15 Essential Bruce Willis Performances (and Where to Stream Them)

15 Essential Bruce Willis Performances (and Where to Stream Them)
Screenshot: The Fifth Element/Sony

Bruce Willis’ family revealed on Instagram Wednesday the 67-year-old actor is “stepping away” from acting following a diagnosis of aphasia, a condition affecting the ability to either understand language or to communicate (or both).

As a result of this and with much consideration Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him.

Fans were quite to express their concern for the actor on social media, and to share their favourite Bruce Willis performances. Ever since his breakout performance in the TV series Moonlighting, and especially after his transition into film with 1988’s Die Hard, Willis has been a reliable big-screen presence. (In the late ‘80s itwas incredibly rare for actors to move between media — and it’s hard to think of an actor who did it nearly as successfully.)

In many of his most popular roles, he plays a slightly cynical, working class “everyman” who tends to do the right thing, even if it takes a little prompting. That persona (and, OK, a fair bit of crap in his filmography), left him pigeonholed in the eyes of some filmgoers and critics, but it’s worth remembering he’s appeared in an impressive number of bona fide, genre-spanning classics. He’s hardly a Daniel Day-Lewis-esque chameleon, but more of a Humphrey Bogart-type: always recognisable, but often surprising, with equal affinities for action, comedy, and drama. Some of his best roles are memorable because of the way Willis and his collaborators play into or subvert our expectations. If his career is well and truly coming to an end, he’s left us an impressive and varied legacy — including these 15 essential performances.

(Unfortunately, his breakout performance in the genre-defying, fourth-wall breaking ‘80s TV hit Moonlighting is nearly impossible to watch: the show isn’t streaming, the DVDs are long out of print, and my mum’s VHS tapes melted years ago.)

The Fifth Element (1997)

Critics circa 1997 didn’t know what to make of Luc Besson’s over-the-top science fiction epic; its blend of styles and tones don’t always adhere particularly well, and the mythology it tries to build isn’t entirely cohesive. But that blend of disparate elements is also what makes this story of a genetically engineered superwoman and the sad sack flying taxi driver who saves her particularly memorable, and it’s become something of a cult classic among fans able to appreciate both its imaginative sci-fi trappings and its camp style. Bruce Willis is a huge reason why the film works at all: as the cynical, Han Solo-esque protagonist, he’s our entry point into a wild world.

Die Hard (1988)

Obviously. Willis might have found another path to film stardom, but there’s no question the endlessly rewatchable Die Hard (made during the tail-end of the Moonlighting run) propelled him to the A-list. Critics at the time were split on both Die Hard’s virtues and Willis’ performance, but audiences never had a doubt. Though the first is undoubtedly the best, each of the films in the series (with the exception of disappointing final entry A Good Day to Die Hard) is basically perfect, and inspired countless one-man-against-impossible-odds imitators.

In Country (1989)

Just a few months after Moonlighting ended (and a year after Die Hard), Bruce Willis earned a Golden Globe nomination for a movie that might have sent his career down a very different path. He gets top billing, though his part is secondary to that of Emily Lloyd, an English actress playing the teenaged daughter of a soldier who died in Vietnam. Willis is the seemingly laid-back, but traumatized uncle who ultimately helps her connect to her own history. It’s a film that doesn’t lean on easy emotion, and Long and Willis give impressive, heartfelt performances.

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

It’s a silly movie that works because everyone seems to know it’s silly, including director Tony Scott and writer Shane Black; it’s stylishly and capably made, with stylish action set-pieces. Ably assisted by Damon Wayans, Willis demonstrates the everyman charm and sly sense of humour that have carried him through so much of his career, selling us on movies that simply wouldn’t work without that hint of a smirk.

Death Becomes Her (1992)

This Robert Zemeckis-directed jet black comedy received a fairly chilly reception when it was released, but it’s become a cult classic, particularly in queer spaces. As nerdy plastic surgeon Dr. Ernest Menville, romantic interest to two vengeful women who have figured out a way to cheat death in their ongoing efforts to outshine (and outlive) one another, he’s playing wildly against type — this is Bruce at his most gloriously goofy.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

As part of a memorable ensemble in a wildly quotable film, Willis gets one of the film’s best-remembered lines as ill-fated prizefighter Butch Coolidge: “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.”

