by Jason Frank Koenigsberg
For someone like me who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s I would not say that Bruce Willis was a key figure of my childhood, but early in my teenage years I started to notice that he was an actor that appeared in a lot of movies that I liked. Perhaps not necessarily my favorite movies, but he was an action star and I was a film fanatic that fell in love with cinema and the action genre of the 90’s has some titles that are near and dear to my heart. I did not know Bruce Willis from his early beginnings in comedy, working on the TV show Moonlighting with Cybill Shepherd, or his Blake Edwards movies like Blind Date (1987). No, I first saw Bruce Willis as many young males around my age did, as John McClane. Believe it or not, the first movie I saw with Bruce Willis was Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) the third film of the series. I saw that a few years before I saw the original and I was blown away by it. The John McClane character and that particular type of action hero is what the majority of Bruce Willis’ career would become synonymous with. He would play John McClane five times throughout his career to varying degrees of success. Personally, I feel like many that only the first three Die Hard films are worthwhile high-octane action pictures. With his recent announcement that he plans to retire from acting due to aphasia where he will lose the ability to communicate, now seems like the perfect time to look back and reflect on his body of work and his greatest contributions to cinema. Allegedly Bruce Willis was not the nicest guy to be around, and he had a reputation of being difficult to work with, but who cares about that. I did not know him. This guy made some exciting movies for a good portion of my life.
In 1988 Die Hard and the clever casting of Bruce Willis who at that point was most well known for his lighthearted work on the small screen would change action movies as we know it, more. It also set Bruce Willis on a career trajectory where he became known for being one of the highest paid actors in Hollywood often choosing jobs based on the salary and not the script or talent involved. He ended up being very successful taking this route in his career and although he did not always find box office success, he was a workhorse and eventually starred in a lot of huge blockbusters throughout the 90’s and 2000’s. For every Hudson Hawk sized flop (1991) he had a massive success like The Sixth Sense (1999). He also did memorable voice work throughout his career my personal favorite example being Muddy Grimes in Beavis and Butt-head Do America (1996).
The last ten years or so it seemed like the good parts started to dry up and Bruce Willis was veering into Nicolas Cage territory starring in many action movies that seemed to skip theatrical release and most people only heard of them while flipping through lists of movies on Amazon Prime or checking out their local Redbox.
With Die Hard Bruce Willis made an indelible mark on motion pictures and although he never topped his first hit, he did star in a number of solid action movies and every so often demonstrated his comedic gifts and showed some versatility. Check out this video tribute which I also included in the 2018 Pan and Slam Awards where Bruce Willis received the Legends Award.
First some honorable mentions. As stated earlier for every big hit it seemed Bruce Willis had an equally big box office failure and 1998 was a year of two very memorable Bruce Willis action pictures. One was a not well known paranoid chase thriller about Bruce Willis trying to protect and autistic child from being assassinated by the CIA in Merucury Rising . It flopped opening weekend to the interminable Lost in Space movie adaptation which is now only known for being the film that finally dethroned Titanic from its long reign of the #1 spot at the box office. Nobody saw Mercury Rising then, and it remains mostly undiscovered today but it’s a very solid thriller in its own right and features a strong leading performance from Willis. The other movie Bruce Willis had a leading role in 1998 is probably something almost everyone alive has seen, or is at least familiar with. He was the lead in the mega blockbuster hit Armageddon which came out a few months later and was one of the highest grossing movies of the year. From director Michael Bay and super producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Armageddon had the formula to clobber the box office competition including another giant asteroid movie Deep Impact released earlier that summer. Sure most people were there to see the big special effects because this was the blockbuster era right after Independence Day (1996) and the blockbuster movies were all disaster movies that were basically just excuses to show off the newest special effects. But Bruce Willis is still credited as the lead and does some light lifting in some dramatic scenes so that had to count for something as it helped make him one of the biggest box office stars of his era and he would follow that up with being the lead in one of the biggest movies of 1999 the following summer with The Sixth Sense. Both Mercury Rising and Armageddon deserve to be in the discussion for Bruce Willis’ best roles.
