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Bruce Willis on the level

Bruce Willis on the level — Is ”Hudson Hawk” a rare bird about to take off or a big-budget turkey?

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In a downtown L.A. neighborhood dominated by tattoo parlors, a store called ”$3 Fashion,” and triple-X theaters with fortresslike metal gates, a man in a pink velvet suit and orange fedora marches Bruce Willis at gunpoint past spray-painted gangland symbols into a dead-end alley. Smog shrouds the moon — or is it just the smoke machine belching film noir atmosphere? Willis is only weeks away from getting the verdict on his most recent risky venture, Hudson Hawk, a wacky, big-budget comedy due out May 24, but, not a man to take things easy, he is already back filming new screen mayhem. The Last Boy Scout is his latest collaboration with Die Hard and Hudson Hawk producer Joel Silver, a stomach-knotting big spender once described by the Wall Street Journal as a ”Rambo-style personality,” and it features a blood-spattered $1.75 million script by Lethal Weapon‘s Shane Black. In this scene, Willis’ character, a stone-broke detective, was on his way to meet a topless dancer, explains script supervisor P.R. Tooke, but — it gets complicated here — he’s just been sidetracked and she’s about to get blown away, so the impoverished gumshoe will end up befriending the topless dancer’s boyfriend, a disgraced quarterback, and together they’ll go on to snuff a bunch of bad guys.

”It’s a male-bonding, kicky-dicky, fight-fight-fight scene,” Tooke says. ”Basically, it’s awfully good — one of the best-written genre scripts I’ve ever seen. You really like these guys.”

You can say the same for Willis, who has fashioned a career out of being likable in male-bonding, kicky-dicky entertainments. Being likable is the way he beat 3,000 contenders for his breakthrough role on TV’s Moonlighting back in 1985, stunned Hollywood by earning $5 million as a movie nobody for 1988’s Die Hard (whose first poster featured the building he saved instead of his face), stunned movie folks even more by propelling last summer’s Die Hard 2 to a $115 million take, and perplexed them completely with a series of mind-boggling paychecks: an estimated $10 million for voice-overs on Look Who’s Talking, perhaps $3 million for a few weeks’ work on the bummer The Bonfire of the Vanities, and now, a reported $14 million for The Last Boy Scout.

Okay, so maybe there’s a little over-the-top testosterone mixed in with his likability. The point is, Willis is a big star, although not, he takes pains to point out, exclusively a big action star.

”I mean, I’ve only done two action films,” says Willis, quaffing Evian and stretching out on a couch in his trailer between murders on The Last Boy Scout. ”Die Hard was walkin’ into the jungle and havin’ to carve yourself a path. With Die Hard 2 the path was already carved and there were street signs tellin’ ya which way to go. Now I’m starting to get the impression that people out there think of me as this guy who only does action movies. Before Die Hard I was a makin’-us-laugh kind of guy, and then you do well in another genre and they say, ‘Okay, I got him figured out now, let’s put him in this category.’ Hopefully with Hudson Hawk they’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, he does comedy too.”’

Which brings up a good and possibly tender point: What will people make of Hudson Hawk, Tri-Star’s money-stuffed first strike in the battle for summer blockbuster dominance and Willis’ most elaborate effort to step out of the shadow of Die Hard hero John McClane?

A cat-burglar caper with dashes of slapstick and peopled by a gaudy, improbable set of characters, Hawk stars Willis as a quick-fingered thief; Danny Aiello as his partner, Tommy ”Five Tone” Messina; Andie MacDowell as Willis’ secret-agent sweetheart, an undercover nun; James Coburn as an unholy CIA capo; and Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard as millionaire egomaniacs who force Willis to rebuild an alchemy device called the Gold Machine. And that’s the simple part. Willis and Aiello aren’t merely thieves: They also resemble Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the old Road movies — they do crimes in time to musical routines like ”Swinging on a Star.” Similarly, Grant and Bernhard aren’t just rich eccentrics: Their roles are partly inspired by Nick and Nora in the Thin Man films, only this time they’re the bad guys. Then there are the convoluted plot twists. For example, the baddies shoot MacDowell with a dart that makes her squeak like a dolphin. And there are many expensively produced explosions, including that of an auctioneer whose entire body goes kersplat when he bangs his gavel. ”It’s like Stripes,” says Willis, ”where somebody asks, ‘Where’s your sergeant?’ and Bill Murray yells, ‘Blown up, sir!”’

As a concept, moreover, Hawk is a crazy quilt of disparate approaches: Willis and Joel Silver’s splash-o-rama moviemaking style has been combined with the quiet, subversive whimsy of director Michael Lehmann and screenwriter Daniel Waters, who together created the offbeat 1989 black comedy Heathers. It is Lehmann’s third directing job, and its $50 million-plus budget could have funded more than 16 Heathers.

