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Bruce Willis: The last action hero 

Action star discusses keeping Die Hard alive

Man, Bruce Willis is really good at being Bruce Willis.

Usually, movie stars on publicity tours arrive tuckered out and tamped down. At a June 5 roundtable interview for Live Free or Die Hard, Bruce Willis may have been more soft-spoken than you'd expect, but he still projected that cocksure, average-Jersey-guy attitude. Entering the hotel room, he greeted us reporters and noticed my aged, bulky tape recorder among my colleagues' sleek cigarette-lighter-sized machines. "What's this, a fart machine? Where'd you get it, Radio Shack?" he quipped.

Willis shared the small table with us as accessibly as if we were at the corner watering hole and not the Four Seasons. Discussing the challenges of doing a fourth Die Hard, 12 years after the last in the fast-paced action franchise, he said, "I didn't want to do this film unless we tried to make it live up to the first film. And the potential to fail was really ... what's the word? Starts with an 'E?' Enormous."

The 52-year-old actor acknowledged that it's harder to do the stunt work than it was for the first film in 1988. "Yeah. Do the math. It was still fun, but really difficult. I thought I was in shape, but then I started to try and do stunts with guys in their early 30s, and I had to get in a little bit better shape. The concept being that if you get your muscles big enough, it protects your bones, so that if you fall on concrete, your bones don't ... what? Anybody?"

"Break?"

"You got it."

If any action hero is likely to sustain an injury, it's Die Hard's John McClane. Part of the appeal of the role is his physical vulnerability, despite his ability to survive increasingly outlandish predicaments, which in Live Free or Die Hard include a car crashing into a helicopter and a truck taking on a jet fighter.

In fact, Willis' shaved head picked up a scar on Live Free or Die Hard, thanks to the stuntwoman of Asian martial artist Maggie Q. "We're fighting in a car, in an SUV, upside down, in an elevator, hanging by cables, all the windows are busted out. It's really disorienting. It was early in the morning, everyone had just come in, near the end of four or five months of shooting. I got the cue wrong and stuck too much of my head out, and took two heels in the head." The upside, Willis claims, is that the scar allows him to predict when it's going to rain.

Compared with the more pumped-up alumni of the '80s action flicks, such as Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Willis always came across as flesh and blood, and brought a certain spontaneity to the requisite wisecracks. Not that you necessarily like John McClane – it's hard to sympathize with a character who uses words such as "dickhead" so much.

The name "John McClane" sounds like a deliberate echo of "John Wayne," and Willis has similar right-of-center politics. Sometimes they inform his work, such as the early scene in Armageddon when he hits golf balls at a boatload of Greenpeace-style protesters. In Fast Food Nation, he proved almost scarily vivid as a blunt-speaking defender of unsavory but pragmatic practices in the meat industry. In Live Free or Die Hard, McClane convinces an anarchistic hacker (Justin Long) of the heartlessness in railing against the U.S. corporate/political system: "It's not a 'system,' it's a country."

Within the seemingly narrow restraints of playing taciturn tough guys, Willis has carved an intriguing career. He was one of the first of his fellow A-listers to make a point of mixing paycheck roles with intriguing indie fare, from Pulp Fiction to Sin City and more.

Willis has already turned up in several small roles in 2007, including The Astronaut Farmer, Nancy Drew and Grindhouse (not to mention his less memorable leading role as a murder suspect in Perfect Stranger). He says such work is motivated by more than just doing favors and sustaining relationships with his pals. "It's also a way to get to acting roles that people would never think of for me. The fact that I get to do films like Nobody's Fool is in part a product of doing movies that have made a ton of money. I kind of trade on it. It allows me to work with people like Paul Newman. I asked [Nobody's Fool director] Robert Benton if any of my scenes were with Paul Newman, and he said 'All your scenes are with Paul Newman.' I accepted that film before I had even read the script."

Before Live Free or Die Hard, Willis had taken time off from expensive shoot-em-up roles. "I'm still learning how to act. It's important for me to try to do a good job, to be entertaining and present a character who's interesting to me, and hopefully interesting to the audience as well. That's the thing that made me want to take a break from action films: the running down the street, screaming, shooting a gun in each hand, in slow motion, in close-up. It's too much. I needed to take a break."

Live Free or Die Hard director Len Wiseman's conception of old-fashioned stunt work with minimal computer enhancement inspired Willis to get back in the saddle as John McClane.

"He wanted to make a film that was old-school at least as it pertains to the stunts." Willis mentioned one of the trailer's money shots, in which a car flips through the air and nearly flattens Willis' and Long's characters, crouching between two other autos. "That's a real car – they put it on cables and did it the old-school way. When normally, in any other movie today, they'd just draw it in with computer graphics. I wasn't there for that take – I was standing somewhere else when they flipped that car, just in case. It would be too much of a mess."

Live Free of Die Hard breaks faith with the predecessors by being the first PG-13 Die Hard movie: The most brutal moment may be the cutting of the final syllable of McClane's catchphrase, "Yippee-ki-ay, motherfucker." Willis says, "If your criteria for an action movie is that you get to say 'fuck' a lot of times, this may not be the one for you. Other than that, it's a real hardcore, old-school, throwback action film. And really does live up to the mythology of Die Hard. Is that a cool thing to say, 'the mythology of Die Hard'? I sound so smart."

See? Even though he makes zillions of dollars a movie, he comes across as just a regular guy.

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