When Bruce Willis’ family announced his retirement from acting in March 2022, he left behind a massive backlog of movies that he’d filmed during a flurry of productivity in the preceding years. Those movies have subsequently been released at a breakneck pace, perhaps because the revelation of Willis’ aphasia diagnosis has made watching his late-career performances a mostly dispiriting experience, and producers are hoping to unload the movies as quickly as possible.
Paradise City is the 11th Willis movie released in 2022, and it’s not a sudden departure from the low standards of Willis’ direct-to-VOD efforts. But it stands out in the sea of Willis DTV offerings thanks to a prominent co-star and a director who was once a major Hollywood player. Like Willis, John Travolta has been doing most of his acting in recent years in the DTV realm, and he gets top billing in Paradise City, for a part only slightly larger than Willis’ customary brief appearance. Although the script comes from frequent Willis DTV collaborators Corey Large and Edward John Drake, they take a co-writing credit with director Chuck Russell, who was once a box-office force with movies like The Mask, Eraser, and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.
Russell brings a level of proficiency and confidence to the direction that someone like Drake (who has directed Willis five times) lacks. The action scenes in Paradise City are mostly coherent and even sometimes exciting, and the actors aside from Willis are more engaged and energetic than his DTV co-stars often are. The occasional flashes of competence only make the rest of Paradise City more disheartening, though, and just because it’s slightly less of a slog than Willis’ other recent work doesn’t mean it’s worth watching.
The movie opens with Willis in a rare active mode, engaging in a shootout with mysterious assailants while his character Ian Swan holds an unidentified man captive with a hood covering his face. Ian is a bounty hunter who’s spent years chasing elusive drug lord Terrance Billford, but this looks to be his last stand, as he’s shot down on a Maui beach and left for dead. Of course, Ian isn’t really dead, but the presumption of his demise allows Willis to check out for most of the movie’s first half, and then make sporadic appearances later on.
The real main characters are two men investigating Ian’s supposed death: His estranged son Ryan (Blake Jenner) and his onetime partner Robbie Cole (Stephen Dorff), another bounty hunter working the streets of Maui. They team up to look into a shady businessman named Buck (Travolta), who has ties to Billford and is paying off local officials so he can develop land that is sacred to the natives.
Travolta, who worked with Russell on the 2016 DTV thriller I Am Wrath, brings some playfulness to his role, although he’s still only working at a fraction of his full strength. He makes what sounds like an Adele Dazeem-like mispronunciation of another character’s name at one point, and many of his line deliveries come off like he just learned the dialogue minutes earlier. While holding Cole captive, Buck delivers a wonderfully nonsensical threat that could have been hilarious in a campier performance: “The only thing I’m scared of is me. And I am me. So there’s nothing to be scared of.”
This is Willis and Travolta’s first onscreen appearance together since Pulp Fiction in 1994, and Russell dutifully gives them a climactic showdown, following an earlier flashback scene in which they’re never actually in the frame together. Willis gives the kind of muted, awkward performance that’s typical of his later work, which is a bit heartbreaking to watch with knowledge of his condition. Many of his lines sound post-dubbed, with dialogue that doesn’t match the movements of his mouth, and he often seems like he’s not aware of what his co-stars are doing. Still, it’s impossible to fully suppress his movie-star charisma, and he gets some decent badass moments as the veteran bounty hunter who shows everyone else how it’s done.
Dorff turns out to be the movie’s biggest asset, making Cole into a likably grizzled cynic wearily going through the motions of a job that’s beneath him. Jenner isn’t much of an action star, and Paradise City is at its weakest when following Ryan’s investigation alongside local cop Savannah (Praya Lundberg). Savannah provides a window into some half-hearted attempts to showcase native culture and make a statement about environmental preservation, but those are only good for a few pretty shots of the Hawaiian landscape. There’s a climactic revelation that calls back to one of Travolta’s most famous roles, but the underwhelming story lacks surprises and suspense, and it wraps up remarkably quickly.
Paradise City’s whopping 10 minutes of closing credits feature various outtakes, including a shot of Willis stopping in the middle of a confrontation to wave at a passing turtle. It’s a moment of sweet authenticity in a movie that’s otherwise just a grim reminder of showbiz declines.
“Paradise City” opens Friday in select theaters and on VOD.