Bruce Willis has two acting styles: 1) Being an indestructible hard ass, and 2) Kevin Costner. Bruce has bloodied and muddied wifebeaters, sustained repeated cuts beneath his left eye, and even seen a helicopter crash into a police car. All hallmarks of a true badass. But during a few points in his career, he’s showed an inexplicably softer side. A side where he seems to coax Gruff Bruce into the background, and thrust Soft Bruce into the spotlight.

Bruce Willis in Die Hard

Bruce Willis: military experiment turned actor.

Kevin Costner smiling

Kevin Costner: Bruce Willis’ pile of discarded sensitivity.

I was curious to see what this rare side of Willis was like, so I forfeited my masculinity for a while and put myself through some rather shitty, yet somewhat wholesome cinema. And to that extent, here is what I unearthed.

1. Nancy Drew (2007)

Nancy Drew (movie poster)Yes you read that right. And yes, this is the last place you’d expect to see Bruce Willis… well, there and a coin-operated laundry mat. It just seems like one of those roles that, if you knew Willis, you’d call him up and ask "Is everything okay?" Or get real confused, dramatic, and anti-grammatically say (a la the late Gary Coleman) "What ‘choo talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?!? Nancy Drew?!?"

Things must’ve been alright with Bruce. So much so, that he was willing to risk retroactive career genocide for a cameo in a movie about a schoolgirl gumshoe. But that doesn’t stop the genesis of questions. Did one of his four daughters put him up to this? Did he sign the contract under the influence of barbiturates? Did he lose a bet amongst other badasses? I’m hoping it was the latter. And that the bet was lost during a drunken golf scramble with Jason Statham, Clive Owen, and Pete Sampras.

In this drama aimed at future Beliebers, Willis plays himself and is uncredited. He kills no one, detonates no one, and doesn’t even get the opportunity to calmly turn his back on an explosion. So even if he had lost a bet with Statham, Owen, and Sampras, the bottom line is this: the fact that you can do a Google search and find Bruce Willis associated with the film version of something only slightly more hardcore than The Baby-Sitters Club, is very unsettling.


2. Nobody’s Fool
Bruce’s street cred gets thinner as the murmurings of a weakness grow stronger.

Nobody's Fool (movie poster)
In the end, this guy gives Willis’ onscreen wife some of "Newman’s Own."

This dramedy takes place in the small town of Bath, NY, where we meet our protagonist Sully (played by Paul Newman), and his slightly surly boss, Carl (played by Bruce Willis). Sully is in the midst of putting together a workman’s compensation claim against Tip-Top Construction for the chronic condition of his deteriorated left knee. But Carl won’t hear any of it, and refuses to give him a penny. But he does offer him a few odd jobs to put bread on the table… or whatever the hell they eat in Bath, NY.

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On the surface, Willis’ character seems typical, but as the movie progresses, he continues to get duped more and more by Sully. It starts with the heist of his snowblower, and culminates in his wife running off with Sully, a much older, hobbled man about as muscular as Angela Lansbury in a summer dress.

Ultimately, Carl fails to be nothing more than a semi-tough, semi-gullible, far-from-hard character who lets a weak old man get the best of him… something that never happens to Bruce Willis under normally-scripted circumstances. Something that if Bruce Willis were playing his typical badass self, would warrant an overdramatized and explosive death to any and all offending characters.


3. Grand Champion (2002)
Bruce becomes more diverse in his acting range, but less badass in his lack of rage.

Grand Champion (movie poster)

Another lesser-known family film in which Bruce Willis cameos. Grand Champion is about the ups and downs of Junior Livestock Rodeo (not sure what that is? Consult someone from Texas). The main character, Buddy (played by Jacob Fisher), becomes enamored by a steer named Hokey Pokey (not sure what that name means? Consult your pre-kindergarten teacher). Through Buddy’s diligent care, perseverance, and guidance, Hokey Pokey surges to the top of the rodeo livestock circuit to become an award-winning steer, thus earning the title "Grand Champion."

This movie is mostly about Buddy and his steer, partially about Buddy being raised by a single mother, and not at all about Bruce Willis killing people. Therefore, the analysis needs to go no further, as Bruce Willis is not a badass in this movie either.

But at least another fictional and aspiring steer handler got to realize his lifelong dream, right? And in the end, isn’t that what it’s really all about?


4. The Kid (2000)
Bruce has one more shot at redemption, but I’m afraid there aren’t any more bullets in the barrel.

The Kid (movie poster)

Would you look at that goddamn comb-over?! Okay, okay… you can’t judge a movie by its DVD cover. But with this one, you should.

Let’s at first give Brucey credit, because he tries to be a badass in this Disney movie. The only problem is he can’t… because it’s a Disney movie. Every attempt to be hard is seen as a guy merely sulking because he’s not getting his way. And this doesn’t make you a badass, it makes you a bitch. Couple this with the cheerfully symphonic Disney score, and Willis’ badass persona is dead in the water.

In The Kid (okay sorry… that sounds awful… especially if you’re a practicing Catholic), Willis plays the role of Russ Duritz, a high-rolling, straight-talking "Image Consultant to the Stars." A man who puts extensive hours into his work and is very cold-blooded with his advice to clients. He’ll do just about anything to advance his career and bring in money. Even to the point of abandoning the memory of his upbringing. That is until the day he’s set face-to-face with himself from 32 years prior—as the 8-year-old Russ Duritz.

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This 8-year-old version of himself is quite annoying. He’s also chubby and has a bowl cut. But eventually, he makes a good point. He calls out 40-year-old Russ on three things: not having a wife, not having children, and not owning a dog. And once present-day Russ squares up with past-tense shitty kid Russ, the Disney healing begins.

Upon accepting that Russ is putting too much time into his day job, this movie instantly changes course and becomes a story about redemption and perspective. And multiple time paradoxes that Disney puts no effort whatsoever into explaining.

Russ eventually gets a healthy outlook on life, and resolves his inner conflicts, only to find out that this whole psycho-experiment was conjured up by yet another version of himself—30 years into the future. Culminating in the ultimate palm-to-face Disney ending.


5. Breakfast of Champions (1999)
The characters within the realm of Bruce Willis can’t all be extensions of John McClane.

Breakfast of Champions (movie poster)

Willis plays a wealthy car owner (Dwayne Hoover) on the brink of suicide. His best friend, Harry LeSabre (Nick Nolte—and no, I’m not making this up) is a red lingerie fetishist (not making that up either). Anyway, life gets too hectic for Dwayne to handle and he ends up becoming a lunatic, fearing the voices he hears, the images he sees, and the pussified Bruce Willis he’s become. Paranoia without the euphoria of ass-kicking.

This movie, adapted from a book with the same name by Kurt Vonnegut, was supposed to be where we get a chance to see the comedic side of Bruce Willis. Instead, we see a character that strays into lunacy, and none of the lighthearted side of someone who’s accustomed to ass-bludgeoning just about anyone. We see the decay of his character Dwayne into someone who contemplates "taking the easy way out," opting in on the idea of suicide, and opting out on being a badass.

* * *

So I guess you should think of it this way: what we’ve learned about badasses is sort of like what we learned back in geometry… you know, shapes and shit. Back then we learned that a square is always a rectangle, but a rectangle is not always a square. And now, we’ve found a similar relationship among badasses. That a badass is always acting like Bruce Willis, but given the constraints and demands of Hollywood, Bruce Willis is not always acting like a badass. That sometimes Bruce Willis is John McClane, and at other times he’s just John McClane’s butt sponge.

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