The movie Nobody is trashy and exploitative and downright silly, a movie that takes actors who generally don’t belong in action fare and puts them in shootouts with Russian mobsters with a totally straight face. Bob Odenkirk has never headlined an action movie before. Christopher Lloyd, an actor who has always seemed old, looks as if he can barely stand. Nobody is a fucking masterpiece, a movie that knows exactly what it has in its actors and stunt team—no action fan will regret the 90 minutes they spend watching it.
My point is that there is no excuse for Gasoline Alley, a movie that stars Bruce Willis and Luke Wilson, two guys who have been in plenty of other perfectly good movies. Willis, you may recall, began his action film career by getting paid an at-the-time industry-shaking $5 million to star in 1988’s Die Hard. Three decades on, he is still one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars. He’s frequently been great, especially in straightforward, action genre films.
Willis starred in eight movies in 2021, and Gasoline Alley is one of at least another eight with 2022 release dates listed. Fans of Willis’ work—or just action films since the late ’80s—are in for a perplexing time should they decide to sit with any of these films that have been released so far. I know it has broken my brain. I’ve asked this question about the prolific-but-lazy late career of another action movie headliner: Why? What is going on?
It’s pretty easy to answer that question when you ask it about Steven Seagal, whose career was never anywhere close to as important as Willis’ and who has gotten into all sorts of trouble of his own making. But Bruce Willis is a name that has demanded actual respect. You don’t even need to look that far back to find him in actual movies. That he’s now churning out movies like Gasoline Alley or American Siege or Cosmic Sin demands some kind of appraisal.
Gasoline Alley and the other low-rent, mostly direct-to-VOD films where Willis draws his pay from these days have been dubbed “geezer teasers,” a genre of movies that revolve an aging actor with a history of badass movies under their belt. It looks like they put in maybe a few days of shooting, including at most one or two scenes where they mix it up with some gunplay and a lot of shots where an obvious body double is standing in for them—witness Willis’ introduction in Cosmic Sin, where every other shot is of the back of a bald man’s head, even when people are speaking directly to his character. If you come to see Willis or De Niro, you’ll be disappointed: Willis has little more than a few minutes of screen time in Gasoline Alley, and that’s the norm for these features, which nonetheless seem to make money every time.
Gasoline Alley doesn’t sound like a bad idea on paper—none of these do, necessarily. A tattoo artist (Devon Sawa, an actor who has been in actual stuff) finds himself a suspect in the murder of several prostitutes, with Willis and Wilson the two detectives assigned to the case. It’s supposed to be a seedy L.A.-style neo-noir film. It … isn’t. It is mostly scenes where Sawa, Wilson and Willis deliver lines to one another, with their relationships to each other and personal agendas barely ever clear to us (and seemingly not to them, either).
There are fights, most of which involve Sawa throwing hands. He works his way through the conspiracy as Wilson and Willis play Good Cop, Bad Cop with him, but there’s no sparkling wit, no twisty police procedural know-how, no brilliant deductions. Some of the actors are capable and doing their absolute best with the material they’ve been given. Some are completely in over their heads. The script, which meanders about before finally ending where these kinds of movies always do (a human trafficking conspiracy involving tunnels to Mexico!) does none of them any favors. It is as thrilling as salted oatmeal.
Why, you must be asking, do I care, and why should anybody?
I decline to speculate on why Willis might be doing this. If he’s in poor health or in dire financial straits, I want to lay it aside. It can’t possibly be that he can’t get work elsewhere, since, as we’ve established, he is Bruce Willis. And since the beginning of the art form, older actors have transitioned to more low-key roles as they age, in the sorts of movies where it isn’t flagrant false advertising to have them on the poster wearing space marine robo-armor or striking a pose with a gun. Especially actors like Willis, who, it should be said, can act when they want to.
Because, it must be said, Willis barely acts in Gasoline Alley. His line deliveries sometimes sound as if they are coming from characters in different movies. There are scenes in which he looks visibly bored. These are not scrappy indies where he’s lending his star power to a shoestring production or showing up randomly in a cameo à la Matt Damon. Nor are these wild and unrestrained B-movies that are going to inspire the next generation of top-notch melodrama. It’s possible to sit through these without feeling anything. There’s no artistry, intentional or accidental.
The concern, for me, is that if the perverse incentives that give rise to Gasoline Alley can ensnare somebody like Willis—if there really is enough money in garbage like this that it makes sense for A-listers like him to apparently clear their entire schedule to shuffle through half a dozen or more of these a year—then it’s an alarming trend for the film industry.
The odd Spider-Man aside, theatergoing has been destroyed by a pandemic that will never end, and Hollywood is still reeling from it. Studios were already on a trajectory toward chasing after supposedly safe global mega-hits. And these kinds of movies are based around the same principles, really: made to be aired late at night in Europe and South America, to capitalize on action stars recognizable around the world, or to cater to the least discerning audience possible. If they promote the absolute ugliest, most regressive politics possible, it’s probably a bonus.
Willis and the other aging A-listers who are turning to the geezer teaser could be giving us some of the best performances of their careers right now, in new movies that adapt to pandemic realities, that try to pivot toward something new after two solid decades of superhero movie domination.
Instead, we get less than 10 minutes of him in Gasoline Alley.
Kenneth Lowe is a regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.