Bonfire of the Vanities

Corrrective Measures

Corrective Measures (2022)

Essay

Bonfire of the Vanities

By Brandon Harris

On Bruce Willis’s final, Cincinnati-set films.

While in Cincinnati to bury my recently deceased aunt, meet the retired Major League outfielder Eric Davis, and give a family member a large sum of money for a reason I shall not disclose to you, it came to my attention that Josh Sternfeld’s Fortress: Sniper’s Eye—a sequel to a movie only released last year that, to date, has earned $50,945 dollars at the US box office—was playing at the Kenwood Theatre, the most mainstream-leaning of a local chain of arthouse theaters I once worked at selling popcorn. Both movies feature Bruce Willis, the aphasia-suffering action star who publicly announced his diagnosis and retirement in April this year, whose movies have grossed over $5 billion on global movie screens. There was a lot to be sad about, and I decided to wade in.

A week before my visit, Tubi released its latest “original,” Sean Patrick O’Reilly’s Corrective Measures, a campy, Troma-inspired prison picture, adapted from a graphic novel by Grant Chastain.  Willis plays an ostensibly maniacal, often confused-seeming inmate named “The Lobe,” whose talent for mind control and persuasion—much like that of the other inmates in the futuristic supermax facility for those possessing mysterious superpowers that threaten humanity—is kept in check by a metallic leg band which you just know, by picture’s end, will stop working. Willis finds himself sharing scenes mostly with Michael Rooker as an in-over-his-head warden whose prison descends into chaos, regardless of how sharp he looks in the summer fedoras he sports throughout.

Shot mostly in Vancouver, the movie attempts, half-heartedly and within very limited means, a Verhoeven-esque, pop sci-fi subversiveness that comes up short by several knots. Willis’s scenes were filmed in Atlanta, contained entirely within the confines of his character’s prison cell, and have both an odd sweetness and an undertow of melancholy about them. Rooker and O’Reilly help their scene partner/foreign sales cash cow seem like his old self at times, his increasingly mechanical, beatific gaze occasionally registering with intention. It’s one of the least exploitative of Willis’s late pictures, even if casting him as a character who has been left in a permanently altered state and is frequently threatened with a lobotomy marks that distinction as a low bar. It’s hard not to wonder, why do it at all?

Corrective Measures has garnered, at present, just two reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and seems to exist outside of any cultural discourse that the chattering classes might observe. The same could be said for the dozens of cheaply made “geezer teasers,” as they have become colloquially known among some uncharitable observers, that have made up the bulk of Willis’s screen output during the last decade. These films—which, in their preambles, fool the casual viewer into thinking Willis is the primary attraction, only for him to play a supporting role, his scenes likely shot in a day or two and then threaded throughout the movie—occupy largely the same cultural space once held by similar titles on Blockbuster Video’s ‘New Release’ section bottom shelf; streaming scroll curiosities with easy hooks whose beats one imagines easily from the key art.

Some have noted, with a turn up the nose sadness, that these starring roles now stand as the final contributions to America Cinema by Willis.

Willis was no stranger to Cincinnati’s increasingly robust production scene during the final part of his career, making four pictures there in the last six years that he has been active as a performer. In these Cincinnati-set movies that dot the twilight of Willis’s stardom, armed bank robbery is commonplace. The quaint, winding streets are frequently graced by shootouts, car chases and kidnappings; masculine bravado is never offscreen for long; and revenge is frequently a motive—greed, too—in ways brazenly recycled from countless movies that were themselves retreads.

These “Willis-in-Cincinnati films” were produced by Randall Emmett and his prolific EFO Films, a company which has taken its place alongside Cannon and Millennium Films as among the most financially successful purveyors of trashy B-cinema today. A former assistant to Mark Wahlberg, Emmett is the meathead inspiration for Jerry Ferrara’s “Turtle” on HBO’s Entourage. A recent Vulture profile suggested that he may be “Hollywood’s worst filmmaker.”

This steady diet of unambitious genre movies that are little more than cheaply made simulacrums of other mediocre experiences from the past has proved remarkably lucrative for EFO and Lionsgate, with whom they maintain an output deal. Aging Van Damme and Seagal straight-to-video pictures were the genesis of the formula over a decade ago, but Willis has taken on the mantle of Trash King through sheer volume. He has over two dozen credits that could be construed as streaming-era cash grabs, while EFO Films has quietly built a tiny empire on nostalgia for the genre’s halcyon days with Willis—whose fee is large, and participation minimal—their prime vehicle for generating it.

Some have noted, with a turn up the nose sadness, that these starring roles now stand as the final contributions to America Cinema by Willis, an actor whose services, at his summit, were sought by auteurs like Alan Rudolph, Barry Levinson, Brian De Palma, Rian Johnson, Richard Linklater, Robert Altman, Wes Anderson—and, of course, Quentin Tarantino, in whose breakthrough, Pulp Fiction (1994), Willis (playing a boxer who chooses impulsively not to throw a fight and, as an unlikely consequence, ends up in Peter Greene’s sex dungeon) was contemporaneously that movie’s biggest name.

