Die another day

 

"Then Cybill Shepherd gets pregnant with twins, shuts down the show and I can do Die Hard. If I had got Cybill pregnant myself I couldn't have planned it better" Bruce Willis is back as Detective John McClane, kicking evil-doer ass in Die Hard 4.0. The New Jersey everyman, now in his fifties but still taught of torso and light of banter, tells Donald Clarke about the rigours of action filming without CGI

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HOW ever would we have coped without Bruce Willis? By the mid-1980s, our idea of the mainstream male movie star had been so corroded by pre-millennial unease (feminism and so forth) that we had to rely on the ambiguously dainty charms of Tom Cruise or the thunderous Teutonic irony of Arnold Schwarzenegger for our kicks (and punches and head-butts).

In 1988, Willis managed the tricky business of finessing television stardom into a proper movie career. It would be wrong to say that his appearance in Die Hard ushered in anything like a breath of fresh air. That performance as John McClane - vest-wearing, cigaretting impediment to European megalomaniacs everywhere - reminded cinemagoers of the ancient pleasure to be derived from watching an ordinary guy do extraordinary things. Right-wing in a non-threatening way, polite to those who deserved it, Bruce Willis reintroduced Hollywood to rough breezes that had not blown since the days when Steve McQueen ruled the city.

It has been 12 years since Die Hard with a Vengeance, the second Die Hard sequel, but Willis, beneficiary of the agelessness that results from premature baldness, has weathered the decade well. Some flesh has, it is true, come loose beneath his chin, but his dome of a head positively glows and his grey suit reveals no unsightly bulges. Die Hard 4.0 explodes upon us next week and its star, now 52, is as keen as ever to do his share of the heavy lifting.

"They tried the Jedi mind trick on me," he laughs. "They said: 'You know, Bruce, you might be a little too old for some of the stunts in this film.' So that brought out the south Jersey guy in me. I said: 'No way. I am going to do those stunts and I am going to do a few more.' I got busted up a few times. I had a bruise from my hip to my ankle, and that's with pads on. I wasn't going to let them beat me."

Bruce Willis has an understandable affection for the Die Hard franchise. Back in 1988, having failed to shine in Blake Edwards's Blind Date and Sunset, his first movies as a star, he must have feared that he would never escape TV. Willis had come to our attention playing the wry rogue opposite Cybill Shepherd's stubborn hard-ass in the tasty Moonlighting - a Thin Man for the shoulder-pad era - but had yet to establish any serious wide-screen credentials. Then Die Hard ate the multiplexes alive. No wonder he loves the series

"Well, that is the least part of it. Though I guess it did change my career. But I was talking to my friend Owen Wilson about the metaphysics of the business the other day. You can push and nudge to shape your future or you can stand back and just realise that everything is happening as it is supposed to happen."

So Die Hard was part of some divine plan? "That did change my career awareness in Hollywood certainly. At the time they were saying: 'What are you doing giving $5 million to a TV actor?' The next day every major actor's salary went up to $5 million. I didn't get a single Christmas card from those guys? Ha ha!"

Willis, despite surviving a marriage to Demi Moore and a business partnership with Sylvester Stallone, works very hard at maintaining his Ordinary Joe credentials.

"They said I was a TV star first and I fought against that," he says. "I was just an actor learning to act. Then, after Die Hard, they said I was a movie star and I said: 'Wow, hang on!' That guy at 32 in that film is still the New Jersey me. I had only been in front of the camera for a few years. I passed on Die Hard first because I was doing Moonlighting. Then Cybill Shepherd gets pregnant with twins, shuts down the show and I can do Die Hard. If I had got Cybill pregnant myself I have couldn't planned it better."

This average New Jersey guy was, in fact, born to a soldier father on a military base in Germany. Following discharge in 1957, Mr Willis took the family back to the Garden State, where he toiled as a welder and a factory worker. Bruce acted a bit in school, but underwent a period of dithering - sheep farming and private investigation, according to livelier biographies - before making his way to the drama programme at Jersey's Montclair State University.

