06/27/2007 10:11 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In Praise of Bruno

Hands down, bar none, no question about it, Bruce Willis is the greatest movie star we have. A movie star is different from an actor, not lesser, but in some ways, bigger. A movie star is an actor who can only exist on the big screen, people like Clint Eastwood, Humphrey Bogart, and Robert Mitchum. We don't pay to see them play characters, we pay to see them. Put movie stars on the stage, and they'll stink up the joint, but put those mugs in front of a camera and they'll mop the floor with even the most veteran of stage actors. If you're a movie star, you don't need dialogue, you don't need movement -- all you need is your face.

Bruce Willis is this kind of movie star. He is impossible to ignore when he's onscreen, and it's all because of his face, which seems to age even better than a French wine. Every new crease and wrinkle -- even hair loss -- has worked to make Willis a better movie star. Like Steve McQueen, Bogey, or Mitchum, Willis has that haggard look, that face that tells us more about his character than any screenwriter could ever hope to. Any writer or director worth his salt should cut pages out of a script the minute Willis signs on. Because all those words don't mean squat up against the face of a movie star in close-up.

Bruce has always had this, but it really clicks for him in Pulp Fiction. The first thing we see of him in that film is his face, and we see it for several minutes. Up against that, what else is there to see? It's the face of a man who's seen it all, a man who's above it all. The pronounced lines flanking his mouth act like curtains, throwing the spotlight on our hero's tight-lipped superiority to whoever is speaking to him. Our man listens carefully, but he knows the answer already: you're wrong ... and stupid. He'd tell you, but what's the point? You'll only understand what a jackass you are after he breaks your nose.

You may say that George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt, or Tom Cruise have one over on Bruce as the greatest movie star of our time. Johnny Depp is an actor who's gotten as big as a movie star, Pitt's somewhere between actor and movie star (depending on the film), and Tom Cruise? Please. Bruno might sing blues of dubious distinction, but movie stars are allowed embarrassing side projects once in a while (see: Clint and a monkey). What movie stars are not allowed to do, however, is to jump on couches on daytime TV. Daytime TV couch-jumpers are the kind of people movie stars smack with baseball bats.

Clooney is a close call, but his charm is one-note: he's suave. That's the beginning and end of his range. It's a delightful one-note act, but it's one-note all the same. Bruce can do Clooney, Clint, and throw in some John Wayne swagger for good measure. Besides, the decision to put Bruce in Ocean's Twelve is really just George's admission that the grins upon which the Ocean's franchise is built were stolen from Bruce. And they are stolen from Bruce -- what's in Danny Ocean that isn't in Moonlighting or Die Hard? Designer clothes -- that's it.

Like any classic movie star, Bruno is dangerous. He can crack a joke one minute, then kick the everloving crap out of you the next. Every movie star has to have this, which is why Tom Cruise is out: no matter how many times he tells Iceman that he really is dangerous before he kisses him, he's about as dangerous as Shirley Temple (he does kiss Kilmer, right?). As dangerous as Bruce is, though, he also has the class to star in a movie with Damon Wayans without killing him.

The real important thing Bruce has on past tough guy stars like Bogey and Mitchum is joy. Bruce has just enough Cary Grant in him to let us in on the fun. No, he'll never do something like Bringing Up Baby (though Hudson Hawk is an honest attempt at the Marx Brothers), but this sense of glee helps to make his aura infectious.

Bottom line: take any crappy movie, put Bruce Willis in it, and it immediately becomes 10 times more interesting (see: The Last Boy Scout, Oceans' Twelve, Look Who's Talking). That's the mark of a movie star. Sure, he's done plenty of crappy movies, but he's seldom crappy in them, because it's hard to suck when you're having a blast. And that's what endears Bruno to us: the guy just gets out there and has a good time; nothing seems precious to him. In an age of actors whose career choices are so calculated and deliberate, this kind of behavior is refreshing. Finally, a star who just goes out and does his thing. What's not to love about that?