From the archives!
Here is my interview with Bruce Willis, star of Last Man Standing, first published in September 1996.
With it’s unpaved streets and dust-caked, rickety buildings, Jericho, Texas is an unlikely outpost for gun-toting mobs from Chicago. The leaders of Jericho’s rival crime families are battling for control of a lucrative booze racket operating out of Mexico. A mysterious loner passes through this besieged town looking to spend the night. Calling himself Smith, the rugged drifter is polite, cynical and elusive. Perhaps too cynical for the intimidating welcome committee that vandalizes his car and tells him to clear off. Smith sizes up the warfare and cleverly hires himself out to each gang while remaining loyal to no one but himself. Many American films are about good people in difficult circumstances. Last Man Standing is about a bad guy who comes to a bad place and decides to do one good thing.
Most remakes of Kurosawa turn out to be intense Westerns, but your film is a lot more than that…
Willis – I wouldn’t classify this film as a Western. It looks like a Western because it’s set in a Texas town on the border of Mexico in 1931, in a tiny little dusty southwestern town. It just happens to be one of the places where alcohol was being run in and out of the United States. I like to think of this film as a revisionist gangster movie. This is really how they behaved. They shot at each other, killed each other, they didn’t like each other, they lied to each other. A lot of it was about money. You have to understand the context
that this film is set in, and it’s only really touched on tangentially. When the US government said you can no longer drink alcohol, these gangsters got incredibly rich. There is nothing to compare it to, in our standards today. Millions of millions of cash. Alcohol was coming in from Europe, Canada and Mexico. Whoever controlled that made incredible fortunes and they fought over that.
Your character is such a tough loner, yet he loses his heart to a woman…
Willis – I didn’t interpret it that way. I like the fact that in most of the characters that I choose to play I can generally find the code of these men. This guy’s been fighting in wars for most of his life. For money he will go and fight on your side in a war. In this town there are two gangs that fight against each other. It’s a war-time mentality and his code is that women and children are non-combatants. Everybody else is in play. While some of the things he does later in the film can be interpreted as moral or noble he still really only comes to that at the last minute. I don’t even think he becomes a moral character after he’s helped these girls. It’s a very dark ending and maybe in terms of Hollywood endings not as satisfying. But Walter Hill and I think alike, we just don’t care about being politically correct.
John Smith risks everything to get two women out of trouble – did that appeal to you?
Willis – Yes – but he’s also a guy who at that point has so little regard for human life, for his own life or the life of those other guys. It certainly can be interpreted as noble behavior or moral behavior but really most of the things he does in this film are immoral. It’s all about money, about greed and avarice and How rich can I get?’ and until he’s really confronted with the opportunity to do something good or noble that he makes that choice. It’s still ambivalent. I never wanted to say all of a sudden he’s become a good guy. I think in everybody’s heart there is a good side and there is a dark side and there is a line between those two things and occasionally we cross that line into that area. And this guy has spent most of his life on that darker side. Also I wanted to play a character who didn’t like himself and who truly was disgusted with the things he had done in his life. I wanted to keep it ambivalent because when you are involved in this kind of crisis, you don’t really know what you are going to do until you face the hard choice.
John Smith manages to play both feuding gangs against each other and watches them destruct – do you think he’s intelligent?
Willis – I think he’s intelligent in the same sense that a wild animal is, if it stays alive a long time. He has good instincts and he has a skill like a tiger has claws. He knows how to kill you very quickly. But anybody who is in that life of crime and mixing with gangsters, death and shooting expects to die at any moment and disregards the value of his own life.
Sergio Leone also drew on Kurosawa’s premise for a Fistful of Dollars. To what extent did you draw on the Man with No Name for John Smith, which is obviously an alias?
Willis – Well, the structure of our storyline more closely follows Yojimbo than a Fistful of a Dollars, which was more loosely adapted. Last Man Standing has similar storyline yet set in a completely different time. It’s still the same idea, a guy comes into a town where there are two warring factions and Leone set it in a Western time. Early on Walter and I talked about the idea of not being so specific about my character and his backstory. We decided maybe we didn’t need any of it, maybe we could never comment on it and keep it more mysterious. Then there’ll be different interpretations of it. I like the fact that it’s mysterious. So many modern films are so over explained.
What were you expecting when you came to this project?
Willis – My expectations of it were that I was being asked to appear in a gangster movie – also to work with Walter – and not only to make a gangster film but film noir which is much less explained than most films are today. We wanted to leave it much more up to the audience to come along with us on this story. Walter just stuck two guns in my hand and said, “Kill everyone in town.”