Bruce Willis films – ranked! | Bruce Willis

This futuristic thriller about “surries” – artificial doubles who do the dirty work while their owners stay home – could have had heaps more fun riffing on the disparity between the grizzled older Willis and his blond synthetic doppelganger. Still, it is nice to see him bristling with Rosamund Pike, who plays his glassy wife, and being reunited briefly with his Pulp Fiction nemesis Ving Rhames.

Good performance, bad movie. Willis does subtle, judicious work as the child psychologist drawn into the confidences of a boy (Haley Joel Osment) who can see the dead around him. M Night Shyamalan’s sentimental ghost story sinks under the weight of life lessons about emotional closure, and a twist that renders laughable the action of the preceding 100 minutes.

Willis with Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.
Willis with Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Photograph: Buena Vista / Allstar

In his second consecutive film with Shyamalan, Willis again produces moving results from portentous, low-grade material. There are shades of Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone in his portrayal of an ordinary Joe baffled by his extraordinary powers. He reprised the role briefly in Split (2016) and at length in Glass (2019).

17. The Siege (1998)

Nearly three years before 9/11, writer-director Edward Zwick imagined a terrorist cell launching an attack on US soil. (Post-9/11, Zwick was one of the Hollywood figures consulted by the Pentagon on counter-terrorism matters.) Rightly criticised for the insensitive handling of its Arab characters, the film has some fruitful tension between Denzel Washington, urging caution, and Willis, personifying gung-ho military might.

16. The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Misogyny runs through this nasty piece of action cinema from Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black and the director of Top Gun, Tony Scott. What charm it has can be attributed solely to Willis, handling the wisecracks with aplomb as a former secret service agent turned private eye, and Damon Wayans as the ex-NFL star with whom he teams up.

With Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout.
With Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

The thrill of seeing Willis working with an exciting young director (Rian Johnson) in this time-loop thriller, in which he and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play the same assassin at different ages, was dulled only slightly by the fact that he had ridden that merry-go-round before in 12 Monkeys. At least he seems more at ease here than steeped in the whimsy of Wes Anderson (who cast him in the same year’s Moonrise Kingdom).

14. Billy Bathgate (1991)

Robert Benton’s gangster yarn kicks off with Willis facing death in a bow tie and tux. But what a way to go: Dustin Hoffman orders the execution, Steve Buscemi ties him up, Nicole Kidman looks on aghast. You’ve heard of “Garbo Laughs!” Prepare for something almost as rare: “Willis Weeps!”

13. Mortal Thoughts (1991)

In the same year, Willis was once again killed off quickly by a quality film-maker – Alan Rudolph this time (who later directed him in a jumbled 1999 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions). Other bad-guy movie roles followed but Mortal Thoughts was his first: he plays a lout whose wife (Glenne Headly) plots his demise. Willis’s then-spouse Demi Moore is her bestie.

12. Fast Food Nation (2006)

In Richard Linklater’s film of Eric Schlosser’s McIndustry exposé, Willis has a cameo as the VP of fictional burger chain Mickey’s, who shrugs off the discovery that his restaurant’s patties contain faecal matter. “We all have to eat a little shit from time to time,” says the owner of modern cinema’s finest shit-eating grin.

As John McClane in Die Hard With a Vengeance.
As John McClane in Die Hard With a Vengeance. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Allstar

11. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)

This threequel is the wildest of the four further adventures of John McClane, thanks to a killer opening 40 minutes in which he is sent zigzagging across New York on a string of perilous errands. Jeremy Irons, as the taunting brother of the original film’s villain, pulls the strings; Samuel L Jackson comes to the rescue.

Bruce plays Bruce in this brace of Tinseltown comedies. In Robert Altman’s Hollywood comeback, Willis’s death-row rescue of Julia Roberts (“Traffic was a bitch”) at the end of the film-within-a-film signals the ultimate compromise. Meanwhile, in Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Art Linson’s memoir, Willis throws a tantrum when producer Robert De Niro asks him to shed his lovingly cultivated beard – a scene based on Linson’s real-life standoff with Alec Baldwin.

9. 16 Blocks (2006)

Willis sports a bristly ’tache and extra worry lines as Jack Mosley, the sad-sack cop accompanying a murder witness to court. If only he had seen Clint Eastwood in The Gauntlet, Jack would realise that this is no cakewalk: bent cops with itchy trigger fingers are out to ruin his day. The lively rapport between Willis and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) makes this more fun for us than it is for the characters.

