Around about the time he was playing an internally wounded Vietnam veteran in the movie, In Country, I thought Bruce Willis might become a great actor one day. Coming off of his best film, Die Hard, he took on a difficult role. Even if he didn’t “nail” it, he was challenging himself. This was the type of thing real artists did; follow a money making film with something “artistic.” Sometimes, if they were lucky, the artistic venture would be a hit. Willis would do this with the likes of The Player, Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Red and Looper.

When he made his appearance in The Player, it felt like Willis was in on the joke. He was in complete control of his career and totally aware of himself. He seemed to acknowledge the perception of his abilities and he leaned into it, thereby making himself even more a valued asset. He could see beyond what Hollywood said he was supposed to be.

Somewhere around the time of The Expendables 2, Willis’ reputation took hold as someone there more for a paycheck rather than the experience. It was more than this, of course. The quality of Willis’ options took a pretty big hit, though. He wasn’t going to have the range of talented film producers asking for his talent to lend to their newer projects. He still had a few sequels left in him, but other than Edward Norton’s directing debut in Motherless Brooklyn, the films became less likely to even open in a theater.

The world had begun to migrate to digital options. Video stores all died and the only physical media rental options left became Redbox or any of its smaller competitors. Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis became synonymous with “has been” action stars and movie star restaurant chains. This was less a surprise for the first two. Schwarzenegger never had reached beyond his station and Stallone had backed off of his real writing talent decades ago, other than a brief flourish in Rocky Balboa.

Willis started a production company in 2000, called Cheyenne Enterprises, but he didn’t stay past 2007. This seems pretty close to the time when it all went downhill.

I watched most of his films that made it to theaters since then, but instinctively avoided anything that went to VOD or Redbox first. Nicolas Cage had made those options something of a joke of his own career. I didn’t want to think the same of Willis.

Finally, a post on an Empire Film Magazine Facebook Page asked what had happened to Bruce Willis’ career when discussing a new movie called The Breach. I watched the trailer, it didn’t look good, but it didn’t look bad. I was wrong.

The Breach is horrible. It is worse than horrible. It’s high school level filming and acting that wishes it was that good. But more on that later.

I didn’t want to write a review of such a bad film and leave it at that. So I decided to go through as many VOD Willis films as possible to see if it was a trend or a way of life. What follows is a list of these films and short review and analysis. Not sure if I want to come to a conclusion.

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Catch .44 – 2011

Written and Directed by Aaron Harvey
Starring Forest Whitaker, Bruce Willis, Malin Åkerman, Nikki Reed, Deborah Ann Woll, Shea Whigham, Brad Dourif

It’s Pulp Fiction, if you split the storylines by 2/3 and show the same fight scenes repeatedly to increasingly less an effect. The only thing going for this film is Whitaker’s heavy, who has no real idea who he is, apparently. He does a nice job being that enigma, but the rest of the film feels like everyone working for the same person (Willis) and robbing from each other…poorly. If there is an upside to the film, it’s that it doesn’t realize it’s a failed copy of a formula originated 20 years prior.

Willis is basically limited to less than 15 minutes of screentime. But there he is right in the center of the poster. He has no memorable lines, but you can tell he’s kind of into the idea that this movie might be kind of cool. It’s not.

(** out of *****)

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The Cold Light of Day – 2011

Director Mabrouk El Mechri
Screenplay Scott Wiper, John Petro
Starring Henry Cavill, Bruce Willis, Sigourney Weaver, Verónica Echegui, Roschdy Zem, Óscar Jaenada, Joseph Mawle

Imagine The Bourne Identity, only with someone who’s never handled a gun before. This is Henry Cavill’s movie, as he is the son of a CIA Agent (Willis) who must find and return a briefcase before his kidnapped family is killed. A few nice scenes during a chase, Weaver, Willis and the excellent Mawle is not enough to make this a must see. It’s got some nice scenery, Cavill is mostly loud and confused.

Willis lasts no more than 26 minutes in this one. It’s starting to be a trend, with him featuring prominently on movies in which he has less and less time on screen.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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Fire with Fire – 2012

Director David Barrett
Screenplay Tom O’Connor
Starring Josh Duhamel, Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rosario Dawson, Nnamdi Asomugha, 50 Cent

In what amounts to a very strange star vehicle for Duhamel, several black characters are killed by D’Onofrio’s Aryan Brotherhood crime boss, David Hagen during a routine trip to a convenience store. This leads to Duhamel’s entering the witness protection program and then a relationship with Marshal Durham (Dawson). As if his own personal safety isn’t reason enough to act, Dawson is nearly fridged twice. Then Josh’s character Jeremy decides to bring the heat, as it were.