He was 30 by the time he became properly famous and, as a result, managed to get through his youthful indiscretions without tabloid attention. Still, he did have to endure acute focus on the ups and downs of his marriage to Moore. The two actors, archetypal icons of the Reagan years, amalgamated in 1987 and went on to have three children before dissolving their union in 2000.

Whatever else you think about Bruce and Demi, you have to acknowledge their achievement in remaining on such good terms. Just last month, Vanity Fair published a series of photographs showing Willis holidaying happily with Moore and her new partner, Ashton Kutcher. It all seems terribly grown-up.

"It's a simple thing," he says. "What allows us to get on is that, unlike some other people who can't let go of their anger, we always put the kids first. I got some great advice from Will Smith about this. The parents are always going to be OK. You get over it. The kids are the ones who ask: 'Am I going to be alright?' That's it in a nutshell. Our kids are always the main thing."

Bruce Willis might, for all I know, torture peacocks in his free time, but he certainly does a good job of presenting himself to the public as a champion of old-fashioned decency. When one of the other four journalists in our interview group asks him about heroism, he immediately returns to the theme of domestic probity. Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper would, surely, have done the same thing.

"The most important things on my scorecard are to live my life as a good man and live my life as a good father. Everything else is secondary. Everybody else in this room, everybody on this planet, given the choice between doing the right thing or the wrong thing, knows what the right thing is. We may not do it, but we know what it is. That is what I teach my children."

It is, of course, our job in the media to use the wrong choices that stars make as moral cudgels with which to hammer them. In recent years, newspapers have had some fun ridiculing Bruce's more bellicose pronouncements on the War on Terror. He was, for example, reported to have offered a million dollars for the head of either Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. On the Celebrity Cuddle Front, it has been suggested that he has had liaisons with such unlikely women as Courtney Love and Lindsay Lohan.

"I don't pay attention to the gossip shit," he says with apparent good humour. "I just don't look at it. I don't let it in my house. We could go down to the newsstand now and find five separate wrong stories about me. I just don't give a fuck."

Warming to his theme, he goes on to explain how he fears the chatter rags may become historical texts for future generations.

"Yeah. I believe in 20 years gossip will be set in stone as the history of this time," he laughs. "So no matter how many times I tell you I had nothing to do with Lindsay Lohan, it won't matter. It was just something written on page six. But that is still going to end up being written in stone. It doesn't matter that I never laid a finger on her. She just hung out with my younger daughter for, like, one minute."

Willis has imposed his taste for old-fashioned decency onto the latest Die Hard. Focusing on an attempt by Timothy Olyphant's deranged egotist to disable the US via computer - as ever in this series, with crude financial gain in mind - the film features lots of busy monitors and blinking gadgets. But John McClane, now more subject to scrapes and contusions than ever before, remains an analogue hero.

"The first film was the only really good one - or the best of them anyway," he says. "We wanted to do a fourth episode that lived up to the promise of that first film. I said something after the third film: 'I am taking a break until the genre reinvents itself.' Which seemed a smart thing to say, but, really, I didn't know what that fuck I was talking about. Then I met Len."

Len Wisemen, director of the vampire romp Underworld, has done a decent enough job with Die Hard 4.0. Cars crash into helicopters, fighter jets annihilate freeways and, as expected, John McClane gets nine colours of ordure kicked out of him.

"It would have been very easy for us to take an easy route and use what now are very cost-efficient CGI effects. But we wanted to take an old-school route in terms of the stunts. We wanted to do a film that, in trying to get as close as possible to the first, has real smash-mouth fight sequences. We wanted that claustrophobia."

The roughest scene sees Bruce brawling with an enthusiastic martial artist, played by Maggie Q. "Oh, yeah, I got to do something I have never done before - fight with a little, tiny, frail 105-pound girl. And it looks like she really kicks my ass."

Is this really wise for a gentleman of his age? "Well, I got kicked in the head one morning late on in the shoot and had to go to hospital. This supports what I was saying about things in life happening as they should do. If I had lifted my head a second later I would have lost an eye. As it was, I got 25 stitches, rubbed a little dirt on it and went back to work."

That's what I call old school. How ever would we have coped without Bruce Willis?

Die Hard 4.0 opens next Friday