With Die Hard, Willis established himself as one of the world’s premiere action stars. He didn’t have the physique of an Arnold Schwarzenegger or the training of a Jean-Claude Van Damme, but he was a man of the people, and the people have loved his various everyman heroes over the ensuing years. During that time, Willis has refused to rest on his laurels as an international action star and has done his best to demonstrate his range. As both a leading man and an ensemble player, Willis has turned in some surprisingly good performances in many memorable movies, and hopefully, the films on this list give you an idea of the many different things Willis can do.
If this list were about my own favorite films, I would’ve saved this spot for Color of Night, one of my favorite guilty pleasures. But Rian Johnson’s smart sci-fi movie Looper is probably the best thing Willis has done in the last 15 years. The film allows him to play his age. He no longer has to be indestructible. It’s a film about time, and what violence can do to a man, and though it was likely built on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, it was sold on Willis and the audience he brings in.
The diner scene where Old Joe meets his younger self is terrific, and I liked how Willis played this role with a bit of ambiguity. He’s trying to prevent his wife’s death by killing her murderer in the past, and you’re never quite sure how far Old Joe will go for love. Who would the guy from Expendables consider to be expendable, at that point?
Johnson’s script certainly elevates the film above several other competitors vying for the #10 slot, but it’s Willis (and co-star Emily Blunt) who make the difference between this film and Brick. Aided by the magic of visual effects, Gordon-Levitt does a good job playing a younger Willis, and as they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
9. Sin City
Sin City is very much a multi-stranded narrative with an ensemble cast, and every character is so strange with their own unique quirks. However, given how Bruce Willis’ gruff demeanor is something only he can do, the grumpy everyman character of Detective John Hartigan is the perfect role for the actor, and he steals the show whenever he’s on screen.
Hartigan calls to memory another character called John that Willis played, the iconic John McClane, and they both share a lot of characteristics. But it’s so fascinating to see Willis in a movie that’s so unapologetically stylish and full of oddball characters. The actor hadn’t let his hair down in a movie that’s as much about the aesthetic as it is about the narrative since The Fifth Element, which came 8 years earlier.
8. Die Hard With A Vengeance
The second Die Hard movie was a fine popcorn flick, but it essentially repeated the same story of the original movie beat for beat, only it was set in an airport instead of a skyscraper. However, Die Hard with a Vengeance, the third movie in the series, took the franchise to New York, which was the first of many refreshing changes.
The film had the style of a buddy-cop comedy more than anything, as it teamed up Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, who sped around New York solving a villain’s clues almost like Batman and Robin solving the Riddler’s puzzles. The 1995 movie is by far the best of the four Die Hard sequels, and some even think it’s better than the original.
7. The Fifth Element
Just like Sin City, The Fifth Element sees Bruce Willis playing an everyman surrounded by strange and peculiar characters, and it doesn’t get talked about enough when debating the best sci-fi movies. The 1997 film is a weird science fiction blockbuster with an even weirder cast that, on paper, wouldn’t gel.
Along with Willis, the movie stars Gary Oldman, who plays Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, an evil and hammy space dictator, and comedian Chris Tucker, who plays flamboyant talk-show host Ruby Rhod. But somehow, the movie works, it’s so much fun, and it has the aesthetic of a Ru Paul-directed Star Wars film.
Unbreakable was the start of an unlikely and unexpected movie universe, as the series continued with the surprise sequel Split, and then the team-up movie Glass. And while those films are entertaining in their own right, they can’t compete with the philosophical questions that Unbreakable asks and the unique approach it has to comic book tropes.
Though Willis never played a major superhero, despite fans wanting him to appear in the MCU, David Dunn (Willis) is very much a more realistic version of a superhero. And he lowkey has one of the most interesting hero/villain dynamics with Mr. Glass.
5. 12 Monkeys
In an interview with Aint It Cool News, Willis revealed his favorite movies of all time, and of all 14 of them, there was only one sci-fi movie on the list. That film was Alien, one of the most thought-provoking and profound films ever made, so his love of the 1979 movie could be what made him take the starring role in 12 Monkeys, a just as profound and mind-blowing sci-fi movie.
The film follows a man who travels from the future to warn people about a deadly virus that kills the entire population. The movie’s complex narrative requires multiple rewatches, not only to grasp what’s going on but because it’s a visual spectacle.
4. The Sixth Sense
The Sixth Sense was a phenomenon when it was released. Through sheer word of mouth, the movie managed to earn $670 million worldwide, which is all the more impressive considering it had a budget of just $40 million. While the box office intake was certainly helped by Willis’s starring role, audiences hadn’t seen anything like it until 1999.
The film established writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s style of delivering huge, jaw-dropping twists. And while that might have been a case of diminishing returns throughout his career, there was nothing more shocking than that revealed in the film’s closing moments.
3. Die Hard
People will debate for years over whether or not Die Hard is a Christmas movie. But regardless of whichever camp audiences belong to, there’s no denying that the 1988 blockbuster is one of the best action films of all time.
The film was ridiculously influential, as there have been so many knock-off action movies that are all set in one location with a John McClane-type character. But none of them will ever come close to the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of the original. Even despite Willis’s career going on for another 34 years after the movie, Die Hard still contains the best fight scenes Bruce Willis ever filmed.
2. Pulp Fiction
As Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and John Travolta appeared on stage at this year’s Academy Awards to celebrate the 28th anniversary of Pulp Fiction, it wasn’t the same without Willis up there. While Pulp Fiction has a great ensemble cast full of unique characters, Butch had the best scenes.
Whether it’s the initial meeting with Marsellus Wallace, the vignette-like sequence in the taxi with Esmerelda, or when he murders Vincent, Butch could be seen as the protagonist of Pulp Fiction of all the characters. The 1994 classic is one of the most important Hollywood movies ever, and Willis is a major part of its legacy.
1.The Last Boy Scout
Willis became a cheap punchline for his practice of appearing in any terrible straight-to-video thriller willing to pay him $1 million per day while requiring him to exert as little effort as possible. In many of them, he acts entirely while seated, sometimes blatantly wearing an earpiece to be fed dialogue; given what we now know of his health, this seems less a case of laziness than Willis simply trying to hang on and build as much of a nest egg as possible before becoming wholly unable to work. After all, one of the things that typified a lot of Willis’ earlier career was his ability to play trash with conviction, like his turn as the roughneck who saves the world in Michael Bay’s Armageddon. The neo-noir thriller The Last Boy Scout is on some level also trash — bookended by wildly over-the-top action sequences at football stadiums — elevated not only by director Tony Scott’s self-awareness of how ridiculous it all is, but by the sheer force of Willis’ performance as a disgraced Secret Service agent turned seedy private detective. He’s a natural with the snarky Shane Black dialogue, but he also plays this role with the world-weariness and gravity of the hero of a Humphrey Bogart film.