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I’m a huge Bruce Willis fan. (I even have The Return of Bruno on vinyl.) I’ve seen most of his action films, so I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of his early pictures today.

The first Bruce film is…

SUNSET (1988) **

Bruce Willis stars as the legendary screen cowboy Tom Mix. James Garner co-stars as the legendary real life cowboy Wyatt Earp. Wyatt gets hired as a technical advisor by a slimy Hollywood director (Malcolm McDowell, playing a character loosely based on Charlie Chaplin) who is making a movie about his life. Mix and Earp hit it off well enough, but soon the two find themselves in the middle of a Hollywood murder mystery.

Directed by Blake Edwards (who had just made Blind Date with Willis), Sunset is an interesting misfire. I guess the thing that makes it the most interesting for me is that it was Bruce Willis’ last film before Die Hard changed the rules and made him BRUCE. When he made this film, he was still David Addison in everyone’s minds and Willis more or less channels that level of energy here. I’m not saying he’s bad or anything; he’s just basically coasting on his smirk.

Don’t get me wrong, Willis has some nice moments. His fight with Vernon Wells is memorable and the scene where he tricks the villain with a sawed-off mop is pretty clever. It’s just that he just never feels like he’s playing Tom Mix.

Garner is great though. He perfectly plays Earp as an easygoing badass who is a complete gentleman, but when he’s crossed, he’ll lay you out in seconds flat. But despite their best efforts, Garner and Willis never quite gel as a team. And while Willis gets top billing (it was a “Hudson Hawk production”), he’s the more passive one of the pair and lets Garner have all the best scenes.

Another reason Sunset is interesting is that it feels like it was the germ that started the dueling Wyatt Earp films of the early 90’s. It’s nowhere near as good as Tombstone or Wyatt Earp of course. It is interesting that it preceded those films by a couple of years though.

As much as I wanted to like Sunset, it just never works. For one, the tone is out of whack. Edwards tries for a light comic touch, but once the film becomes a hardboiled detective story, things get kinda dark. The detective stuff blended with the cowboy stuff blended with the golden age of Hollywood stuff just goes together like oil and water and in the end; we’re left with some good moments, but nothing to really hang your (ten gallon) hat on.

AKA: Catalina. AKA: Hollywood 1929.

Next up is…

MORTAL THOUGHTS (1991) **

Bruce Willis’ wife (at the time) Demi Moore is the star of this spotty murder mystery. Glenne Headly is a Jersey Girl hair stylist with a sadistic, abusive husband (Bruce). He smacks her around so often that she constantly jokes about bumping him off. One night, he dies under mysterious circumstances and Moore and Headly conspire to hide the body.

Willis gives a very believable and scary performance. (Although I think it’s hilarious that his level of evil is directly correlated to the amount of facial hair he has.) Despite his abhorrent behavior, he’s still kind of funny. The scene where he’s coked-up and singing “Kung Fu Fighting” cracked me up.

Director Alan Rudolph (who also directed Willis in Breakfast of Champions) does a fine job on the early scenes. However, once Willis makes an abrupt exit from the story, a lot of the urgency runs out of the film. The scenes of Moore and Headly bumbling around and trying to cover up the crime gets pretty repetitive and they are strung out to the breaking point.

Likewise, the scenes of Moore telling her story to cop Harvey Keitel in an interrogation room start out strong, but they quickly become monotonous. Keitel delivers a great performance at least. Actors aren’t given enough credit for listening during their performances. Most actors just wait for their cue to say their lines. But Keitel is different in this movie. He’s silent for the most part as he lets Moore talk and talk, but you can always see his wheels turning. The scenes where he calls her on her bullshit represent both of their best work in the film.

Moore and Headly look like they’re having fun. They really get into their Jersey Girl roles. It’s just a shame that both of them get freaking annoying at around the halfway mark.

Mortal Thoughts is a fun ride for a while. However, when it goes off the rails, it does so swiftly and it only gets worse as it goes along. To top it all off, the big twist at the end is obvious and is telegraphed early on. Bruce fans will want to check it out for his performance, but other than that, Mortal Thoughts isn’t really worth a second thought.

And our final Bruce flick is…

BILLY BATHGATE (1991) **

Loren Dean stars as the title character. He’s just a dumb kid from the neighborhood who wants to be a gangster. For some reason, Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman) takes a shine to him and lets him join his gang. But things quickly go wrong for Billy when he falls in love with Dutch’s girl (Nicole Kidman).

Loren Dean’s bland performance is the movie’s major debit. His blank wide-eyed stare is okay during the early going of the film as he’s working his way up the ranks of Schultz’s organization. The trouble is, Dean just has one setting and never really steps his game up to compete with the big boys like Hoffman and Bruce Willis.

Willis is good in a small, but important supporting role. Like Mortal Thoughts, his character exits the film rather quickly. (He gets the “And” billing in the credits.) He does get one or two good scenes though.

Hoffman is solid too, but it’s Nicole Kidman who steals the movie. Not because of her acting mind you, but because of her two terrific nude scenes. Both scenes are pretty brief, but then again, that’s why the pause button is your best friend.

The core of the movie, the relationship between Dean and Kidman, fizzles. That’s mostly because they have zero chemistry together. It also doesn’t help that Kidman is given some pretty lousy dialogue too. (“I’m not his girl… He’s my gangster!”)

The best sequence in the film revolves around Dutch Schultz’s impending court case. When he learns the trial is going to be held in a small jerkwater town, Dutch moves there a few weeks prior to grease the community’s wheels. The scenes of him trying to be an upstanding citizen are pretty funny. (He calls numbers at the local Bingo hall, donates money to the ladies’ auxiliary, etc.) I wish this subplot was fleshed out a bit more because it’s easily the most entertaining non-Nicole Kidman’s bush related thing about the film.

Bruce later teamed up with director Robert Benton for Nobody’s Fool.

Next week’s Legend: Olivier Gruner.

Comments

( 6 comments — Comment )
darksteel6
Dec. 10th, 2012 04:08 am (UTC)
So which Gruner films are you reviewing?
thevideovacuum
Dec. 10th, 2012 04:50 pm (UTC)
The Fighter, TNT, and Interceptor Force.
(Anonymous)
Dec. 10th, 2012 04:38 am (UTC)
I
I always have hated Billy Bathgate, Bruce Willis was the only interesting character and he dies early on. The main kid was a forgettable I don't care character that I felt wasn't good enough to be the main character. Hell, Steve Buscemi was more interesting as a character and he wasn't even fully developed.
thevideovacuum
Dec. 10th, 2012 04:51 pm (UTC)
Re: I
Dean's performance was bland as Hell, yet to be totally fair, the part wasn't written very well either. Thank God for Bruce and Nicole's nude scenes.
comeuppancereviews.com
Dec. 10th, 2012 12:32 pm (UTC)
Nice write-ups. Definitely agree about Mortal Thoughts...it slows down in the middle. Bruce was good in it though.
thevideovacuum
Dec. 10th, 2012 04:53 pm (UTC)
I read that originally the abusive husband was going to be a small part, but once the filmmakers learned they got Bruce, the part was immediately expanded.
( 6 comments — Comment )

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