”You do not have to be good,” wrote the poet Mary Oliver in a 1986 verse. While she was talking about the ways we quietly martyr ourselves to our daily lives, I sometimes wonder if Hollywood talent agents don’t have that particular poem crouching in their files, ready to be sprung on clients at a precise point in their careers. You do not have to be good: It must be shocking and welcome news to actors who play the heroes of the screen. You do not have to flex and hustle and win the day, you leading men; instead, you can play it pockmarked and venal, stylishly homicidal, detestable even unto the final frames. And you can do it exactly…once. Once shows that you have depth, hints that you care more for craft than career. Twice, and you’re a character actor.
Bruce Willis is the latest star to go over to the dark side, in The Jackal, director Michael Caton-Jones’ remake of the 1973 Fred Zinnemann thriller The Day of the Jackal. True, Willis has always seemed unusually jaded for a movie hero, even if that cynicism often turns to hollow smugness on closer inspection. The anonymous international assassin he plays here, though, marks his first outing as a truly unredeemable human being. And you can’t really blame ol’ Bruno for thinking that the role might goose his career in interesting directions, since the same kind of thing seems to have worked just fine for Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
In fact, Cruise’s turn in Interview With the Vampire may represent the purest incarnation of Hunk Gone Bad: As Lestat, the ageless vampire antihero of the Anne Rice mass-cult novel, the former Top Gun flyboy dispatches screaming harlots with a dandy’s grin, waltzes gaily with a corpse, and bites into a rat with relish. It’s a showy turn, and in the end, that’s all it is: Cruise, at heart, just doesn’t seem to have the necessary charismatic kink. But it’s to the actor’s credit that he’s not remotely laughable as Lestat — especially since his initial casting had been greeted by derision from the press, and even author Rice. More impressively, he’s clearly plugged into Interview’s not-so-secret level: Take away the fangs, and it’s a full-on gay-relationship tale, right down to Lestat’s fit (”Perfect — just burn the place!”) when Louis (Brad Pitt) destroys the couple’s mansion. For one of America’s premiere pinups, this is risky business indeed.
John Travolta, by contrast, had little to lose when he signed on to play Vic Deakins, the gonzo Air Force major who swipes two nuclear missiles in Broken Arrow. Pulp Fiction — in which he played a hitman who clearly was meant to have our ironic/hip sympathy — had just handed the actor’s career back to him on a platter labeled ”Royale With Cheese.” He was working with John Woo, a.k.a. the finest action director alive, and by playing a heavy he could let the world know that this comeback was going to be about Travolta the Renaissance man, not no talkin’ babies. He plays Deakins as if he were the hero of the film: snappy, sexy, in control. Certainly, that’s how Deakins, a dude Ubermensch, sees himself. The downside is that nominal good guy Christian Slater is left choking on his co-star’s dust.
In i>The Jackal, at least, villain Willis and hero Richard Gere, as the imprisoned IRA terrorist who’s reprieved to help the FBI track down the faceless assassin, are on equal footing: Both are left high and dry by a contrived script and Caton-Jones’ bombastically crass direction. The original Jackal, for instance, got chills out of a simple, eloquent sequence where the hitman (Edward Fox) tests out his explosive bullets on a melon in a field; in the corresponding scene in the new film, Willis misses the target, a pumpkin — but blows off a character’s arm, riddles him with bullets, and blows up his car in the standard onanistic explosion. That’s progress for you.
What The Jackal doesn’t do is progress Bruce Willis’ career. Good character or bad doesn’t matter for this particular actor; if he wants to be taken seriously, he needs to find more projects that are as entertaining and as smart as 12 Monkeys and Pulp Fiction. Only then will his smirk look like anything more than generic Bogart Lite. For now, Willis should leave the villainy to actors who really could use the career change. So how about it, Matt Damon? Up for playing an ex-Catholic arsonist with bad breath? You don’t have to be good. C-