Even though he is primarily known as an action star and almost always was a leading man to collect big paychecks during his prime movie star years, Bruce Willis would be humble and take a rare supporting turn if he felt the need to. He did so with one of his best and most underrated roles when he took a supporting turn and was cast opposite Paul Newman in the outstanding Nobody’s Fool (1994). This is easily one of the best roles of Paul Newman’s illustrious career but the scenes he shares with Bruce Willis highlight strengths that Willis did not display as often as he should have and he helped elevate this quiet drama into being one of the more memorable roles of his career. If you have not seen Nobody’s Fool you are missing out on a quiet, tender, humorous, and affecting emotional movie.
Another terrific Bruce Willis movie featuring one of his best performances was in Rian Johnson’s understated time traveling futuristic hitman movie Looper (2012). This was in the news recently when Willis’ co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt expressed the praise he felt after he heard Bruce Willis mumble “that sounded like me” after a take, which flattered Gordon-Levitt since he was playing a younger version of Bruce Willis in Looper. That moment stuck with him and Looper has stuck with many as one of the most unconventional sci-fi action movies of its era and Bruce Willis took a role that on the surface seemed right up his alley but the final product managed to be very surprising for anyone who assumed they were going to see just another Bruce Willis action hitman movie. We now know that writer/director Rian Johnson likes to play with movie genres and upend audience expectations but at the time Looper was a major departure for everyone involved.
The last honorable mention and movie that missed out on being in the top ten is The Whole Nine Yards (2000). Another movie that displayed Bruce Willis’ gift for comedy while also not forgetting his tough guy action star persona he created. Willis stars as a mobster in government protection living next to a mild mannered dentist played by Matthew Perry at the peak of his stardom from TV’s Friends. It also reunited Willis with his friend and Armageddon costar the late Michael Clarke Duncan who was fresh off his Oscar nomination for The Green Mile (1999). Bruce Willis may have had a difficult reputation but he was fiercely loyal to his friends or people that he liked and he was instrumental in Michael Clarke Duncan getting some of the biggest roles of his career. The Whole Nine Yards was funny and did not feel stale coming out less than a year after the other mafia comedies Analyze This and Mickey Blue Eyes. A lot of that is because of the cast with memorable performances from Amanda Peet, Natasha Henstridge, and once again Bruce Willis leading the way and elevating a movie to make it worthwhile.
Alright now the time has finally come to reveal the top ten movies for Bruce Willis. After reading my own praise of the honorable mentions I am curious myself how he could top some of those titles. Well he does and this is exactly why Bruce Willis and his career deserve to be celebrated for his contributions to cinema.
10. The Jackal (1997) directed by Michael Caton-Jones
Not necessarily a good movie, but this is truly one of Bruce Willis’ very best performances. He played killers before this high tech remake of Fred Zinneman’s The Day of the Jackal (1973) and he played killers after this movie, however never before has Bruce Willis ever played ruthless and cold-hearted as well as he did here as title character. Throughout the movie he has never been as cold and calculating. Despite some unconvincing disguises, Willis is very convincing as an assassin, you may not forget that you are watching Bruce Willis as a villain in a post Cold War action movie, but you will be surprised by the shocking violence he commits as The Jackal. Just watch the final seconds of the Bruce Willis video tribute above where he picks up a gun and shoots a man so casually while also is eating his lunch.
9. The Last Boy Scout (1991) directed by Tony Scott
Now this is a fun, violently excessive, anarchistic action movie if there ever was one. Written by Shane Black (Lethal Weapon) and directed by the late great action extraordinaire Tony Scott, The Last Boy Scout showcases everything early 90’s action movies exemplified. Produced by Joel Silver who also produced the Lethal Weapon movies, The Last Boy Scout delivers a movie about assassinations, government and big business conspiracies, tied in with family strife, romantic issues, and football. This is one of the most testosterone filled action movies from an era that oozed masculinity. Bruce Willis is basically playing John McClane if he was not an honorable proactive hero, but a sad-sack, down on his luck, deadbeat dad, pathetic husband and all around loser. Kind of the John McClane they tried to create in Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) which was very close to being on my top ten as well, but I figured one John McClane movie would allow me to highlight other important roles and worthwhile movies from Bruce Willis and The Last Boy Scout is one that will stick with you even if you do not like its mean spiritedness with a slew of unlikeable characters. It is fun and Willis paired with Damon Wayans make for a memorable action buddy duo.
