In the last phase of his career, one-time blockbusting actor Bruce Willis has become a regular collaborator with indie writer/director Edward Drake (Broil, 2020). As well as co-writing John Suits’ Anti-Life (2020) and Chuck Russell’s Paradise City (2022) as vehicles for Willis, Drake himself has directed Willis in American Siege (2021), Apex (2021), Cosmic Sin (2021), Gasoline Alley (2022) and finally the Detective Knight trilogy, of which Detective Knight: Rogue is the first entry.
Here ‘finally’ is literal. For while Willis is still very much alive, trilogy closer Detective Knight: Independence (2023) is the last film that he shot before permanently retiring from acting. This was at a time when he had for some years been criticised for appearing in far too many films, often for mere minutes despite the cash-in prominence of his name on the poster, and seeming to phone in his increasingly disengaged performances. Yet his retirement coincided with a revelation that he had been diagnosed with aphasia, and this cast new light on the blank stiltedness of his line delivery in recent productions.
Knowing all this lends Detective Knight: Rogue, and the trilogy that it inaugurates, a peculiar frisson. On the one hand, this is very much Willis’ swansong, allowing him to look back over his career as he bows out. The fact that he is playing James Knight, a grizzled old-school cop in a world that frowns upon his maverick methods, immediately evokes his breakout film rôle as John McClane in the Die Hard series. The fact that his investigations involve the world of American football recalls his part in Tony Scott’s The Last Boy Scout (1991). The fact that flashbacks show him, as a young boy, witnessing – and being forever damaged by – a violent shooting incident conjures his rôle in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995). Indeed his character here, lumbering, uncommunicative and haunted by his past, is especially reminiscent of the time-travelling, traumatised Cole.
After a violent LA heist by a masked gang of four – ex-quarterback Casey Rhodes (Beau Mirchoff), fellow former footballer Mike Rochester (Trevor Gretzky), disgraced Olympic gymnast Nikki Sykes (Keeya King) and cop-hating hothead Mercer (Corey Large) – leaves Knight’s police partner Fitzgerald (Lochlyn Munro) for dead, Knight joins forces with fellow LAPD Detective Godwin Sango (Jimmy Jean-Louis) to track down the perpetrators. This will quickly lead Knight to his old stamping grounds as a cop in New York City (in fact shot mostly in Vancouver), which he had to leave years ago under something of a cloud – and to the superwealthy bookie, former Criminal Informant and sleazy kingpin Alistair ‘Winna’ Winfred (Michael Eklund), with whom Knight shares a compromising history.
“The knight is the most dangerous piece on the board,” a young chess master (Ryan Xue) will tell Winna, “The knight can strike when you least expect it, the knight moves in ways most people won’t understand.” The arrival of Knight himself at this very moment underlines that this is no mere chess lesson, but a reflexive comment on the film’s complicated intersecting narratives, and on Knight’s pivotal rôle in how things will turn out. Indeed, as Knight passes the chess board on his way out of Winna’s luxurious home, he casually takes the king with the knight, in what may just be a piece of dramatic foreshadowing.
Willis is central to Detective Knight: Rogue, and indeed to the entire trilogy to which he lends his name – and yet he is a peculiar absence, delivering his scanty lines somewhere between a mutter and a monotone growl, and moving, even in scenes of heightened action, with a stoic steadiness that makes his very survival seem almost supernatural. Still ensnared in a dark past which has plagued him his whole life, Knight is a ghost of sorts, barely there – not unlike his character in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999). This is in part down to Willis’ brain disorder, but the film does its best to make a virtue of Knight’s strange status as an empty hero. Here Knight, like Willis, is defined more by the weight of his history than by any actual presence.
To compensate for Knight’s lack of substance, Drake brings the margins into focus. In particular the criminal crew’s leader Casey Rhodes comes to the fore. Where Knight broke bad long ago, and is always having to live with the consequences, Casey is at the beginning of his descent into criminality, after leaving football stardom with a leg injury, becoming addicted to painkillers, and starting to take jobs from Winna to pay the bills. Casey enjoys the work, and likes his crew – but he is also a family man, trying to make ends meet for the wife (Hunter Daily) and daughter (Alice Comer) from whom he is ever so inevitably estranging himself. The next heist that he organises in New York, and its spectacular unravelling, will form the backbone of the story. Meanwhile the upright Godwin Sango finds himself having to investigate his partner Knight as much as his nemesis Winna, and eventually contemplates entering the same moral hell that Knight has long since been occupying.
There are meticulously planned robberies, diabolical double crosses and noirish dilemmas, bookended by Heat-style shootouts (although on a much smaller budget than Heat), and all exposing the thin line between lawkeeping and criminality. It is set in the build-up to Halloween – “the one time of the year”, as Casey puts it, “you can wear a mask wherever you want” – and so these characters emerge from both sides as all at once heroes and villains, humans and monsters, and in such a way that it is hard to tell which is the disguise. If Willis’ Knight comes across as more legend than real person, his actions are nonetheless always questionable, and take him to an unexpected (and unexpectedly realistic) place, making sequel Detective Knight: Redemption an intriguing prospect.
strap: First in the trilogy of Bruce Willis’ final films, Edward Drake’s noirish morality tale pits cops against robbers
© Anton Bitel