Sin City (2005)

Another anthology in which Bruce Willis gives the best performance, here as all-but incorruptible police detective John Hartigan in the two “Yellow Bastard” chapters. In the first, Hartigan is hunting down a serial killer on his last night on the job; the second takes place after he’s been in prison for eight years after having been framed for a terrible crime. It’s hardly a groundbreaking performance for Willis, but it is a potent reminder of his primary strengths as a feature film actor: His dour, determined anti-hero serves as the hard-bitten but believable point of audience identification in an otherwise garish, pointedly cartoonish world. To the heightened world of Sin City, he’s a reliable guide.

Armageddon (1998)

Armageddon is not a great movie; it’s not even the best asteroid-disaster movie of 1998 (that would be Deep Impact). It’s big, loud, and dumb, but it also had a cultural moment, for better and for worse, and cleaned up at the box office. As is so often the case, and ever surrounded by some surprisingly talented name actors, Willis (playing oil driller Harry Stamper) is the best thing about the movie, giving his all to dialogue that less committed actors would have just phoned in. Just try to get through that farewell scene without sobbing along with Liv Tyler.

12 Monkeys (1995)

Willis is the lead in Terry Gilliam’s twisty-turny sci-fi thinker, playing a prisoner from the way distant future of 2035 who’s sent back in time to collect information on the virus that will eventually wipe out much of humanity. He’s doing this not in hope of stopping the plague (time travel doesn’t work that way); best case, the information he retrieves might aid in treating humanity’s few survivors. Cole is desperate, abused, and betrayed, seemingly trapped in a  hopeless, possibly endless cycle, and Willis plays him minus his typical bravado. The film was nominated for several major awards, with Brad Pitt’s supporting performance singled out, but Willis undoubtedly provides its heart.

Looper (2012)

Another smart time-travel thriller; pair with 12 Monkeys for a solid (if mind-bending) double-feature. Looper represented a big break-out for writer/director Rian Johnson, but Willis’s weary take on his familiar action hero persona is a big part of the reason it works so well. The film balances its sci-fi conceits (Willis plays an older version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, on the run from his own execution) with impressive character work.

The Expendables 2 (2012)

One of three films Willis appeared in in 2012, it’s a testament to his star power and spot in the pop culture pantheon that, in a movie series featuring action stars like Sylvester Stallone, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc., etc. etc., he’s the one who gets pride of place as the mysterious CIA operative Mr. Church. His cameo in the first movie was treated as a big deal, and he’s accorded something like special-guest-star status in the sequel.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Again, 2012 was a helluva year for Willis both in terms of box office and variety, but it’s in Wes Anderson’s beloved and acclaimed Moonrise Kingdom that he gives one of his best performances as Police Captain Duffy Sharp. The straight-man among a varied cast of Wes Anderson-esque oddballs, he more than holds his own with the likes of Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Bill Murray.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Upon release, all of the awards talk centered on Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette, who both certainly deserved their Oscar nominations. It’s possible critics and audiences weren’t accustomed to thinking of Willis as something other than an action star, but he holds the film together with his reserved, saddened performance as a damaged child psychologist who tries to help Osment’s Cole, afflicted by visions of ghosts. It’s about as far from John McClane as it gets.

Unbreakable (2000)

M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to The Sixth Sense wasn’t nearly as much of a slam-dunk, but time has been kind to this unconventional, surprisingly quiet superhero movie. Willis and Samuel L. Jackson are perfectly paired as archetypical comic book hero and wise mentor made real, and Willis once again proves he can lead a film by underplaying opposite Jackson’s wild-eyed fervor. As a glut of modern superhero movies all seek to strike the same notes, this film (and Willis’ performance) only look better and better.

Motherless Brooklyn (2019)

Though he’s appeared in a string of direct-to-video movies since, Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn might wind up representing something of a swan song for Willis — one last quiet, solid performance as Ed Norton’s mentor in the thoughtful if uneven neo-noir film (based on the jittery Jonathan Letham novel. It’s not a huge role, but it’s a pivotal one — the entire movie hinges on it.

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