“Apex” is the latest proof that Bruce Willis not only stopped caring about what’s in front of the camera but also anyone unfortunate enough to sit through any of it.
The thriller marks the fifth movie starring Willis to be released this year with two more still to come.
Rewind the clock a decade and tell a Willis fan they’ll one day see John McClane is in seven movies in one year, and they may think you’re describing a film lover’s fantasy.
Little would they know what a nightmare that dream turned out to be.
Between “Cosmic Sin,” “Out of Death,” “Midnight in the Switchgrass,” “Survive the Game,” and this weekend’s “Apex,” Willis has headlined five features in 2021 for the producing team of Randal Emmett and George Furla, whom he has begun renting out his talents to in recent years.
While Emmett and Furla also produced “The Irishman” and “Lone Survivor,” they are mainly known for B-movie content most people aimlessly scroll past while looking for something to watch. They target audiences willing to waste a few bucks because a recognizable face like a De Niro or Willis has been photoshopped onto the cover art, not knowing the stars only spent a few days on set while snagging an exorbitant amount of money.
These VOD features have become almost their own genre. The titles are often churned out in a few weeks, then unceremoniously dropped onto VOD platforms to recoup invested money off the backs of its “stars.”
Plenty of respected actors dabble in these quick paychecks, but Willis has made it his bread and butter. His upcoming projects suggest that won’t change anytime soon.
Long gone are the days filled with projects like “Die Hard” and “Unbreakable,” works that solidified Willis not just as an action icon but a leading man willing to be far more introspective than contemporaries like Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
“Apex” is the saddest reminder yet that the Willis audiences once supported may be gone for good. The feeling is made worse by the film’s need to constantly reference Willis’ older – and better – material (there’s even a “wrong guy in the wrong place” line thrown in).
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“Apex” tells the tried-and-true story of rich folks hunting poor people for kicks until they run into one capable of handing out much-needed lessons in morality. The biggest issue here is this “wrong guy in the wrong place” is not played by 1988 Willis or 1999 Willis or even 2010 Willis. Instead, we’re treated to the 2021 model, who seems unwilling to give cameras more than a tilt of the head or an eye roll.
Willis reportedly offers each of these films only a couple of days to grab whatever shots they need of the leading man looking heroic, puzzled, or some version of Zoolander’s Blue Steel. This means Willis is often given a role that is technically the lead, but plot conveniences provide plenty of opportunities to hide the star for long periods of time.
That leaves pointless, hit-and-miss exchanges between supporting players – whose talents often wildly differ – to fill running times suitable to sell to streaming services.
When Willis can’t be hidden by clever writing, he’s obscured by sloppy filmmaking. It’s become a running joke how often you can spot his double or hear an ADR line clearly spoken by someone else.
It used to happen every so often, but as Willis does more and more of these movies, he cares less and less. In “Apex,” they make no attempt to make you think the back of a double’s head belongs to Willis. It’s just part of the process now.
The quality of “Apex” is less interesting, however, than the anomaly that is Bruce Willis today. A man who once plucked young filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan out of obscurity and talked with “Die Hard” fans anonymously in chat rooms has turned into a grouch. Willis can barely hide his general disdain for just about everything in the few interviews he’s willing to suffer through these days.
This downward spiral has been happening right before our eyes, with critics and fans noting the lack of care Willis appeared to be giving in his lesser-seen movies made in between an “Expendables” cameo here or a “Moonrise Kingdom” supporting turn there.
“To suggest that Bruce Willis is phoning in his performance in ‘Cosmic Sin’ would be an insult to telephone communication, which can be an effective means of conveying important information and genuine emotion,” Christy Lemire wrote in her RogerEbert.com review of this year’s “Cosmic Sin.”
The actor was described as having a “barely roused presence” in The Hollywood Reporter’s review of “Midnight in the Switchgrass,” a movie released only a few months after “Sin.”
“Apex” is perhaps on the higher end of quality as far as Willis’ ‘paycheck roles’ go, but that’s really not saying much. It’s likely more a result of the movie riffing on a classic story mined successfully for decades.
Fellow veteran actor Neil McDonough plays the primary antagonist in “Apex,” and he finds some campiness in the project. Still, he can only do so much. Willis mostly just runs around the woods aimlessly while other people explain to us about how dangerous he really is.
It should come as no surprise that Willis’ barely-there role doesn’t quite sell the moody survivor we are supposed to buy into. When the final confrontation finally comes, it ends with the sort of whimper that should encapsulate a good portion of Willis’ latter filmography.
With the amount his double is used too,
It shouldn’t surprise us if one day Willis doesn’t even show up on set, allowing producers to digitally insert his face onto someone else’s body. That may sound ludicrous, but the actor has already licensed out his face for advertisements overseas.
It’s hard to guess how or why it got like this for Willis. There’s nothing wrong with a man making a living, but to see an artist who used to fight for his stories choose such an easy road is … sad.
It’s not like Willis is lacking in opportunity. Sure, he’s made his fair share of filmmaking enemies over the years, like “Clerks” director Kevin Smith, but he’s also been a go-to muse for top directors like Shyamalan and Robert Rodriguez.
Either one could whip Willis up a proper role or throw him a supporting turn that pays the bills. That would be far more interesting than the set of four or five looks he offers the camera these days.
His past work with both of those filmmakers – and others – should also be held up as crystal clear evidence that Willis is aware of the “quality” of his recent output (“I’m better than good. I’m bacon and eggs on Sunday morning,” is an actual line in “Apex,” and it’s unfortunately one of the better ones).
Maybe it’s all some Andy Kaufman-like experiment. Willis has never been fond of the press or celebrity status, and recent sit downs with reporters suggest a man almost mocking the very idea of a Hollywood “industry.”
Maybe the actor has taken on his ultimate role as a movie “star” gaming the industry and his own fans as some perverse way to satirize both.
Or, he just stopped caring.
For all the Bruce Willis suckers, ahem, fans, the actor will appear in “Deadlock” and “Fortress” next month. Trailers have been released, but if you’ve seen a trailer to one of these flicks, you’ve seen them all.
Zachary Leeman is the author of the novel “Nigh” and co-host of the “Man of Science, Man of Faith” podcast. He has covered politics and culture for Breitbart, LifeZette and others.