Despite the marketing campaign for this year’s “Glass” trying to convince you otherwise, Bruce Willis isn't back. He's still making anonymous action movie after anonymous action movie, putting in half-hearted performances that even his agent probably doesn't find convincing. He has three movies on his resume for 2019 alone. And it’s March. But it wasn't always like this. At one point, Willis was not only one of Hollywood's biggest stars but also one of its most interesting actors. Rarely do those two worlds intersect. But with Bruce, they did. Here's looking back on 11 movies that will make you remember what a cultural and artistic force he once was. And make you long for his return to interesting movies.
'Die Hard' (1988)
When Willis was cast in John McTiernan's “Die Hard” he was still mostly known as the star of a TV sitcom (his previously big movie was a Blake Edwards comedy). People were confused as to what a funnyman was doing anchoring a big budget action spectacular. But watching “Die Hard” you get the sense that this was the role that Willis was born to play: an everyman thrown into a truly fantastic situation, who uses his wits and his will to get his way out of it. His physicality is unparalleled -- watch how his posture changes not only after his shoeless brush with broken glass, but as he gets more and more exhausted. More than that, the character is soulful and tortured. There's an early scene that's always struck me, when he's at the party and looks across the way to a pretty girl. It speaks volumes to the struggle within.
'Bonfire of the Vanities' (1990)
Make no mistake, “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Brian DePalma's loose adaptation of the 1980's greatest literary sensation, is messy and frequently disappoints. But you have to hand it to Willis, who stepped into the role of the bon vivant British journalist and made him a smug American a-hole. His performance couldn't have been any different from the book, and yet Willis does his best to make the character his own, transferring over certain characteristics -- like his highfalutin air and intellectualism -- while adding his own underdog spirit. This character also speaks to the chances Willis used to take (while still making good money).
'Death Becomes Her' (1992)
If Bruce Willis' current output is defined by predictability and cash-grabs, then “Death Becomes Her,” dazzlingly directed by Robert Zemeckis, was Willis at his most fearless and experimental. As an alcoholic surgeon caught between two wickedly vain women Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep), he might be the least movie star-ish he's ever been, paunchy and fully embracing his receding hairline. What's more is how slimy and unlikable he is without ever tipping into full-on villainy. He's spineless and weak and absolutely hilarious. Over the past few years, “Death Becomes Her” has evolved into a certifiable camp classic and much of that has to do with Willis' beautifully kitsch performance.
'Pulp Fiction' (1994)
This was another left-field appearance, along the lines of his work in “Die Hard” -- the world's biggest movie star (at the time) was going to appear in the sophomore feature of a relatively unknown indie director. Well, “Pulp Fiction” ended up being the coolest movie ever and Willis' performance as Butch, a down-on-his-luck boxer who ends up throwing a fight the other way, was electric and revitalized his career in a profound way. Willis' mini-arc is absolutely astounding, he gets to be physical but also incredibly comedic and tragic (the watch!). Few actors can really make Quentin Tarantino's ratatat dialogue sing, but Willis did so handily. Zed's dead, baby, indeed.
'12 Monkeys' (1995)
In Terry Gilliam's bleak sci-fi thriller, Willis plays a man who goes back in time in an effort to prevent a massive outbreak that kills most of the earth's population. This is heady stuff, for sure, especially for an actor who -- just a year before -- was starring in a laughable erotic thriller that centrally featured his penis. And yet, Willis commits fully, in a role that has him involved with suspense set pieces, romantic sequences, and even portraying multiple versions of the same character. Challenging is the right word for this kind of performance. Another word you could use is brilliant.
'Last Man Standing' (1996)
American filmmaker Walter Hill decided to take Akira Kurosawa's “Yojimbo” and redress it as a Prohibition-era western -- complete with fedoras, handguns, and a whole bunch of wise-guy gangsters out of central casting. And while the conceit might be hard to swallow, it's the veracity of Willis' performance, as an amiable nobody caught in a war between two gangs, that is deeply felt. He gives real gravitas to what could otherwise have been something of an intellectual exercise in pop culture remixing. If you've never seen ”Last Man Standing” it's well worth seeking out. Willis is terrific and the rest of the movie is pretty cool too.
'The Fifth Element' (1997)
Perhaps Willis' finest performance ever came in M. Night Shyamalan's thoughtful deconstruction of the superhero genre (before the superhero genre was even a thing). Yes, their previous collaboration, “The Sixth Sense” made more money, but it's “Unbreakable” that is the true classic. Somber and forlorn, Willis' arc of a man who comes to understand his inner strength (both emotionally and physically) is a profound work by an artist who, at the time, was always willing to challenge himself. Willis is underrated when it comes to subtlety in his performances; this is nothing but that. It’s a shame that “Glass,” the follow-up released earlier this year, didn’t give Willis enough to do.
'Planet Terror' (2007)
To be fair, Willis' performance in the Robert Rodriguez half of “Grindhouse” cheekily titled “Planet Terror” is little more than a cameo. But what makes this so important is that it shows you what kind of roles he could be taking today. Sure, it was brief, but it was also knowing and hilarious. This is how he could have aged gracefully in his career, instead of taking whatever script landed at his door and give it a half-assed pass. Just think of Willis, transforming into a mutant monster. It's enough to leave a smile on your face, right?
'Moonrise Kingdom' (2012)
In 2012, Willis took a chance on a couple of younger, art house directors, and both performances remain the highpoint of this stage of his career. One of those performances was for Wes Anderson in “Moonrise Kingdom.” As Captain Sharp, the law enforcement on a fictional island, who is tasked with retrieving a pair of kids who go missing, his performance is warm and open-hearted. Honestly, just thinking about his character and where his character ends up, makes me a little choked up. This never should have worked on paper, the terse Willis teaming up with the twee Anderson, but it turned out to be a match made in heaven. Willis was rightfully applauded.
In “Looper,” Willis played the older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's character, a man who, through time travel, meets and antagonizes his younger self. It's a high concept gimmick that could have been a disaster, especially since Gordon-Levitt is saddled with make-up effects to give off the vibe of a younger Willis. But, man, Willis is great. Virtually silent, he does some very un-Bruce-like things, including but not limited to murdering a child, attempting to murder another child, and basically being a bloodthirsty bad guy. But it's an extended flashback sequence, where we see what happened to Willis' adult wife, that gives the character pathos and pain.