I'm a Bruce Willis fan from way back. While my friends had pictures from Tiger Beat of Kirk Cameron and Ralph Macchio lining their walls, I was indifferent to their 'non-threatening' boy charms, because I had a thing for David Addison. Sure, there were some strange times, and as the years passed Willis kind of dropped off my radar. But in 1995, he turned in a performance that was unlike any of his other work when he took on the role of James Cole in Terry Gilliam's remake of the French sci-fi classic, La jetèe, and in 12 Monkeys I was shown a side of Willis that I had never seen before (and unfortunately, haven't seen since).
Now before we get to Willis' turn as the doomed time-traveler, we have to talk about the 800-pound gorilla that is John McClane. Believe me when I tell you that I struggled long and hard with whether or not to hand the iconic action hero the title of Willis' best role, because after all, it is the part that made him a household name. But even though I know that Willis will probably have the words 'Yippee kay-ay Motherf****r' on his tombstone, I wanted to talk about Willis "the actor" versus Willis "the personality", and if you are talking about Willis "the actor", you have to go with Monkeys.
The '90s were a little shaky for Willis. He had made a career out of playing tough guys in one form or another, and with a few notable exceptions (Pulp Fiction), his work leading up to Monkeys wasn't some his best (and in between the high points were some pretty low ones too -- including dreck like Color of Night and Striking Distance). By the time 1995 had hit, I was starting to worry that Willis was going to go the way of so many action heroes before him and slowly drift into the straight-to-DVD bin. But Gilliam came to the rescue, and in 12 Monkeys, Willis was given the chance to do something other than smirk.
After the jump: a whole new Willis and the genius of James Cole...
So what makes Willis so remarkable in this movie? Well, I happen to think it's because that in this role, all of his tricks are gone. There isn't a trace of his smart-aleck grin or the cocky strut that have become Willis' crutches on the big screen. In the story, a convicted felon is tasked with saving mankind in the hopes of stopping a plague that has wiped out most of civilization (but remember, this is a Gilliam film, so there is plenty going on under the surface and saving the world isn't as straightforward as it sounds), and it is shocking how unrecognizable Willis is in the role. He makes Cole into someone so broken and unstable that by the end of the flick, you just want to give him a hug. Despite having roles in almost every genre of film, fragile is never a word that you would associate with Willis' work, but in Monkeys he overcomes his tough-guy persona to create a whole and complete character (I'm pretty sure that naked and drooling isn't how most of us are used to seeing the movie star).
I always thought it was a little unfair that most of the critical raves went to Brad Pitt as the disturbed animal activist, and Willis' contribution was either given faint praise or was overlooked entirely. Maybe critics were just too used to not putting the name of Bruce Willis together with acting kudos, or maybe Pitt just had the showier part. But whatever the reason, boy did they blow it -- because I firmly believe that this tragic sci-fi flick is one of Gilliam's best, and one of the main reasons why it's so successful is due to Willis' performance.
These days, Willis is back to playing smart-a** cops, but it's nice to remember that every once in a while, he's an honest to goodness actor, and not just a pop culture hero.
What's your favorite Bruce Willis role?