Willis might have about a half hour of screen time, but he is not killed. He’s a police investigator on the trail of Hagen since the racist killed his partner and his partner’s wife. He has one pretty good scene. The rest of the time, he’s just cleaning up after the action.

(** out of ******)

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The Prince – 2014

Director Brian A. Miller
Screenplay Andre Fabrizio, Jeremy Passmore
Starring Jason Patric, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, Rain, Jessica Lowndes, Johnathon Schaech, Gia Mantegna, 50 Cent

This film has Jason Patric as a John Wick type who gave it up decades ago for family life. Then as a widower, he discovers his daughter is missing and decides to come back home. Patric gives it his best, but it is clear that Miller’s style of action is disconnected, with a remarkable ability to avoid breaking any nearby objects (especially glass) while everyone shooting at our hero misses and he hits everyone. They even waste a perfectly good Rain.

Willis is in one of his two modes here as the leader of a crime family bent on revenge. It is amazing how little range he has by this point to express anything: remorse, happiness, wit, wisdom or even menace. He doesn’t even have the snark that he used to live on in the 80’s.

(** out of *****)

Vice – 2015

Director Brian A, Miller
Screenplay Andre Fabrizio, Jeremy Passmore
Starring Thomas Jane, Bruce Willis, Ambyr Childers, Johnathon Schaech, Don Harvey, Charlotte Kirk, Brian Greenberg

Westworld, after the movie, and before the series. It’s always an interesting premise, but this time it’s limited to the myopic vision of the same team that created The Prince, which is a tame pre-John Wick. There is a semi-rogue policeman (Jane) going into the corporation of Vice to bust down rapists and murderers who go in there and get a taste for deviance. Vice is run by Julian Michaels (Willis) and he’s trying to keep a close eye on business while tracking down a girl (Childers) who has escaped. Once more the bad guys with the guns find it impossible to hit anyone with their names above the credits. At least this time there is a little discernible damage to the environs. Still, it’s nothing that can’t be picked up in 5 minutes. There is a disturbing glare throughout much of the film intended to keep the intensity of the constantly moving camera. The overall effect is a headache waiting to happen. Jane does his best to move the plot forward, though he does a much more intriguing version of the same type of character in The Expanse.

Willis is relegated primarily to the command center, while his general, played by Schaech, goes out to do the dirty work. Together, they’re relegated to being amazed at the proceedings, saying, “That’s impossible” “I need more time,” and “It’s not letting me in” whenever they discover their prodigal robot has done something new and things are getting out of control.

(*1/2 out of *****)

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Precious Cargo – 2016

Director Max Adams
Screenplay Max Adams, Paul V. Seetachitt
Starring Mark-Paul Gosselaar, Bruce Willis, Claire Forlani, John Brotherton, Lydia Hull

For everyone who ever wanted to know what kind of action movie the cute blond kid from Saved By The Bell could excel in, this is not it. There are more of Willis’ entourage of B movie players, this time women like Lydia Hull. Brotherton looks like he could be dangerous, when he is not chasing Gosselaar in an incredibly lame boat chase. The purpose of this film is to give the aging Gosselaar a chance at action comedy stardom, heavy emphasis on the dumb. Forlani has fallen far from her high point in The Rock. She’s right on par with Police Academy: Mission to Moscow, however.

Willis is once more the heavy in this one. He’s the guy to be stolen from, then stolen from again. Meanwhile he sends a bunch of guys who couldn’t beat out the bad guys from A Good Day to Die Hard to their untimely and awkward deaths. If he’s on the screen more than 15 minutes, I didn’t notice.

(*1/2 out of *****)

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Extraction – 2015

Director Steven C. Miller
Screenplay Max Adams, Umair Aleem
Starring Kellan Lutz, Bruce Willis, Gina Carano, D.B. Sweeney, Dan Bilzerian, Steve Coulter

A stiff thriller of sorts, where Lutz is the son of Willis’ CIA spook who breaks ranks to go rescue dad when he is kidnapped and held for ransom for a MacGuffin that could target the world for, you know, bad stuff. The acting is as stiff as the dialogue, the action scenes are clunky. They even have Carano calling Lutz out for help when she seemingly can’t take out a 140 lb man. D.B. Sweeney demonstrates why he hasn’t been in demand for nearly 3 decades.

