Cover Story

Brass Bald

With ''Twelve Monkeys'' filming and ''Die Hard With a Vengeance'' ready for release, the star opens up

Bruce Willis grabs the whipping boy by the throat. Leans forward. Flicks the muscles along the back of his shaved skull. Fixes his jade eyes on the lackey. And screams.

''You stupid a------!''

The whipping boy can do nothing but warble back, his voice aquiver with fear. ''I screwed up again. I don't deserve to live.''

''How could you be so stupid?!'' Willis barks.

''How could I be so stupid?!'' parrots the whipping boy.

''That's what I just said!''

Then Willis stops, like a hound called off his prey. Grins. Goes back to opening his packages with a knife in the back of the trailer. On the one hand, it looks like a scene straight from the annals of Hollywood abuse: The Big Star berates the whipping boy. On the other hand, it's hilarious. The ''whipping boy,'' see, is nothing but a toy — a six-inch plastic toady with a recorded voice inside. Just one of those gimmicks for working off aggression. Yell at it, it whimpers back.

The episode is vintage Willis: Raw. A lot funnier than one might expect. And supercharged with enough testosterone to make the average man feel like a wilting water lily. It also sets the ground rules for conversation. For the most part, Willis will talk, and you will nod in agreement. He will rant, you will listen. The effect is intoxicating — Willis at full tilt can be as blunt as a billy club and as fast as a bebop trumpet — but the underlying message is clear: Willis has been the whipping boy in the press for a good long 10 years now. This time, baby, it's your turn.

''You,'' he says, ''and people who do what you do, have to come up with a new hook every day. Every time you write a story, a new thing. And controversy sells.''

As he says this, Willis is stripped to blue jeans and combat boots. Stubble lines the porterhouse creases of his face. His head is shaved and his scalp and neck are done up with fake tattoos for the role of a psycho in Terry Gilliam's futuristic virus thriller Twelve Monkeys, shooting here in Baltimore. (''He's got one of the finest bald heads I've ever seen,'' Gilliam later gushes. ''It's a monument to cranial architecture.'') He pulls on a white T-shirt. He squeezes an Evian bottle with one fist and an El Producto with the other. He fires up the nickel tobacco and floods the trailer with its cheap, sweet aroma.

''For a long time,'' Willis continues, ''I don't know if there was a lot of controversy surrounding me, but it was certainly more interesting to throw rocks and dump trash on me than it was to say nice things about me. That kind of controversy sells more. And has since become, in the last 10 years since they started writing about me, the norm.''

But the norm has shifted. This time out, the ''hook'' on Bruce Willis boils down to He ain't such a bad guy after all — and he can act! Willis worked only 18 days on Pulp Fiction and 22 days on Nobody's Fool, but his subtle performances in those labors of love did more to win him respect than all the soft-porn groping in a thousand Color of Nights. For the first time since Moonlighting, the '80s TV hit that catapulted him from Hell's Kitchen to the celestial plane, critics are willing to concede that there's more under Bruce Willis' baseball cap than a smug bartender-turned-star squiring Demi Moore to Planet Hollywood openings.

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