8. Sin City (2005) directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller
Another great Bruce Willis performance in an action movie, but this time he is a supporting player in an ensemble piece. Based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels Sin City creates a dark underworld, of cops, criminals, corrupt politicians, prostitutes and unsavory characters yet is told in a way so unique and visually stunning it creates a world unlike any movie ever seen, until of course it’s sequel Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014). Bruce Willis stars in both as Hartigan, a gruff and grizzled veteran cop who has seen enough brutal killings and been betrayed enough times that he has been desensitized to the streets. But it is in the first Sin City that he really makes an impact as a tough loner who somehow finds it deep in his heart to protect a little girl from a rapist-murderer. That little girl grows up to be Jessica Alba and their story in this mosaic of a comic book movie is one of the biggest highlights and features one of the most tragic arcs from any character Bruce Willis has ever portrayed. That says a lot about the screen presence and charisma Bruce Willis has. He can make a cliche role stand out amongst a dozen or so big-name, talented actors and be one of the most memorable roles in an ensemble cast.
7. Tears of the Sun (2003) directed by Antoine Fuqua
This is definitely one of Bruce Willis’ best dramatic performances and without a doubt one of his most underrated. He was working with red hot director Antoine Fuqua fresh off his biggest hit Training Day (2001) which won Denzel Washington an Academy Award for Best Actor. Now I am not saying Willis deserved an Oscar nomination for what many dismissed as just another big budget action vehicle for the star, but he definitely delivers a strong performance here with minimal dialogue and portrays so much emotion with just the looks he gives his fellow soldiers and the doctor played by Monica Bellucci. He is a special ops commander tasked to save this doctor and get her out of the war torn area and across the Nigerian border where she will be safe. She refuses to go unless he takes her fellow doctors, nurses, and patients she is committed to save. He at first refuses and wants to follow the strict orders of his mission but Willis manages to convincingly convey that he has a change of heart and follows his conscience leading a large group of refugees through the jungle war zone to safety. Production during Tears of the Sun was allegedly a nightmare with Willis and the director not getting along during most of the shoot. Regardless, the final picture seems to be a work of compromise from both ends and resulted in a powerful and compelling action flick. The exotic locales add to the atmosphere and the tension as well as Bruce Willis’ minimalist and restrained yet still expressive performance make Tears of the Sun one of the best movies of his career that is criminally overlooked.
6. Moonrise Kingdom (2012) directed by Wes Anderson
Throughout this article I have praised Bruce Willis for his comedic talents. Ever since Die Hard he has been known for the majority of his career as a big action star but I have been reminding people that he got his start in comedy. Well his career may have come full circle with the best comedic performance of his career in Wes Anderson’s brilliant tale of young love in Moonrise Kingdom. He plays a police captain and the lone law enforcement figure on a small New England town that is located on an island mostly made up of scouts and a few residents during its offseason for tourists. As he investigates and tries to find the two preteen children that ran away to be with each other, we learn more about the young boys home life and we discover that Willis’ constable has a conscience and is going to change his duties for the best interests of the child. It could have been far fetched and it is, but Wes Anderson creates a sprawling detailed world with a timeless quality as he does in almost all of his movies and Bruce Willis rises to the challenge and he delivers an important role that helps make Moonrise Kingdom work at its emotional core and remain one of Wes Anderson’s most memorable films. That is saying a lot once again considering he is sharing the screen with respected names like Frances McDormand, Edward Norton, and Bill Murray and Bruce Willis is not often regarded on the same level of talent with drama or comedy as those big names are. 2012 also had his terrific action film Looper as mentioned above so this may have been the last great year in his career with two challenging roles that he excelled in before a decade of mediocrity with mostly straight to video paycheck gigs.