Willis has limited screentime again. He’s a hostage while Lutz bumbles his way through a bunch of extras acting as bad guys. Then we find that he’s double double crossed everyone, meaning he was straight all along. Wow. What a twist.

(* out of *****)

Marauders - 2016
Marauders – 2016

Director Steven C. Miller
Screenplay Michael Cody, Chris Sivertson
Starring Christopher Meloni, Bruce Willis, Dave Bautista, Adrian Grenier, Johnathon Schaech, Lydia Hull, Tyler Jon Olson, Texas Battle

If using the F-word has an artistic measure, then this is closer to the coloring mat a child would get at IHOP on the scale. There are some nicely sequenced robberies in this film, but the story is all over the place. The best I can figure out is a group of thieves are targeting certain banks, killing one person at each stop, and giving the money to charities. They leave behind evidence pointing to a person who died in combat earlier. Of course the person is not dead, but that is almost beside the point. We have abortive stories of a crooked cop with a wife who is dying, then another FBI agent whose wife had been fridged. Somehow, it’s all related. This film is completely undone at the editing level. This is supposed to be Meloni’s, Grenier’s and Schaech’s film, but you’d be hard pressed to figure out why watching the choppy story.

Willis is another higher mark on this one. He has perhaps 20 minutes of screen time with no real significant actions on camera. Still, he is in the center of the poster.

(** out of *****)

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Once Upon A Time In Venice – 2017

Director Mark Cullen
Screenplay Mark and Robb Cullen
Starring Bruce Willis, Jason Momoa, John Goodman, Thomas Middleditch, Famke Janssen, Adam Goldberg, Jessica Gomes, Kal Penn, Christopher McDonald, Victor Ortiz, Ken Davitian, Elisabeth Röhm

The Cullens definitely have a style, but it feels like a derivative one. It’s like they’re going for Tarantino meets Elmore Leonard, without really hitting the essence of either. This film feels like one event rolling into another conveniently and without either an intensity or an incredibly prescient sense of humor. It’s got an incredible cast, but the whole film feels like that David Arquette cameo in the middle of it all. What was that about? I have no idea.

Willis thinks he is onto something here. At the very least, he’s not just a caricature. Not sure if he recognizes the difference between this and some of his better work, but he seems to be enjoying himself. The problem is, he’s not all that enjoyable to watch when there is no real sense that anything is at stake. Every time he has the odds stacked against him, the issue works itself out too easily. His temperamental nature showed behind the scenes when he kept the Cullens from adding a scene with Ralph Garman. There’s a history there, perhaps Garman’s made a joke or three at Willis’ expense.

(** out *****)

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Air Strike – 2018

Director Xiao Feng
Screenplay Ping Chen
Starring Liu Ye, Bruce Willis, Song Seung-heon, William Chan, Adrien Brody

WWII from the side of China. I am unsure of the veracity of the story, nor am I sure how Willis, his daughter Rumer or Brody’s characters fit into the truth of it all, but the performances are ok, compared to the rest of the films in this list. The special effects are overly glossy to feel real, but having Willis’ throw F-Bombs in the midst of real bomb runs feels right enough. There are some nice visuals occasionally, but there is also an awkward mix of horrific war scenes and attempts at comedy. The number of characters and bombing raids throughout make the story difficult to follow, but it’s pretty clear the devastation was immense and tough to live through.

Willis is the American commander there to teach the Chinese pilots to defend themselves. Not sure what made him an expert. His appearance is not nearly as gratuitous as the other two non-Asians. Perhaps it is just there needed to be a reason to involve an American or three for purposes of selling the film in the states.

(*** out of *****)

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10 Minutes Gone – 2019

Director Brian A. Miller
Screenplay Kelvin Mao, Jeff Jingle
Starring Bruce Willis, Michael Chiklis, Meadow Williams, Kyle Schmid, Texas Battle, Lydia Hill, Sergio Rizzuto, Tyler Jon Olson

Tedious robbery goes wrong story where safecracker Frank (Chiklis) goes after people in his group when a job goes sideways. The gunfights are Police Squad! level of hilarious and they go on forever with the absolute worst choreography. Chiklis has a clueless demeanor that is uncharacteristic for the actor of his caliber. He proves it’s not only just Willis that can play a mundane role in a shit film.

Willis is another “behind the scenes mover” who has small role that is usually reserved for better character actors. For someone who has done this so much, he should be better at this. It seems like some sort of circle of hell he’s gotten into, playing in so many of these EF Oasis films with the same actors (Hull, Battle, Olson, Schaech, etc.) over and over.

