‘Assassin’: It’s sad to see Bruce Willis in his final film, lacking his trademark twinkle

The screen legend, now retired after a dementia diagnosis, seems disengaged in the convoluted sci-fi actioner.

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In his last film, “Assassin,” Bruce Willis plays the head of a mysterious secret ops.

Saban Films

As recently as 2019, Bruce Willis was appearing in substantial roles in major Hollywood movies, including M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable” sequel, “Glass,” and Edward Norton’s period-piece noir mystery “Motherless Brooklyn.” From 2020 through 2023, we’ve seen the name of Bruce Willis on some two dozen posters — for direct-to-video and unfortunately disposable fare with titles such as “Hard Kill,” “Out of Death,” “Deadlock,” “American Siege,” “Vendetta” and “A Day to Die.”

We don’t know exactly when Mr. Willis started experiencing symptoms from frontotemporal dementia, but reports indicate that in recent years, he was having difficulties with his lines, sometimes seemed disoriented and was receiving lines through an earpiece. On many a shoot, Willis was on set for just a couple of days and wound up with limited screen time. He’s in “Hard Kill” for all of seven minutes.

Willis’ family announced in March 2022 that the 67-year-old screen legend had been diagnosed with aphasia and was retiring from acting. Now comes the release of Willis’ last film, the occasionally intriguing but convoluted and nearly indecipherable sci-fi action film “Assassin,” with Willis once again front and center on the poster, even though his is a supporting role.



Saban Films presents a film directed by Jesse Atlas and written by Atlas and Aaron Wolfe. Rated R (for violence and language). Running time: 88 minutes. Opens Friday at Cinema Chatham and on demand.

When Willis does appear in the role of Valmora, the head of a mysterious and experimental and dangerous secret ops, he seems present in the moment and he delivers his lines efficiently, but we don’t see much of the trademark twinkle, there’s very little physicality in the role, and it’s highly doubtful even a single word was improvised. He seems disengaged — and yes, it’s possible our perceptions are clouded by what we know of his diagnosis — but still, we cannot help but feel an overall sense of sadness.

It’s impossible to put that aside as we sit through this competently made but often irritatingly gimmicky and overwrought actioner.

The talented South African actor Nomzano Mbatha (“Coming 2 America”) has the lead in “Assassin” as Alexa, an American soldier who is romantically involved with Mustafa Shakir’s Sebastian, who’s also enlisted in the Army and pulls duty as a drone pilot — and yet somehow winds up in a coma, even though he’s thousands of miles removed from the actual battlefield. How can this be?

Enter Willis’ Valmora, who takes Alexa to a remote safe house in the middle of nowhere (filming took place in Bessemer, Alabama). Along for the ride are Barry Jay Minoff’s tech whiz, Marko, and Fernanda Andrade’s Olivia, a scientist who is around mostly to lend a sympathetic ear as Alexa learns of a super-secret operation that allows one to literally inhabit the bodies of other individuals, sort of like in that movie “Fallen,” where the devil himself could hop from host body to host body.

In “Assassin,” you put on a wetsuit, climb into a tub filled with ice, and you’re hooked up to some gizmo that looks like it was purloined from a 1970s science fiction movie prop warehouse. “If you want answers about Sebastian, you’ve got to put this on,” says Olivia, holding up Alexa’s own personal wetsuit.

Alexa dons the suit and finds herself transported into the body of a blond woman and fending off the attack of a knife-wielding guy before she’s transported back to her own self. “We just digitally mapped your consciousness into another person’s body,” explains Marko the tech whiz. Ah, that old trick. “We kill the bad guys, somebody else takes the fall,” says Valmora. “It’s just that simple.”

With that, Alexa becomes the new body-hopping killer for the operation, with her prime target being Adrien (Dominic Purcell), a powerful “fixer’s fixer.” We’re told this guy can “smuggle the Obamas into China and an entire cartel into Texas, completely unnoticed,” how about that — and we learn he’s the one who shot and nearly killed Sebastian, who was in another host body at the time. Now it’s up to Alexa to go undercover, get close to Adrien, take him out and retrieve the tech that can save Sebastian. Something like that.

With Mbatha carrying the heavy load, Willis drops in now and again — and we’ll say no more about the destiny of Valmora. Clocking in at a brisk 88 minutes, “Assassin” reaches a heartfelt but ludicrous conclusion, and you’ll start to forget it moments after the final credits.

So it goes with all of these films from the 2020s featuring Bruce Willis. When we look back at Willis’ remarkable body of work spanning some four decades, it won’t be about the last few years. It will be to celebrate Willis’ breakout TV role in “Moonlighting,” where he first perfected his signature wise-ass yet likable outsider style, through his unforgettable work in “Die Hard,” a nearly perfect action movie, and the wide range of movie star-level greatness in a myriad of genres, from “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” to “Pulp Fiction” and “Sin City,” to “12 Monkeys” and “Moonrise Kingdom,” and we shouldn’t neglect quieter fare such as “In Country” and “Nobody’s Fool.” It’s a brilliant career.

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