FILM COMMENT : Who Was That 'Moonlighting' Detective? Maybe He Can Piece It Together for Us

Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday.

"Can (Bruce) Willis do more than protect tall buildings from terrorists? 'Hudson Hawk' will be the true test."

The question was raised in a recent magazine profile of Bruce Willis and if the movie is indeed a fair test of the star's range--of his ability to sell tickets to movies other than "Die Hard" and its sequel--he has failed. Moviegoers, in a poll as swift and democratic as any you'll find in American politics, turned thumbs down on "Hudson Hawk" on opening day.

"Hudson Hawk" is a terrible movie, and deserves the cold shoulder it has received at the box office. But being bad doesn't always explain the failure of big, star-driven pictures. In the vernacular of Hollywood marketing, these movies tend to be "review-proof," meaning that critics can carpet-bomb them with all the armor-piercing adjectives they can muster and the beasts will not fall. Think of the "Rambo" and "Rocky" sequels, all those Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal movies . . . the reviews ricocheted off their thick hides.

So what happened to "Hudson Hawk" two weeks ago does tell us how much value Bruce Willis' name has on the marquee: zippo. What it doesn't tell us is why Tri-Star Pictures executives weren't more skeptical $60 million ago, when Willis came up with the idea. Did they really believe America was hungry for a comedy about a smirking cat burglar's attempts to retrieve parts for a machine Leonardo da Vinci once used to turn lead into gold? Could Tri-Star ever use that machine now!

The power being invested in actors--and their agents--today may be the most regrettable thing about the collapse of the old studio system. Not only are filmmakers having to pay stars salaries that push film costs into the ionosphere, they are also having to let them in on the ground floor of the creative process--often before their star value has even been established, and way before there's any reason to believe they actually have something to contribute.

Remember the remake of "The Razor's Edge," in which Columbia Pictures allowed Bill Murray to make a fool of himself as the price of his doing "Ghostbusters"? After "Stripes" and "Caddyshack," Murray was hot enough to command big fees and a big say in his pictures, and was self-deluded enough to think he could play the spiritual character created in Somerset Maugham's novel and portrayed previously on film by Tyrone Power. Power may not have been the greatest actor of his time, but when he took on that role, there was no doubt that he was a movie star.

Only after the failures of "Scrooged" and "Quick Change" did the studios realize Murray is not an actor who can carry a movie on his own, that he must be paired--as he is with Richard Dreyfuss in the current "What About Bob?"--to be effective.

Murray, like most of the "Saturday Night Live" alums, added little to his comedy-sketch style when he moved from TV to movies, and the enormous good will he earned among hip viewers of that show was diffused and quickly used up when he moved into the prime-time multiplex. The same can now be said about Bruce Willis. To expect $10-million fees and credibility, it would make sense that these people earn the second before demanding the first, that they learn something about the craft of acting before cashing in on their charm.

If Willis had been born 50 years earlier, and was as determined then as now to remind people simultaneously of Cary Grant and Robert Mitchum, he could have signed a seven-year player's contract and worked his way through a few B movies first. Maybe he could have demonstrated then what is certainly not obvious now, that the public has any interest in such a character.

In his first film, Blake Edwards' "Blind Date," Willis merely transferred his "Moonlighting" character to the big screen, and found enough fans willing to fork over for it to make it a minor hit. In the two "Die Hards," those familiar smirks and wisecracks actually helped the movies, easing the tension of the first and mocking the cartoon violence of the second. But it's pretty clear now that his TV persona, like an uncomplicated local wine, does not travel well.

"Hudson Hawk" is Willis' second flop in a row, and though he was not the star of Brian De Palma's felonious adaptation of Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities," a Worst Supporting Accomplice award would not be inappropriate. It was the same "Moonlighting" wiseacre beneath the slobbering facade of Willis' stewed reporter in that film.

Willis' best work as an actor has come in those roles farthest from the character that made him a TV star: his emotionally withdrawn Vietnam vet in Norman Jewison's "In Country," and Demi Moore's Neanderthal husband in Alan Rudolph's "Mortal Thoughts." Willis can act, it seems, but he needs to do a lot of it if he wants to be remembered for having done anything more than protect tall buildings from terrorists.

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