If Bruce Willis never acts in a movie again, and that certainly seems to be the case at the time of this column, he ends with one of the most extraordinary film careers of all time. Yes, that even includes the mass of VOD releases (some of which are fun, I promise) that became the bulk of his career in recent years. While there are unquestionably some movies in his filmography that fall somewhere between forgettable and pretty damn bad, the good titles still far outweigh the bad ones.
This includes many of the bad ones, which are entertaining enough to get a pass. No one’s going to pretend Armageddon or Color of Night are classics of cinema, but Willis makes them fun. Besides being a legitimately good actor in several of the films we’re going to cover for this alphabetical list, he was at least enjoyable in dozens of the 140+ movies he’s worked on.
His status as an iconic action star, combined with someone who has shown serious acting chops, gives us a one-of-a-kind career. There is something for just about everyone, so I decided to take a look back at my favorite performances from one of my favorite actors. His talents and personality made him unique, and that hasn’t changed even during the years of taking movies to build a viable nest egg for retirement.
Let’s focus on the twelve best Bruce Willis movies in alphabetical order for this special edition of Make the Case, looking back on a man I’m going to miss seeing in film.
1. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Director: Terry Gilliam
The best performances amongst the singular weirdness of Terry Gilliam movies tap into the cartoonish mania the filmmaker often enjoys. Playing a terrified visitor from the future, tasked with the impossible effort of preventing a global apocalypse, Bruce Willis seems perpetually half inside a fever dream. His present is a hellscape of warped faces and the totality of complete doom and despair. Traveling to the then-present day of the mid-90s doesn’t improve that much.
12 Monkeys represented another example of Willis being perfect for a hero who could fit the audience expectations of the 90s, but also bring his characters to projects none of his contemporaries could reasonably do. No one else could have played James Cole as Willis did. That’s apparent throughout, with Willis being the perfect dark comedy foil for Brad Pitt’s unhinged eco-terrorist.
This movie is one almost unfathomable surprise or development after another. Willis’s performance keeps up with that at every point.
2. Death Becomes Her (1992)
Director: Robert Zemeckis
One of the best satires of Hollywood actually made by Hollywood, Death Becomes Her is a whirlwind of stunning special effects and a bizarre plot about two aging actresses going to war in a decided supernatural setting. For the time, the computer effects used to kill, age, or simply subject Meryl Streep or Goldie Hawn to absolute visual anarchy were revolutionary. They hold up fairly well.
But while those effects, as well as the manic, delightful scenery-chewing by Streep and Hawn, tend to draw our attention, Death Becomes Her also features a great Bruce Willis performance.
As the sleazy husband to both Hawn and Streep’s characters, Willis gets to tap into a sniveling, weak-willed, and utterly hysterical personality. It’s one of his most interesting, giving him a chance to excel at a different type of performance, while enhancing the work being done by Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep.
3. Die Hard (1988)
Director: John McTiernan
Bruce Willis is unquestionably the heart and soul of the Die Hard series. This applies to the first entry, which made him a film star, and established an approach to action filmmaking which virtually nothing has recreated to satisfaction. Die Hard is truly one-of-a-kind, and it remains arguably the best action film of Willis’ career.
Before the series turned NYPD Detective John McClane into something of a superhero, Die Hard showed him as simply a victim of incredible circumstance. Much like Gary Cooper in High Noon (and indeed, Gary’s name comes up in the movie), McClane stands alone and isn’t all too pleased about that. Faced with doing the right thing, McClane becomes one of the definitive examples of the reluctant hero. He fights back against the terrorists/professional thieves who have seized the skyscraper his wife (Bonnie Bedelia) works at.
4. Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
Director: John McTiernan
Die Hard with a Vengeance was the third entry in the Die Hard series, proving then as now to be as close to the unique blend of humor and chaos as the original that anything could ever get. McClane is established here as an even shaggier underdog, alcoholic, technically unemployed, and as far from the heroics of Nakatomi Plaza as anyone could get.
Willis portrays McClane with the subtle differences of a man who hasn’t been doing particularly well in the past seven years. The humor is there, and the understanding that he is the only one who can stop another group of terrorists/professional thieves is clear from the beginning. It’s easy to understand why McClane doesn’t want to team up with a Harlem shop owner (Samuel L. Jackson) to bring down these people with a heightened interest in his personality.
Nonetheless, we know he’s going to stop them, and without ever becoming overwrought, Willis as an actor brilliantly finds the tone to bring McClane back to life. One of the best sequels ever made.
5. The Fifth Element (1997)
Director: Luc Besson
The Fifth Element remains one of the strangest Hollywood blockbusters ever made — people even thought so back in 1997. Reviews were split between the movie being an incredible spectacle with personality and genuine emotion, and a trainwreck of high style and very little substance. As the years have gone on, the film’s success at the box office has transitioned into a long-standing cult classic. A movie that is often celebrated for its visual distinction, sense of humor, and for performances from a cast well-suited to the weirdness unfolding in front of us.
Bruce Willis as Korben Dallas gives the film a little more weight than it would have otherwise. Mila Jovovich as Leelo is a big part of that, as well. The actual story is more interesting than logical. There also isn’t much depth on the page to support its overwhelming creativity.
However, that doesn’t really matter. Jovovich and Willis in particular give the movie something distinctly human. The film ultimately combines that with the fantastical in a much more satisfying way than many movies it could be reasonably compared to.
