July 20, 2023
WRITTEN BY: QUENTIN
Since 2014, it has been easy to look at Bruce Willis’ output, which includes more than 40 straight-to-VOD releases, and make jokes that he’s a washed-up actor, simply phoning in performances and relying on name recognition to get a paycheck. However, in March 2022, the context around that conversation changed as news came out that he had been diagnosed with aphasia, a language disorder caused by damage to the specific area of the brain that controls language expression and comprehension. In fact, the conversation changed so much that the arguably classless Razzies rescinded multiple nominations it had “bestowed” upon the actor.
In February 2023, the story took a turn for the worst when it was revealed that Willis had been further diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a rare type of dementia that causes patients to exhibit inappropriate social behavior, impulsivity, diminished language production, and a loss of empathy. It has no cure, and there are no effective treatments. It’s all very tragic, and a stark reminder that we as an audience never really know what is going on behind the scenes of a performer’s life, especially those we feel connected to after seeing them on our screens for nearly 40 years.
While that intro might come across as way too somber, it’s the elephant in the room that needed to be addressed before we can continue. So, I’m truly sorry for bumming you out, but now we can move on to more positive things. In light of his recent retirement and the 35th anniversary of Die Hard, I want to discuss and celebrate a career that has brought joy to so many. Truth be told, before Nic Cage entered the picture, Bruce Willis was my go-to actor. I’d watch anything and everything he was in, which made for a varied experience because his catalog spans comedy, drama, thrillers, sci-fi, family films, voice work, and, of course, action movies. He has a cabinet full of accolades, including a Golden Globe and multiple Emmys for his television work. He has been referred to as “Hollywood’s Golden Boy of Cinema,” and I can’t really find fault in that moniker. He has done it all with a trademark smirk, quippy one-liners, and a swagger that embodies the ideal behind “yippee ki-yay, motherfucker.”
Join me as I look back at my favorite Bruno movies, the ones that play in constant repeat in both my memory and on my screen. Sure, they weren’t all critical or box office hits, but they captured his essence in a way that made me smile. In hindsight, Bruce Willis movies probably are where a young Quentin started to find his love for film (and sarcastic quips) in the first place, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Like most lists, I’m sure you’ll disagree with some of my choices, but like Willis’ character, Detective Tom Hardy, says in Striking Distance, "maybe you need a drink to ease the pain of being wrong." I recommend you make it a Seagram’s Golden Wine Cooler…
10. SIN CITY (2005)
While most people probably remember Sin City for Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s graphic-novel-in-motion direction or Mickey Rourke’s Marv, the heart of this neo-noir anthology is Willis’ Detective Hartigan, maybe the only incorruptible detective operating in a cesspool of crime and violence. His steely-eyed commitment to Nancy (Jessica Alba) is the stuff that heroes are made of, displaying both sensitivity to her and unrelenting fury to those who have wronged her. The movie itself doesn’t hold up terribly well, with the stylistic flourishes feeling very “of a time,” but Willis’ hard-boiled performance is still one of his very best.
9. PULP FICTION (1994)
If I'm being honest, Pulp Fiction is probably the best film on this list. However, despite Willis being excellent as boxer Butch Coolidge, I don’t consider this a “Bruce Willis movie;” it’s a great movie that Bruce Willis happens to have a role in, which is why I have it ranked so low. No one says “I want to watch a Bruce Willis flick,” then fires Pulp Fiction up. That said, for my money, Butch has the most complete and intriguing character arc in the entire movie, starting with his father’s watch and ending with Zed’s chopper. When it really comes down to it, Butch is the closest thing Pulp Fiction has to a hero, which explains why Willis was able to knock it out of the park.
8. HUDSON HAWK (1991)
This is the movie I expect most people to say doesn’t belong, but Hudson Hawk is a zany delight. It’s essentially a live-action cartoon featuring swing music, heists, exotic locations, conspiracy theories, the CIA, the mob, and weirdness galore. But best of all, it’s full of trademark Willis quips such as, “is looking like a constipated warthog a prerequisite for getting a job in the art world?” and “I guess we see who wears the penis in this family.” It was both a critical and box office failure, and it remains the only feature film that Willis has a writing credit on, but it’s a personal favorite, an underappreciated gem, and perhaps a window into the silly heart of Willis. Also, the tie-in game is one of my favorite Game Boy games of all time.
7. LOOPER (2012)
Rian Johnson’s Looper is a twisty time-travel story about choices, redemption, fate, and loss, featuring Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing old and young versions of the same character, Joe. Willis’ Joe is a grieving man, full of heartbreak and regret, carrying the burden of a man who has spent his life doling out death sentences, and the face-to-face interactions with his arrogant younger self force the question of “do we make choices? Or do our choices make us?” Of course, Willis has plenty of action sequences too, but more importantly, he gives a soulful and poignant performance that might go down as the last great one of his career.
6. LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (2006)
It’s not entirely unreasonable to look at Lucky Number Slevin and think, “oh, another Quentin Tarantino ripoff,” but even if it is, that doesn’t stop it from being an absolute blast. Willis is terrific as Mr. Goodkat, a world-class assassin that is playing both sides of a mob war, and the twists and double-crosses keep the viewer engaged throughout. It has a crackling energy too, not unlike a Guy Ritchie movie, and with an opening scene that has Willis’ character explaining the ins and outs of The Kansas City Shuffle, it ropes you in quickly and toys with you with each surprising revelation.
5. ARMAGEDDON (1998)
I’ll be the first to admit that the plot of Armageddon doesn’t make any goddamn sense. However, if you can suspend disbelief and get onboard with the ridiculous premise, it’s a movie that delivers a terrific sense of camaraderie amongst a cadre of colorful characters, save-the-world stakes, exciting set pieces, laughs, and emotions. Willis plays expert oil driller Harry Stamper with a grizzled charm and charismatic surliness, and I’m not ashamed to say that when Harry tells his daughter he has to break his promise, it gets a little dusty in whatever room I’m in. There aren’t many people who can effectively embrace the action insanity of a Michael Bay movie while also delivering genuine emotion, but Willis nails it.
4. THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991)
As far as buddy cop action comedies go, The Last Boy Scout might be my all-time favorite. Bruce Willis plays sarcastic Joe Hallenbeck, a chain-smoking, wisecracking, discredited Secret Service agent turned grimy private investigator who joins a disgraced NFL quarterback (Damon Wayans) to look into the murder of the latter’s girlfriend. It’s one of the most 90s premises ever, but between Willis and Wayans’ natural chemistry, Shane Black’s pitch perfect writing, and Tony Scott’s self-aware direction, it all lands wonderfully in tremendously over-the-top fashion. It’s like someone told Willis, “do John McClane, but turn it up to 11,” to which he happily obliged as it finds Willis at his most hilariously quippy.
3. THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)
From the mind of Luc Besson, The Fifth Element is a candy-colored action space opera that is weird, gritty, campy, action-packed, and goofy. As blonde-headed Meat Popsicle Korben Dallas, Willis is essentially playing John McClane in a Star Wars movie, guiding us through incredible world building, iconic sci-fi characters, terrific production design, and clean action sequences. Plus, hidden underneath the stereotypical world-saving storyline, there is a solid message that love can be the thing to save us all. Green? Super green.
2. UNBREAKABLE (2000)
In hindsight, director M. Night Shyamalan was ahead of his time with Unbreakable, a grounded and serious look at superhero and comic book lore. Willis, who found fame playing the reluctant hero whose self-confidence that he can save the day is only outmatched by his talent for dropping one-liners, flips that expectation on its head by playing a reluctant hero who is quiet, reserved, and insecure. David Dunn (Willis) doesn’t want to be a hero, he needs to be a hero…to his son, to his wife, to himself…in order to overcome an imperfect life that is slowly escaping his grasp. It’s a complete deconstruction of the superhero genre and, in a way, of Willis’ career, and he balances the ordinary and extraordinary of his character with a truly moving performance.
1. THE DIE HARD FRANCHISE (1988-2013)
It might be lazy, but what did you expect to top this list? I mean, one of the reasons I’m writing this is because this week marks the film’s 35th anniversary. And for more than three decades, the Die Hard franchise has endured through five movies (Die Hard with a Vengeance is my personal favorite), comic books, graphic novels, video games, a Christmas storybook, commercials, and pop culture references galore. The original 1988 classic spawned an entirely new type of action movie that led to decades of movies being described as “Die Hard on a [blank],” and it’s no exaggeration to call the franchise a cinematic game changer. Action classics like Speed, Under Siege, and Air Force One can all trace their DNA back to Die Hard. Plus, it solidified Bruce Willis, previously only known for television comedy Moonlighting and Seagram’s cheesy “It’s wet and it’s dry!” ad campaign, as a bankable movie star and action hero, setting him down a career path that I think we are all thankful to have witnessed.
Photo Credits: Photo 1, 2 - Miramax Films; Photo 3, 4 - TriStar Pictures; Photo 5 - MGM; Photo 6, 8, 9 - Walt Disney Studios; Photo 7 - Warner Bros; Photo 10 - 20th Century Studios