Bruce Willis is stepping away from acting and, in doing so, leaving a genre-defining career behind him. A recent statement from his family revealed the actor is suffering from aphasia, a cognitive disorder that affects a person’s ability to communicate properly with others. As a result, the icon will end his decades-long stint of performing and begin a new phase of his life. This is sad for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is the way it will undoubtedly complicate things for himself and his loved ones. However, for the rest of us, we’ll be losing out on the possibility of a late-stage Willis renaissance, in the same vein as Robert Forster or the more-popular-than-ever Michael Keaton. Instead, the actor’s acclaimed time in the spotlight will have petered out with a long string of low-budget, direct-to-video features.
Despite having a sometimes tumultuous public image, Willis’ impact on Hollywood and American culture cannot be understated. Although he started as the face of a hit rom-com series, an impressive string of roles in films like Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element, and Armageddon established him as the epitome of “cool guy action star” mixed with a bit of “grumpy old dad.” A niche market to corner in the global eye, for sure, but one no celebrity may ever hold the same way again. Of course, none of this would have been possible for the actor if it weren’t for the late-80s phenomenon that was Die Hard. Still regarded as one of the greatest action pictures of all time, the movie’s success flung Willis into stardom and exemplified what every film of the genre would try to achieve after it. The initial flick spawned four sequels, made over twenty-five years and ranging in quality from a worthy follow-up to “why did they make this?”
As his career began to wane, it often felt like Willis was reaching back to his glory days in hollow imitation pieces. While Red was admittedly enjoyable, it failed to live up to the height of it’s star’s highest peaks, and 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard ran through a series of predetermined motions without any of the edge that made the franchise so great. The series’ protagonist, John McClane, never even said his famous R-rated catchphrase, which was instead replaced by the more tongue-in-cheek “yippee-ki-yay, Mother Russia”. Once it became clear that Willis may be in the final stretch of his profession, a push was seemingly made to capitalize on the actor’s increasingly reclusive nature. M. Night Shyamalan brought Willis’ famous David Dunn character back for a send-off in 2019’s Glass, and Edward Norton gave him his last big-budget appearance with a supporting role in the noir drama Motherless Brooklyn, a sub-genre Willis had enjoyed dabbling in.
Yet, as recently as a couple of years ago, there was still an idea in the air to bring the personality’s biggest role out of retirement for one last go-around. Following the dismal premiere of A Good Day, Fox Studios was trying to find a way to revive the once-adored franchise with some sort of unique twist. There was an idea for a crossover film with Kiefer Sutherland‘s televised 24 series, tentatively titled Die Hard 24/7, that never materialized after certain contract negotiations stalled and the plot was retooled as a simple 24 sequel series instead. Inspired by this, there was then a plan to continue the Die Hard legacy with a 12-episode prequel mini-series called Die Hard: Year One, based on the graphic novel of the same name and starring a new actor as a young John McClane with Bruce Willis narrating events as his future self. However, Willis despised the script and refused to contribute to or endorse its creation. As such, the project fell through and the franchise reset once more.
This brings things to 2018, when producer and writer Lorenzo di Bonaventura handed in a treatment for a sixth, and potentially final, Die Hard film simply titled McClane. The concept was similar to Year One, with a story that would venture away from the usual tropes of Die Hard to focus on the actual life of John McClane and reveal the origins of the character. Bonaventura described the movie as being a lot like The Godfather Part II, bouncing back and forth between McClane in both his sixties and twenties, with Willis returning as the older version of the one-time beat cop. Intentions were good, with the creative team aiming for a more thoughtful character study that would invest fans in McClane “more than ever before.” Unfortunately, despite support from big names like producer Tobey Maguire and probable returning actress Mary Elizabeth-Winstead, scheduling issues with Willis, who had recently committed to making his string of direct-to-video appearances, started to make it look like the film may never enter production.
Now, it’s becoming more clear that the scheduling issues were in large part due to the actor’s declining health. It’s been rumored that Willis focused on taking easier work when his symptoms began, so that he could continue acting without the demands of a high-profile film. While this has not been confirmed, the timeline does add up, and it would make sense if Fox was hesitant to invest big money into a movie they weren’t sure Willis could finish. Ultimately, the acquisition of Fox by Disney in 2019 resulted in any plans for McClane being scrapped, with more unconfirmable rumors abound that the mega studio would eventually just reboot the series under their own power. At the very least, we now know that Bruce Willis will not be involved if Die Hard ever reemerges.
In many respects, it sounds like the McClane would have been the aging actor’s grand finale, literally and metaphorically ending his time in the spotlight and passing the torch to a new generation of action stars. A genre-bending franchise departure to blend his best acting roles with his most iconic fictional character, giving up the role with the grace of Hugh Jackman‘s Logan. Perhaps it’s overly wistful to assume the movie would have been at all worth watching. It’s just more heartening to pretend McClane is a lost masterpiece than it is to accept that Willis, and his character by extension, went out with barely an explosion.
Source: Variety, MTV, Deadline, CBR, Entertainment Weekly, Fandango, Bloomberg