(* out of *****)

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Trauma Center – 2019

Director Matt Eskandari
Screenplay Paul De Silva
Starring Bruce Willis, Nicky Whelan, Tito Ortiz, Texas Battle, Steve Guttenberg, Catherine Davis

Think original Halloween II, only instead of Jamie Lee Curtis, we have Nicky Whelan as a witness to the actions of two bad cops. In place of Michael Meyers we have Tito Ortiz and Texas Battle stumbling their way through a hospital in pursuit. The cat and mouse is clunky and we have Willis wandering around like Dr. Loomis as a respected police lieutenant trying to figure out who the bad guys are while they pursue the Whelan, who he conveniently isolates on the top floor. This film doesn’t work hard to entertain, and it doesn’t succeed in even being funny bad. The Irony is that Whelan actually played Wendy Snow in the Rob Zombie remake of Halloween II.

Willis tries to inject a little personality, but it comes across as a bad mood. I wonder if they set it in San Juan, Puerto Rico so he could have a vacation.

(*1/2 out of *****)

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Survive the Night – 2020

Director Matt Eskandari
Screenplay Doug Wolfe
Starring Chad Michael Murray, Bruce Willis, Shea Buckner, Tyler Jon Olson, Lydia Hull, Jessica Abrams, Sara Lynn Holbrook, Jef Holbrook

Another in the long line of Emmett/Furla Oasis films, this one is kind of like Desperate Hours, with no sense of claustrophobia and too much of the, “Why don’t you run?” frustration to believe. This time, Chad Michael Murray plays a disgraced doctor forced to move with his family back in with his parents in the country. Little of this subplot actually matters once the family is taken hostage by two criminals on the run and one of them recovering from a gunshot wound. Much of the film is confused, as people wait seemingly unchased for random reasons, then get caught when the plot needs a lift.

As retired Sheriff who just doesn’t understand the quit in his son, Willis becomes a widower and endures quite a bit of physical pain. He endures enough to help turn the tables, then bows to Murray’s lead protagonist so he can finally dispatch the enemy. He’s one of the few retired lawmen to not have security measures on his home, but if he had those, no one would have gotten through the door. His charisma is absent, as he is reserved to acting out of anger and desperation, but never an overly intelligent snark.

(*1/2 out of *****)

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Breach – 2020

Director Tom Suits
Screenplay Edward Drake, Corey Large
Starring Cody Kearsley, Bruce Willis, Thomas Jane

This is one big pile of garbage. It’s got a story, which loosely takes from better scifi, like Alien. It doesn’t try to hide its roots with anything more than incompetence. I am not sure the lead, Kearsley, qualifies as an actor. He’s got one move, to look surprised after too much ganja and a long night of sleep. This is horrible.

Willis is in much of the film here, but it feels like he’s putting absolutely nothing into it. He’s not even pretending to act. Still this is better than Jane, who is literally asleep most of the film, only to wake up, then blow himself apart as some sort of valiant sacrifice.

(1/2* out of *****)

Cosmic Sin – 2021

Director Edward Drake
Screenplay Edward Drake, Corey Large
Starring Bruce Willis, Frank Grillo, Brandon Thomas Lee, Corey Large, Perrey Reeves, C.J. Perry, Lochlyn Munro, Costas Mandylor

Another money made for next to nothing while the producers try to make the film seem like they can stretch the dollar. They can’t. There is a backstory that goes several slides at the beginning of the film. Bruce Willis’ pulled the trigger on a big bomb that ended a warm his love life (with Reeves) and his military career. Now there is a new threat and look who they enlist to pull the trigger again. Like in many of these latter day Willis movies, at least one of the name actors (this time Grillo) is mainly there to get his mug on a poster. The writers and producers once more are Large, who shows up on Breach, and director Drake, who produced Breach. It’s like a magical gang of sucking at films tied up the former Last Boy Scout.

Willis is unsung hero again, but not the main squeeze, of course. That is left to Lee, who at least appears cognizant when onscreen, unlike the waste of space Kearsley. This film takes the same concept of black goo taking over people and combines it with a pathetically inept looking global domination subplot. Avoid.

(* out of *****)

There are a few more films out there, I am sure. I just can’t do anymore. I really thought Willis understood something about people in his early role selection. The older he gets, the more it feels like he gave up trying long ago. If this slate of films is considered art of any kind, then I don’t know crap about film. I only know these films qualify as crap.

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