That's the first hurdle audiences must clear at Color of Night, and it's not easy. Imagine Sylvester Stallone in the role of, say, a golden-hearted half-wit from Alabama who stumbles into the lives of presidents and pop stars. Envision John Wayne as Billy the Kid. Now think of the muscular, street-fighting Willis as a devoted student of the mind whose faith in himself and his profession is shaken when a suicidal patient throws herself through the window of his office on the fiftieth floor. Imagine Bruce emotionally undone, weeping. Imagine Bruce so traumatized that he can no longer perceive the color red. Red, as in blood.
This is not to say that actors can't broaden themselves. But Richard Rush's odd new film, his first in fourteen years, tries to have it both ways. Bill Capa, the New York psychoanalyst Willis plays, is both Doctor Sensitive and Doctor Tough, and you can't get a good handle on either guy in this rather muddled murder mystery. In case you're wondering, the obligatory copulation scenes remain, but those much-heralded frontal nudity shots of the Die Hard star have been strategically snipped due to ratings worries. The backer, Hollywood Pictures, is, after all, a Disney subsidiary.
Meanwhile, co-writers Matthew Chapman and Billy Ray have cooked up a familiar plot. When his patient kills herself, Capa junks his practice and flees to Los Angeles, where he hopes to recover emotionally at the home of a classmate and old friend, fellow shrink Bob Moore (Scott Bakula). But Bob is soon stabbed to death (you just can't keep that O.J. theme out of Tinseltown), and the distraught Bill Capa must take over the dead man's fashionable therapy group in order to track down the killer.
Most people will soon forget this disregard for common sense, if not medical ethics. The deepest pleasures in Color of Night lie in the antics of the squabbling patients, any of whom might be the killer, along with a couple of other suspects. Psychiatrists and people in analysis themselves may quibble with the caricatures we meet here, but most will be intrigued by Lesley Ann Warren's unhinged nymphomaniac, Brad Dourif's fussing, obsessive/compulsive lawyer or Kevin J. O'Connor's sullen, insecure artist. As in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest or the raft of psychothrillers Hollywood has produced over the years, wackiness gives the cast a chance to shine and gives us a chance to enjoy it.
Throw in a dewy, mysterious young beauty named Rose (Jane March, late of The Lover) and a funny, hard-bitten Latin police detective (Ruben Blades), and you've got some more of the usual thriller elements.
But this is a Bruce Willis picture, after all, and that means we are obliged to pay attention mostly to him as he sifts through the movie's red herrings and assorted mental disturbances, all expressed in a cunning mixture of L.A. psychobabble and real desperation. He is not the most convincing shrink in the long history of movie shrinks wrapped up with homicide, but as always, he gets the girl. Willis and ex-model March do it in bed, in the bathtub, in the swimming pool. That they are using a dead man's ultracool digs and tooling around in his phone-equipped Mercedes seems not to bother them at all.
Director Rush should change his name to Dawdle. This is his first picture since 1980's widely admired The Stunt Man, and you have to go back six years before that to find Rush's Freebie and the Bean. It's hard to know if he's out of it now or simply rusty, but there's an awful lot of Color of Night that strains credibility--from the allegedly instinctual hero's stunning fits of obtuseness to the rather well-telegraphed twist that solves the case. But Rush remains a master stylist, if nothing else, and his sense of humor survives intact. The film moves beautifully, and its occasional digs at self-absorbed L.A. "lifestyles" hit the mark nicely.
But as thrillers go, this one is lukewarm, despite all the steamy sex and a population crisis among the suspects. The sooner Bruce Willis can get back to blowing up cars and shooting bad guys, the better business at the box office is likely to get. Color of Night is not the bomb Hudson Hawk was, but here's one actor who should always recognize the sight of blood and keep his visits to the doctor at a minimum.