6. Hudson Hawk (1991)
Director: Michael Lehmann
Hudson Hawk was one of the most notorious bombs of the 90s. Willis seemed to have a heightened interest in this manic, sometimes absolutely bonkers hybrid of a heist comedy and a living cartoon. He co wrote the story and worked as hard as anyone to sell audiences on a decidedly unconventional variation of the characters he was known for playing by this point. Hudson Hawk doesn’t always work in its shift from comedy to tension, but it’s fair to assume you’re going to be having way too much to care.
Far more unconventional and surreal than most gave it credit for in its time, the appreciation for Hudson Hawk has grown nicely over the years. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s unfortunate that Willis didn’t get to play his best types of characters in such eccentric surroundings. There is a unique sense of fun and style to this story of a professional thief pulling one more job that doesn’t really exist anywhere else.
7. The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Director: Tony Scott
A buddy cop movie with exceptionally entertaining dialog and nice neo-noir undertones, it’s amazing to me that The Last Boy Scout came out the same year as Hudson Hawk.
Even before Willis started doing a couple dozen VOD releases a year, he has always been a prolific actor. Look to any given year of his career, and you will find two or more major roles. The Last Boy Scout offers an intriguing contrast to Hudson Hawk, but you obviously want to appreciate this enthusiastically ridiculous film from the late Tony Scott on its own terms.
The Last Boy Scout is also a good example of Bruce Willis being able to have good chemistry with the rest of the cast more often than not. His scenes here with Damon Wayans and Danielle Harris are good examples of that. These relationships have surprising weight for a big budget action movie, and that’s something I’ve found in a number of Bruce Willis movies over the years.
8. Looper (2012)
Director: Rian Johnson
Looper is another example of a high-concept science fiction movie that benefits from Bruce Willis specifically. This would be the unique ability Bruce Willis had to be a grounded figure in even the strangest stories.
In movies as good as Looper, the argument that he was too laid back in his performances is more about being a skilled, nuanced chameleon in service of the film itself.It’s an approach that is supremely enjoyable to see in a film as complex and riveting as Looper.
There are several good performances you can find here. Willis is among the best for playing a time-traveling assassin named Joe as a man living with regret and wondering if he’ll be able to set things right. He plays Joe with a certain degree of confidence, putting forth the concept of a fading entity with just a handful of miles to go before the job is done.
9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Director: Wes Anderson
Bruce Willis was perhaps the most surprising cast member in the sprawling ensemble of familiar faces assembled for Wes Anderson’s sweet story of childhood love under dry, unusual surroundings. As you’d expect from a Wes Anderson movie, almost everyone in this story of two young kids (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) is gently or substantially unusual. Not in the universe of the film, of course, but to those of us watching.
Willis however brings something distinctly grounded to a lonely police captain who bonds with Gilman’s character. It’s one of the more sympathetic depictions of a father-son relationship in a Wes Anderson movie, and Bruce Willis gives one of the best performances of the decade.
Only he could have played this compelling, imminently likable character in quite this fashion, and it’s a big piece of what makes Moonrise Kingdom work so well.
10. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Director: Quentin Tarantino
How far would you go to protect a gold watch your father hid inside his body for several years in a P.O.W. camp?
One of the most iconic scenes in Pulp Fiction sets the stage for an aging boxer who decides to rip off a powerful mob boss, kill his opponent in the ring, and make a run for it. Under normal circumstances, this bit of noir in a film obviously filled with the stuff would end badly for the boxer. However, as contemporary reviews and eventual history have proven, there is a lot about Pulp Fiction that is not normal or expected.
Many of the best Bruce Willis performances involve a man whose principles are brought to bear when his hand is forced. Yet when we go through these movies, we can appreciate several differing approaches to that trope. In the supreme examples, as mentioned, it is a performance that stands out and is also in full service to the mood and pace of the story.
Watching Willis as Butch go through the steps of an extraordinary, bloody misadventure is one of this film’s best features.
Police Detective John Hartigan is an incorruptible figure on the verge of a forced retirement, as his literal heart is in danger of giving out far ahead of his exhausted sense of right and wrong. This dedication brings him nothing but misery, adding a fascinating new dimension at the time to the sorts of underdogs Willis was often brilliant at portraying.
It’s also just fun to see a character as battered and determined as Hartigan defy hellish odds to bring truly irredeemable monsters to the gates of hell itself. Willis plays Hartigan with the ferocity of someone who has almost nothing left.
This is a fast-paced, dark showdown with not only the world, but with the knowledge that his time on earth is short. These qualities translate beautifully in a comic book movie no one has been able to recreate since its release.
12. Unbreakable (2000)
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Unbreakable is even more surprising in what Bruce Willis brings to it than in The Sixth Sense the previous year. Both are collaborations which helped in their own way to establish M Night Shyamalan as one of the hottest new directors of the time.
The story of a truly unconventional superhero, with some fairly interesting reimaginings of various comic book and CBM tropes, Unbreakable is one of Willis’ best from a purely acting standpoint. There’s nothing remarkable or flashy about this man, yet there has to be a profound strength and restlessness that must be established within moments of the movie’s unassuming start.
Watching Bruce Willis create that impression immediately puts Unbreakable on the right foot from the start. One of the things this film gets absolutely right is how it uses Willis specifically as an anchor for an unpredictable telling of a predictable (by design) narrative. It’s one of the best pieces of evidence we have that there will never again be an American film hero type quite like him.
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