There are many who’ve diagnosed Bruce Willis, 36, as a man destined to pay the price for his frequent extremes, notably during his heavy-party days at the height of Moonlighting. Even sober, Willis works like a speed freak. ”There’s a certain ferocity about him that’s a little intimidating but also engaging,” says Alan Rudolph, his director on the recent thriller Mortal Thoughts, which stars Willis’ wife, Demi Moore. ”He’s not unlike a director. He knows all about cameras, coverage, staging, and he was the writer of his best material in Mortal Thoughts.”

Evidently, the work habits Willis picked up on Moonlighting, with its grueling 15-hour days and constant rewrites, have been hard to shake. Last fall, when he was caught up in the whirlwind Hudson Hawk shoot in Rome, he was also casually recording dialogue for Bonfire and Look Who’s Talking Too. While he was at it he phoned in a joke for his Mortal Thoughts character to Rudolph, who incorporated it into that film at the last minute. In fact, Mortal Thoughts shows Willis in his purest form because he drew deeply on the darker parts of his past to create a blue-collar character from his own hometown in New Jersey. ”There’s a little shadow of the old me in that guy,” he says. ”There was a period in my life when I was completely irresponsible, and it was exhilarating to crawl back into the skin of this guy who has no restraint, completely out of his mind on drugs and alcohol.” Willis’ turn as a nasty husband was done in just 10 days, and it may be his best acting yet. ”For a time I was convinced he was better without preparation,” says Moonlighting creator Glenn Caron. ”He’s a better guy off the blocks, because his instincts are so good.”

Hudson Hawk is shot through with similar mania. ”This film is anything goes,” says Willis, ”in the classic comedy vein of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It’s Cary Grant meets James Bond meets Our Man Flint meets the Flintstones meets Dorothy Lamour meets Miles Davis. Did we leave anything out? The film also has a jazzy cool feel to it, as opposed to rock & roll or country & western or polka.” It does not, he stresses, have the feel of the most popular song he heard while shooting near Budapest. ”I heard it drivin’ back and forth to work in Fot, Hungary, a song called ‘Yoopa Doo.”’ An incorrigible crooner, Willis trills its lyrics: ”There’s a fee-ling of sex in the airrrr…”

There’s a feeling of violence in the air when he’s asked about negative reports on Hudson Hawk‘s production, which globe-trotted to New York, Italy, Hungary, and L.A. Several news stories have accused Silver and Willis of riding roughshod over the soft-spoken, bespectacled Lehmann (once a Columbia philosophy student) and upping the original $40 million budget to as much as $75 million.

”The focus is 180 degrees away from the entertainment value of the movie itself,” Willis protests. ”It’s just so bitter. I’ve read five reviews of the budget of this film. The f—ing National Enquirer reviewed Hudson Hawk — ‘We hear it’s lousy’ — and no one’s seen the film. They said I was over there killing chickens, gleefully. No chickens were killed in the making of this movie! What ever happened to checkin’ your facts? One magazine said the budget was $75 million. Why not say $175 million, if you’re gonna just guess? Why hold back? People think in a dark corner of their mind, ‘Well, goddamn, it’s written down, they wouldn’t be able to write it down if it weren’t true.’ I’m here to tell you that things get written down all the time that aren’t true.

”There’s a fascination lately with box office numbers, and did a picture ‘open’ (make big money on its release). Nobody has to think about the movie itself. You know, my dad knows the box office scores and whether a film opened or not. My father’s a retired welder!” (And now an actor: David A. Willis can be glimpsed playing Willis’ dad in Mortal Thoughts.)

Part of Hudson Hawk‘s mystique, if that’s the word, involves its producer, who is not noted for parsimony. ”Joel Silver’s a total scream, a caricature of himself, a beautiful bastard,” rhapsodizes Sandra Bernhard. ”I love him. Maybe he spends too much money, but he’s funny.” Trying to lend a little realism to a scene in Die Hard, Silver reportedly tried to convince Twentieth Century Fox to let him blow up its very own Fox Plaza in Los Angeles, promising to get the glass swept up and the windows replaced over the weekend. The studio made him blow up a miniature model of the building instead.

Willis heatedly denies any profligacy in the shooting of Hudson Hawk. ”It’s just like when Die Hard 2 had logistical problems,” he says. ”We were chasing snow (because of a drought), but it makes a much more interesting story to muse on the gossip of Joel somehow extorting money from the film.” (He is referring to published rumors that Silver blew half a million of the movie’s budget redecorating his private yacht, a story firmly denied by a Fox spokeswoman.) Willis continues, ”He’s just a big teddy bear and this image of him as a cigar-chomping loudmouth is a fabrication of the press. He doesn’t give interviews, so he’s, like, a free-fire zone. You know — bang! — unload on him.”

