Morbido, gentle and always battle-ready: Bruce Willis is an action star to stir the heart

The news of Bruce Willis’s retirement on health grounds brings its own special kind of sadness. Admittedly, he has been booking some dodgy films in the last year or so – I recently sat through a pretty sorry action thriller called Out of Death with Bruce in his comfort zone as the retired cop who has to take on a terrifying situation.

But even there, Willis’s coolly amiable, faintly contemptuous, always battle-ready presence sprinkled a little much-needed vinegar in the blandness. And so often in so many different kinds of film, Bruce Willis has been the wild card – or, in realtà, the trump card.

He has been the archetypal super-testosterone male-pattern baldness hombre, the guy who made wearing a vest – not a t-shirt, a vest – look iconic. Despite being the rebel with bullshit-detector on high alert, Bruce has often been cast as the authority figure. (When I first read PJ O’Rourke libertarian screed Republican Party Reptile, I thought of Willis.)

For all of us, he will always be the legendary maverick warrior-cop John McClane in Die Hard saving his estranged wife in a high-rise office block on Christmas (perhaps saving Christmas itself) with that bizarre battle-cry: “Yippee-kai-ay, motherfucker!” and putting the all-American smackdown on loathsome Euro-Brit terrorist bad guys like Alan Rickman and Jeremy Irons.

But what a superbly subtle, gentle performance as child psychologist Dr Malcolm Crowe in M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, deeply troubled by the state of his marriage and grappling with the most worrying case of his career – the kid played by Haley Joel Osment who makes an eerie claim to certain visions. Somehow, the film’s whiplash final twist does not diminish Willis who maintains a plain-speaking humorous dignity throughout.

In Wes Anderson’s comedy Moonrise Kingdom he plays another cop, the quietly spoken small town officer Captain Sharp who has to deputise kids in the local scout troop for the search party when two young lovers go missing. It’s such a lovely, gentle performance – maybe my absolute favourite of his.

But for sheer impact, it can’t match his Butch Coolidge in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction: the punchy prizefighter with the troubled childhood memories who contrives to kill the hitman sent to kill him for winning a fight he’d been bribed to throw – and then rescues the guy who wants to kill him from an awful fate.

Willis, the grizzle-haired tough guy with a sense of humour, is the only actor who could have carried off this supremely bizarre role and even endow it with sympathy and even underdog charm.

It’s so sad for all of us that Willis will not take any more movie roles. It’s like seeing a great sports star suddenly getting an injury or a sandwich shop deciding to withdraw one of its tastiest flavours. All we can do is wish all the best to Bruce and his family for a happy retirement.

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