But Willis does not “star” in these recent movies, and they have scarcely affected his reputation, given how little they have entered whatever we mean when we describe the “cultural conversation.” He’s often playing the bad-ass sidekick to the younger, less impressive action hero, or the shadowy, rarely seen villain—such as his corrupt bank President Huber in Steven C. Miller’s 2016 thriller Marauders, a moody, rainswept cops and robbers picture that is by a country mile the most rousing of these late Cincinnati films, and the one where Willis seems to be giving a performance that is recognizably dexterous; his face still moves with conviction and you can see the choices he’s making, ones that he and the film, despite its mediocrity, feel in control of. The movie itself is forgettable. The low rent Michael Mann vibes—from the steely monochrome of its color palette, to its ‘theft and law enforcement are just two sides of the same coin’ ethos—come through loud and clear. Given Christopher Meloni’s participation, I would forgive you for mistaking it, while flipping by on cable one night, for a particularly violent episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

In Brian A. Miller’s 2018 picture Reprisal, Willis is a retired ex-cop who teams up with a traumatized bank manager, played by the reliably wooden-faced Frank Grillo, to find a talented and deadly thief who has kidnapped his wife and child. Willis gets to cry over the life of a young woman he couldn’t save early in the picture while sharing a beer and some pills with his PTSD-suffering neighbor, in a moment that the movie self-consciously, and rather touchingly, thinks will elevate it above its ho-hum ambitions. But by its end, a ludicrous showdown filmed in the city’s waterfront park Sawyer Point that inexplicably ends in a bout of gunplay on the John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge (the older and less famous cousin to the Brooklyn Bridge, situated on the other side of downtown Cincinnati), Willis gets to pick up a shotgun and kill someone, the only time any of these movies allow him to do that which the audience has paid for.

In the center of the poorly staged, not particularly tense “action” that dominates these movies, one might find a Grillo or a Michael Chiklis, a Jonathan Schaech or an Adrian Grenier; a star who used to be, or more likely never quite was. Willis is normally positioned off to himself, or with a couple visitors at a time, his visage haunted by a truth that we cannot see, and which the absurd, crime-soaked narratives of these films refuse to acknowledge: that the light behind his eyes is fading and that he just wants one more paycheck before he can’t do it anymore. Conversations are hushed, taciturn, normally a bit ironic; as the years wear on, in movies like Miller’s 10 Minutes Gone (2019), moments of him sharing a two shot with another actor have become increasingly rare, most likely so as to hide from view the earpiece through which the actor is regularly being fed his lines.

Fortress

Fortress (2021)

Willis is clearly diminished by the time one gets to 10 Minutes Gone. Chiklis has most of the screen time as a bank robber suffering from amnesia and out for revenge, after a heist gone wrong left the loot he owes Willis’s crime lord Rex in the hands of someone who double-crossed them both, or so it seems. Willis peers out at the city from his hideout, dressed in a grey suit and white, unbuttoned Oxford shirt, his line readings containing an almost philosophical flatness not unlike the effectless performance ideal described by David Mamet in On Directing Film.

It’s hard not to wonder if the choices being made are fully rendered by the skill of a surprisingly versatile movie star or by the ravages of a disorder that is removing his agency as a performer. The day of shooting that Miller was afforded with Willis was clearly confined to a single floor of an office building on the southern edge of downtown Cincinnati—unadorned sheetrock on one side of the room; floor-to-ceiling windows on the other, affording a crystalline view of Great American Ballpark and the stretch of freeway known as Fort Washington Way that separates downtown from the waterfront. All the EFO Films shot in Porkopolis, as it was known during its pig slaughtering heyday, go out of their way to make the city look handsome; drone shots of its sinewy skyline and riverfront area are a staple of these movie’s transitions.

How we are to feel about these pictures is bound up in part, or at least for me, in a tangle of wistful yearning and regret, and in how one reckons with an already very rich man profiting off his name value in cheap genre movies that were largely constructed around his still robust international value, and that were part of a boom time for the region’s cinematic visibility… sort of. Since Ohio passed, in 2009, a lucrative motion picture tax incentive that refunds 30% of monies spent on qualifying movies and television shows made in the state, Cincinnati has played host to films by Todd Haynes, Yorgos Lanthimos, Luca Guadagnino, Don Cheadle, and local scions Emilio Estevez and George Clooney, whose underwhelming 2011 political thriller Ides of March was the first in a wave of high profile movies that sought out the Queen City’s prodigious collection of charming Italianate townhouses, hilly sightlines and the dreary, Midwestern anywhereness of its exurbs.

But its oddly EFO that have become the bards of the city, cinematically. Despite their flaws, their movies shot in the region do make it a “character” in a way that the auteurist fare the city has played host to, from David Lowery’s 2017 Robert Redford career-capper The Old Man and the Gun to Anna Rose Helmer’s 2015 indie darling The Fits, don’t much attempt.

Well, at least until the last Willis/Emmett collaboration, Matt Eskandari’s 2020’s Hard Kill. Norwood, a hard scrabble, working-class city of 19,000 that is fully encompassed by Cincinnati, plays New York City, a fact given away in the first shot when a Dumpster owned by Rumpke, local landfill kings, is visible in the foreground. Willis has even less to do here. His shots are confined often to single line readings in unspeakably poignant close-ups. During the movie, he allegedly discharged a firearm accidently. All careers go somewhere to dwindle, and Cincinnati seems to be a better place than many. Mark Twain was hip to this when he apocryphally said something to the effect of, “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati because it’s always 10 years behind.”

Brandon Harris is the president and co-founder of I’d Watch That, author of MAKING RENT IN BED-STUY (2017), director of REDLEGS (2012) and a recovering studio executive.

bruce-willis-marauders

Marauders (2016)