In the ’80s, bad boys, boobies and blockbusters reigned supreme at the box office. It was the infamous “me decade.” Names like Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Seagal were tossed about the burgeoning multiplexes like so many bad John Hughes vehicles.
But out of this orgy of baby boomer decadence emerged a star who would make his presence felt long after Reaganomics, Voltron and the Flock of Seagulls fell of the face of the earth.
The world first came to know Bruce Willis as a smarmy detective on the mildly successful ABC dramedy “Moonlighting,” but the first real showcase of Willis’ star power didn’t come until 1988’s “Die Hard.”
Following in the proud heritage of the testosterone-driven, escapist action flicks (like “Rambo,” “Predator,” “Terminator”) before it, John McTiernan’s “Die Hard” featured Willis as a hardheaded New York cop visiting his estranged wife in a Los Angeles skyscraper. But as terrorists take over, Willis is forced to do whatever it takes to save the innocent, including walking barefoot across broken glass and coining the now infamous “Die Hard” witticism “Yipee-kai-yay.”
Much more than just a brainless piece of ’80s blockbustering, “Die Hard” smartly combined its protagonist’s über-male prowess with thoroughly well directed drama and action sequences. Moreover, it cemented Willis’ status as a star, paving the way for future roles in Oscar-nominated pictures like “Pulp Fiction” and “The Sixth Sense.”
Speaking of Oscar, Willis’ “Bandits” co-star, Billy Bob Thornton, knows a thing or two about the little golden guy. Thornton didn’t truly catch the attention of Hollywood’s high-rollers until eight years after Willis, when he wrote, directed and starred in 1996’s “Sling Blade.”
His character, Karl Childers, was sort of a southern-fried Faulknerian man-child, a dim-witted pariah who spent the better part of his life in a mental institution after having killed his parents when he was a boy. Upon his release, Karl returns to his Arkansas home, gets a job at an auto garage and casually offers clever insights on life while dumping mustard onto his “French-fried puh-taters.” Things start to go wrong after he befriends a local boy and his mother, and Karl’s interminable quest to act honorably causes his eventual downfall.
Rising above the dime-a-dozen indie-darlings that plagued much of the 90s, “Sling Blade” captured the dark side of small-town quirkiness in a deeply affecting, Coen brothers-ish kind of way. Thornton’s Karl was one of the most unique and well-written male protagonists of the decade, earning Billy Bob a Best Actor nomination and Best Adapted Screenplay trophy.
Willis and Thornton can currently be seen in the Barry Levinson (“Rain Man”) directed “Bandits,” and both actors appear to be at the top of their respective games. But before you rush out to see them now, prior viewings of “Die Hard” and “Sling Blade” will serve as a reminder that they were also pretty good back then.