Though he won’t say how much over budget Hudson Hawk went, Willis has a simple explanation for how it happened. ”The film was set up under a Hollywood shooting schedule, where you shoot 11, 12 hours a day. In Italy it’s a totally different work ethic. We were in front of cameras six, seven hours a day. So if you lose five hours every day, every two and a half days you lose one shooting day. That’s why it cost so much. But it sells a lot more magazines to say that it’s way out of control and I’m out of control and the film’s out of control.”

Screenwriter Daniel Waters agrees: Hawk‘s 10-week shoot in Italy ran into a serious attitude problem. ”The Italians were great people,” says Waters, ”but everybody has wine at lunch, and lunch never seems to end. American crews will work 48 hours straight if you pay ’em enough. You can pay an Italian crew all the lire in the world and they won’t work past 10. Their lives are too important. We’d be saying, ‘Wait a minute, where are you going?”’

When he is asked about stories that he and Silver bullied Lehmann, Willis goes ballistic. ”Bullshit! It’s just a lot of innuendo, out-and-out slams, that my superego made me take over the shooting of Hudson Hawk. Michael Lehmann directed this film, and it’s as simple as that.”

Lehmann claims to feel the same. ”We all expected to gain from each other’s experience,” he says. ”It makes a better story to say people have tension, but we all got along very well.” Nonetheless, the director may be happier now that Hudson Hawk is totally in his hands at last, in the soothing quiet of the editing booth. On the set, some witnesses report, chaos reigned — and Lehmann didn’t. ”To tell you the truth, I think he was overwhelmed,” Bernhard says. ”He was into keeping it small in terms of the performances, as opposed to big and all over the place.” According to Waters, Lehmann’s screenwriter pal, ”This was Tri-Star’s biggie, so it was the one that everyone got involved with. I’m sure Michael doesn’t have much desire to work with Joel Silver on a big movie again. While we were all having fun playing hockey with the script, Michael was trying to catch the puck.”

And it was Willis, says Waters, who was taking a lot of the shots. ”Bruce was definitely a man unleashed. He was in a certain (action-hero) cage, and he really wanted to let loose on the comedy. He wanted no explosion without a joke. Every time there was a f—ing explosion, I’d have to go to the trailer, jot down 40 lines that were funny, then have him say, ‘No, no, no…okay, this one.”’ During the filming of one scene, Bruce’s great escape across the Brooklyn Bridge on an ambulance gurney, Waters felt desperate: He started ringing up L.A. friends from the span on his cellular phone, searching for dialogue to satisfy his star as thousands of stalled motorists fumed.

For the most part, Waters enjoyed the wild ride on Hudson Hawk, and he points out that even Lehmann knew what he was in for. ”He’s too intelligent, bright, and philosophical to have fun with this,” Waters says of the director. ”He was a victim, but a willing victim. We were both willing participants. We knew we’d never have these resources again.”

”Michael loves a controlled environment. I think he got a lot more control in postproduction,” Waters concludes. It’s been reported that in editing, Lehmann has trimmed many of Silver’s and Willis’ alternate takes, thereby improving test scores at preview screenings. (Willis’ response: ”Absolutely false, untrue bullshit.”) But until the final cut is released, who’s to say that a Lehmann idea is better than a Silver or a Willis idea or that anyone can tell them apart? A fact of Hollywood life is that more can go wrong on a $50 million picture than on a $3 million Heathers or an $8 million Mortal Thoughts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that more will go wrong; less than a year ago, bad word-of-mouth was rife on another costly movie, a thing called Dances With Wolves that some were dubbing Kevin’s Gate.

In fact, the protracted chaos of Hudson Hawk may turn out to be an aesthetic blessing. The film was made, says Willis, with ”almost a siege mentality, and everybody rose to the occasion. There is a bizarre take on the comedy in this film that the chaos certainly enhanced. More than anything I’ve done since Moonlighting, it goes for the unexpected. I’ve never done a picture that’s this balls-out just trying to crack you up.”

Will Hudson Hawk recapture that madcap Moonlighting machismo, or will it be Tri-Star’s Ishtar? Will it self-destruct like the Gold Machine in the movie, blowing away large stacks of cash? Or have Lehmann and Waters blended sensibilities with their elders to make everybody fabulously richer than they already are? No one knows yet, but Sandra Bernhard probably has the right take on Hudson Hawk: ”It’s a little twisted,” she says, ”for a Bruce Willis film.”