Bruce Willis has great success without great reviews

October 03, 1993|By Bernard Weinraub | Bernard Weinraub,New York Times News Service

Bruce Willis laughs. "If anyone said this career was going to happen," he says, "if anyone said I was going to make more

money on one picture than anyone in my county in New Jersey made in their entire lives, if anyone said I'd have people trying to take pictures of me when I walk outside and wackos following me around . . . I would have said, 'Hey, you're out of your mind.'"

Mr. Willis' newest film, "Striking Distance," is No. 4 at the box office this week, a testament to the movie star's drawing power, and certainly not to the reviews, which were modest at best. But Mr. Willis, 38, accepts the film, his overall success and his stardom as if he finds it all a little hard to believe.

"If you can find out why this film or any film does any good, I'll give you all the money I have," he says in an interview. "No one knows. You see dogs, idiotic films, make $150 million. And you see terrific films that die. Nobody knows the answer. Maybe it's because people like me are in these kinds of films."

Unusually blunt, even by Hollywood standards, Mr. Willis is engaging, shrewd and rich enough not to mind where the chips fall. He rarely gives interviews because, he says, the news media have misrepresented and misquoted him and treated him badly. Mr. Willis knows that "Striking Distance" may founder over the next few weeks, but he shrugs that possibility off. "I'm not a devious man," he says. "I don't cheat, lie or go out of my way to mess people over, but I'm still amazed at the venal garbage that goes on in this town. People lie about you. People want to see you fail. It's so competitive here, you can see how much people want to see you fail."

Mr. Willis has the reputation of having a volatile temperament, and he has had his share of failures, notably "Hudson Hawk," the big-budget 1991 action-adventure that was savaged by the critics and seemed, at the time, to be a metaphor for overindulgence. ("Did it hurt me?" he says with a shrug. "It's in profit. Nobody's interested in that.")

The movies for which Mr. Willis is best known are the two hugely successful "Die Hard" films. Yet what has separated him from other action-movie stars, like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, is not so much the types of films he has appeared in, but an ironic style, a working-class persona and his New York theatrical background, which still makes him hunger for other sorts of parts.

Mr. Willis seems torn between the big-bucks roles that have made him a star and more serious parts, which are riskier, less visible and have thus far garnered him little critical acclaim.

He played a haunted Vietnam veteran in the 1989 film "In Country," and he was the voice of the wisecracking baby in "Look Who's Talking," and its sequel. He spoofed himself in "The Player," played a meek, bespectacled physician in "Death Becomes Her," was a gangster in "Billy Bathgate" and appeared as a tabloid reporter in the disastrous "Bonfire of the Vanities."

In "Striking Distance," a Columbia movie, he plays a Pittsburgh policeman on river-rescue patrol duty, in search of a serial killer. For Mr. Willis, who can earn at least $10 million for an action movie, the role is hardly a stretch. In "Color of Night," an erotic thriller made by Hollywood Pictures, he plays a New York psychologist who is traumatized by the suicide of a patient. His next movie will be Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction," in which he is to portray a down-and-out boxer. After that, Mr. Willis is planning a long break, perhaps a year.

"If you're a so-called movie star, there's no catching-up time," he says. "You're just on this fast-moving freeway and you can't take the side roads and examine your choices and where you've been and what you're doing."

His wife, Demi Moore, is expecting their third child in the spring. ,, He talks of returning to New York to appear on the stage. He has read several plays, he says, but he won't discuss them, saying he has not made up his mind about them.

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