The world according to Willis

Spotlight Bruce Willis


NEW YORK — New York-- --Bruce Willis is not a happy man. Which is why he found it pretty easy to play a washed-up, burned-out, alcoholic cop in his new film 16 Blocks. That look in his eyes, resignation mixed with fear, that look of a man convinced things can only get worse -- it wasn't like Willis had to dig down deep to find that character.

"I don't like the world," insists Willis, holding court before a roomful of reporters and wrapping up about 10 minutes of relentless negativity, albeit leavened with Willis' trademark wisecracks ("I don't know what this has to do with 16 Blocks," he admits at one point, "but I'm in the mood"). His pronouncements on everything from the press ("The news is manipulated and managed and it's all meant to scare you") to Congress ("It seems like their job is to do nothing") evince a pretty bleak world view.

"I think the world is not being run correctly," he elaborates. "I'm unhappy with it, I think it could be done a lot better. ... That's where that look comes from. I don't have to look too far to find that. All I have to do is think about the world my daughters are going to have, and I get that look in my eyes."

Pretty dark stuff for a man who started his career making people laugh as smart-aleck private eye David Addison on TV's Moonlighting, and became a Hollywood superstar as the heroic John McClane in the three Die Hard films. But Willis, who turns 51 on March 19, makes good use of his despair in 16 Blocks.

Willis' character, Jack Mosley, is stuck in a relentless downward spiral, his only solace the scotch he starts downing in the morning, when he's given an unexpected chance to make something of his life again. That chance comes in the form of Eddie Bracken (Mos Def), a small-time hood about to appear before a grand jury investigating police corruption.

Ordered to drive Eddie the 16 blocks from the police station to the courthouse, Mosley becomes his unlikely protector when the cops Eddie's prepared to testify against try to kill him. But taking on that role, while awakening Mosley's long-dormant morality, throws his world into turmoil -- especially when it turns out the mastermind behind everything is Mosley's former partner.

"The thing that I like about this movie," Willis offers, is that "it's kind of a microcosmic view of what's going on in the world, the chaos in the world. I definitely feel that; it seems like the world is out of control."

Still, Willis' performance in 16 Blocks should do more than reinforce his pessimistic view of the world. It should also remind audiences that he's far from a one-trick pony who gets by with a smirk and a quip.

In a movie career that's spanned almost two decades -- his first post-Moonlighting film, Blind Date, was released in 1987 -- Willis has dipped his toe into almost every cinematic genre. He's done comedy (Death Becomes Her, The Whole Nine Yards), romance (The Story of Us, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer), action-adventure (Armageddon, the Die Hard films), horror and science fiction (The Sixth Sense, The Fifth Element). He's been in his share of disasters (The Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk), but he's also been in some major artistic and commercial successes, films that defy easy description, but have certainly left their mark (Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, Sin City).

As all that variety suggests, there's no master plan behind Willis' work. He's just doing what every working actor should be doing.

"I don't have a plan that says, `I want to do this film because I want to make this statement,'" Willis explains, insisting his only overriding concern is keeping his audience happy. "It's my job to be entertaining. If you're gonna come out of your house, get in the car, go park the car, buy tickets, buy food, buy popcorn, buy all that stuff ... it's our job to be entertaining."

And perhaps, especially in a world as messed up as he believes this one is, to offer the occasional ray of hope. If someone like Jack Mosley can get a second chance, maybe there's hope for the rest of us.

"Films that have the theme of redemption in them are really morality plays," Willis says. "These stories have been around since the Greeks were doing it in the amphitheaters. It makes people feel good, and it gives people hope. ... We hold out hope in this film, and that's what people want."

Could it be that Bruce Willis, self-styled pessimist, is really an optimist at heart?

"There are some good things happening out there," he says with what appears to be sincerity, "and I like films that deal with that."

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