would be theatre. Because in theatre it’s all live and it’s all happening at the same time – there’s no second take. It creates much more fear in your heart than working on film.” His favourite part of the filmmaking process is, he says, “the actual day-to-day process of getting in front of the camera and trying to make it seem lifelike. Trying to make it funny, make it romantic.
“All this, I know is a big part of films, the sales of it all – it’s the explanation of how we made the movie, how we did it. My favourite part is actually going to work every day.”
And therein lies a clue to Willis’s perceived boredom and awkwardness in interviews.
The conveyor belt nature of endless questions in different languages… he hates it.
Yet are there clues to the real Bruce scattered through his responses?
Asked about the Welsh talent in Red 2 – Catherine Zeta-Jones rubs shoulders with 75-year-old fellow countryman Sir Anthony Hopkins – Willis perks up.
“I like to work in ensemble casts, especially with this group of actors,” he says. “I think we were very fortunate to get Tony Hopkins and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and the cast that we did the first film with.
“All we try to do all day long is make each other laugh. Hopefully that gets onto the screen and the audience find something funny as well.”
Keeping it fresh, he asserts, is a big part of the job.
“I try not to take it very seriously. It’s just a difficult thing if you take yourself seriously or what you’re doing seriously,” he says in deadpan fashion.
“We’re all really just trying to be entertaining. The action sequences and things like that are just part of a certain kind of entertainment. Not my favourite. But I like to try and make people laugh more than I like to fight in films. But I have done a lot of them.”
Indeed he has, and one suspects that maybe just as Willis is tired of the publicity bandwagon that surrounds cacophonous, bullet-ridden blockbusters, so he yearns to make quieter pictures.
No superheroes, hobbits or zombies. Just smaller films about ordinary folk.
Love him or loathe him, Willis appears to have reconciled himself to his role in life, if not in the movies. He has some pretty basic tastes – he likes rare cars – and has forsaken past peccadilloes such as his brief penchant for singing that led to singles and albums in the 80s. While he never gave Sinatra a run for his money, would he ever consider a return to that arena?
“Fortunately not,” says with a hint of a smile. “I shout in key. There are a lot of really good singers in the world and I’m very happy to let them handle that. I just can’t stand there and stand the sound of my own voice. It’s excruciating.”
Red 2 is released today.