With Alexandra Powers in Last Man Standing.
With Alexandra Powers in Last Man Standing. Photograph: Pm Entertainment Group Inc/Allstar

8. Last Man Standing (1996)

Walter Hill’s Yojimbo remake casts Willis in the Toshiro Mifune role of the bodyguard-mercenary caught between two warring gangs. It is interesting to see him squaring off against Christopher Walken: not only are the two men diametrically opposed in acting style (Walken’s ostentatious quirkiness meets Willis’s shrugging resignation) and appearance (sharp angles versus doughy softness), but they had also recently played father and son in Pulp Fiction, albeit without appearing on screen together.

7. Bandits (2001)

Willis is the stickup merchant who will lay on the charm even when he’s carjacking you (“Ma’am? Don’t forget your purse!”). He and partner-in-crime Billy Bob Thornton – nicknamed the Sleepover Bandits for their habit of moving in with the bank manager the night before a robbery – acquire a third wheel in the shape of Cate Blanchett. Highlights include her and Willis bonding over their mutual love of Total Eclipse of the Heart.

6. In Country (1989)

Rising 1980s Brit star Emily Lloyd is the fatherless teen living with her uncle Emmett (Willis), a droopy-moustached Vietnam veteran prone to battlefield flashbacks. “Some think he’s gonna snap,” say the townsfolk, and Willis does well this early in his career to suggest unreachable corners of a damaged psyche. “There’s something missing and I can’t get it back,” he confesses movingly as his niece cradles him in the woods.

With Emily Lloyd in In Country.
With Emily Lloyd in In Country. Photograph: Warner Bros/Allstar

5. Pulp Fiction (1994)

As the coiled slugger who is too proud to throw a fight, Willis has never been sexier than when he is purring silly sweet nothings to his “lemon pie” (Maria de Medeiros) as they hide out in a hotel room. Nor has he been more intimidating than when his mood flips a few moments later. Quentin Tarantino compared Willis to Sterling Hayden and Robert Mitchum, calling him “the only contemporary actor who suggests the 1950s”.

4. 12 Monkeys (1995)

Terry Gilliam refused to allow Willis’s entourage on the set of this La Jetée-inspired brain-scrambler, and banned him from drawing on his usual repertoire of smug smirks. The result was an impressively destabilised performance from a man who tends not to do vulnerable. He plays a time-traveller escaping a future in which 99% of civilisation has been wiped out. Gilliam later said that Willis wanted “to show that he was a real actor”. Mission accomplished.

With Madeleine Stowe in 12 Monkeys.
With Madeleine Stowe in 12 Monkeys. Photograph: Universal/Allstar

3. Nobody’s Fool (1994)

Willis is sublime as part of the flawless ensemble cast in Robert Benton’s acutely observed small town comedy. He plays Carl Roebuck, an ornery, philandering construction boss engaged in a war of attrition with his occasional employee (Paul Newman), who wants compensation for a workplace injury. Willis raises his game to match Newman, Melanie Griffith, Jessica Tandy and a young Philip Seymour Hoffman while still exuding effortlessness. Try hard? It doesn’t show.

2. The Fifth Element (1997)

Breezy abandon with a top note of irascibility has long been Willis’s brand. Even so, he has rarely enjoyed himself as visibly, or had such a transformative effect on the rest of a movie, as he does in Luc Besson’s nutty science-fiction escapade. As a cab-driving everyman, his muddy platinum dye-job and clinging tangerine Gaultier vest show him at his most swoon-worthy. His chemistry with Chris Tucker (replacing Prince in the squealing sidekick role) is a special delight.

Die Hard.
Die Hard. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Allstar

1. Die Hard (1988)

If Moonlighting, the TV romcom on which Willis jousted winningly with Cybill Shepherd, represented the foundations on which his persona was built, then the first and finest Die Hard movie was the skyscraper that lifted it into the realm of the heavenly. As John McClane, the New York cop rolling his eyes at airy-fairy Los Angelenos, he would have had an appealing Sunday-morning sluggishness in any context. Stick him in a high rise, held hostage during Christmas party season, and he brings fresh comic sparkle to the shoot-’em-up genre.

Head baddie Hans Gruber (a delectable Alan Rickman) mistakes McClane for a Rambo figure, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Unlike Stallone’s brute, McClane isn’t gleeful about wreaking carnage; he would rather be having a brew in front of the TV. But if he really must bring down a crack team of terrorists singlehandedly, he’ll give it his all.

Within 15 minutes of the opening credits, Willis is already wearing his trademark singlet, squint and lopsided smirk – the equivalent of Chaplin’s bowler hat, cane and moustache. Once the vest is caked with grime and gore, he is bare-chested, the dad-bod gleaming with sweat, the receding bedhead giving new hope to slobs and baldies alike. Yippee-kai-yay!

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