5. The Fifth Element (1997) directed by Luc Besson
Here is one of the all time most memorable Bruce Willis movies and one of his most famous roles. Did I put this on the list at number 5 because of the title? Possibly, but from this point on numbers 5 through 2 were really the hardest ones to rank. The Fifth Element is a sci-fi action extravaganza and has become one of Bruce’s signature roles other than Die Hard and with good reason. He gets to display his action hero talents simultaneously with his deft comedic timing in a lot of the same scenes. The plot is ludicrous but the whole movie is just pure futuristic fun with amazing music, costumes, make up, set design, and stunts. This was before Geoge Lucas unleashed his Star Wars prequels and everything a few years later would be CGI. Plus outstanding supporting turns from Ian Holm, Brion James, and Chris Tucker, along with Gary Oldman as the villain and a star-making turn from Milla Jovovich as the mysterious woman who is also the titular character add a lot to this film. A fun movie to watch on any occasion either straight through or just see bits and pieces. The Fifth Element is one of the quintessential science fiction films from its time and is a ton of fun in a different way 25 years after I first saw it in theaters.
4. Pulp Fiction (1994) directed by Quentin Tarantino
Now you might be thinking, how is Pulp Fiction down at number 4? This Quentin Tarantino masterpiece is often regarded as one of the best movies of the 90’s if not one of the best movies of all time. I will agree this may be the best movie of Bruce Willis’ career, but once again, going against the common reputation of him being selfish and a prima donna, Willis took a pay cut and a supporting role during the peak of his drawing power in the 90’s to star in this epic movie about hitmen, drug dealers, and low lives. His willingness to star in the movie and be credited after John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, and Uma Thurman, helped get this movie made and was noble of him to have his name after all of those other actors when in 1994 Bruce Willis may have been the biggest box office star at the time. Regardless, he delivers a great performance in a movie filled with outstanding performances across the board. His character is the centerpiece of the second story in Pulp Fiction and his scenes are arguably overshadowed by Christopher Walken and his one scene which introduces Bruce Willis’ character Butch and the importance of his watch which he needs to go back and get even though it could kill him. Judging these movies based on the films as a whole Pulp Fiction is probably one of the two or three best movies Bruce Willis was involved in. Based on Bruce’s contribution to this film and his merits, it gets ranked as his fourth best movie and could possibly be ranked lower if I was strictly judging it by his performance. That being said, between Pulp Fiction and Die Hard with a Vengeance, it seems like Bruce Willis made some of his very best movies alongside Samuel L. Jackson, which brings me to the next title on this list…
3. Unbreakable (2000) directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Unbreakable is one of the most surprising experiences I had in the movie theaters during my high school years. Talk about a movie ahead of its time, Unbreakable may fit that definition better than any other title this century. It predates the comic book phenomenon that has gripped movie theaters for the past fifteen years or so. In fact at the time of its release there was only one X-Men movie released earlier that year and a dying Batman franchise. The movie did not even advertise itself as a comic book movie, instead the trailers and TV spots shrouded it with mystery trying to build on the ghost story that was a massive success with Bruce Willis and writer/director M. Night Shyamalan from the previous year with The Sixth Sense. I was moderately underwhelmed by The Sixth Sense unlike the majority of the country that found it mind-blowing. However I was completely enthralled by Unbreakable and consider this to be the best movie of M. Night Shyamalan’s career. That’s right, I said it. The whole country fell in love with him after his big twist at the end of The Sixth Sense (1999) but a year later they were not prepared to be walloped by a more subtle ending that definitely qualifies as a twist. Unbreakable is a genre meditation of the superhero film before we needed one. On it’s own it is the best script and direction Shyamalan has ever done and features great performances from its two leads Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. They play off each other the same way that Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment’s characters did in The Sixth Sense. Unbreakable relies on emotional responses from well developed characters and a tight script. Plus, Unbreakable not only came before the superhero movie boom we are currently in now, but it also is an origin story of a hero before movie studios were obsessed with origin stories. Sure, I know it has its flaws, with a lot of whispering to make moments dramatic when they realistically would not be and characters realize things much slower in this movie than they would in real life, but the good outweighs the bad and Bruce Willis is absolutely perfect as an unlikely and unwilling superhero playing something very different than a lot of the macho heroes he played before and since.
2. Twelve Monkeys (1995) directed by Terry Gilliam
Something I noticed while I was making this list and it became even more obvious to me as I was writing this article. Bruce Willis’ best movie roles happen to come from truly talented auteurs. Talented directors like Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, and Luc Besson with distinct visions for their movies. It makes a person wonder what great roles Bruce Willis could have had in his filmography if he did not choose parts based on the paycheck but instead decided to sacrifice money and work with people like Scorsese, Spielberg, or the Coen Bros. None of the filmmakers Bruce Willis worked with are more visionary than his Twelve Monkeys director Terry Gilliam. Mr. Gilliam specializes in vast sprawling futuristic, surreal, and unconventional canvases making the ordinary or mundane look extraordinary and unforgettable. Twelve Monkeys is no exception and in my humble opinion is the best film of Terry Gilliam’s career. This is one of the best movies of the 1990’s and one of my favorite sci-fi dystopian future movies. It is a story about mankind after they lost the battle against a deadly disease and the few remaining survivors are forced to live underground because they cannot breath the air. Bruce Willis is front and center in this movie as the man sent back in time to try and stop the army of the 12 Monkeys from unleashing this deadly plague on the planet. During his travels he meets a beautiful doctor who slowly believes his story that he is from the future and that he is humanities last hope. He also encounters Brad Pitt as a deranged mental patient in what could still be considered Pitt’s greatest role. He earned a well deserved Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination. Like most Terry Gilliam movies, Twelve Monkeys is a feast for your eyes with huge sets, wide shots showing Philadelphia cold and empty and occupied by wild animals much like the images of bare cities from I am Legend and 28 Days Later. The costumes and the music also help transport you into this bizarre future world and make Twelve Monkeys a timeless science fiction classic with an ending that needs to be seen more than once to fully comprehend.
1. Die Hard (1988) directed by John McTiernan
This movie changed action cinema for the next decade. What Halloween did in 1978 redefining the slasher genre for horror movies throughout the 1980’s, Die Hard did the same for all 90’s action movies until 1999 when The Matrix was released. Every action movie was pitched as Die Hard on a bus (Speed in 1994), Die Hard on a plane (Executive Decision in 1996), Die Hard on the President’s plane (Air Force One in 1997). Die Hard also reinvented the action hero and the evil mastermind villain. Before Bruce Willis played John McClane all action heroes were larger than life characters, almost mythical figures going back to the Western icons of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, that genre was the precursor to action movies. The action heroes of the 70’s and 80’s fit the same persona being played by actors like Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Chuck Norris. Then all of a sudden Bruce Willis’ fish out of water NYC cop is stuck in LA fighting terrorists and he does not look like those super macho figures, he does not even have shoes. Nor does he act like them, he talks too much. Now the door was open for anybody to be an action star. Plus Alan Rickman’s sophisticated portrayal of the antagonist Hans Gruber, led to him being typecast as a villain as well as practically every 90’s villain in an action movie doing their best impersonation of Alan Rickman in Die Hard. This movie is also brilliantly shot with ingenious use of framing, symmetrical shapes and some absolutely fantastic stunts and action sequences, along with terrific performances and a subplot about a marriage on the rocks. Die Hard is a perfect action movie. It is also the best and most important movie for Bruce Willis and everyone else involved. A modern classic that will continue to stand the test of time for decades to come.
I leave you with, one of the funniest skits from when Bruce Willis hosted Saturday Night Live in 2013. It will make you miss seeing Bruce Willis in anything as well as the talented cast SNL had nearly a decade ago.