Top 10 Bruce Willis Performances

Mark Fraser celebrates Bruce Willis’ finer work – a man not universally loved by cinemagoers but someone who has enjoyed a few standout moments over the years, at times in films that are otherwise quite awful.

10. Color of Night (Richard Rush, 1994)

Bruce Willis in Color of NightWhile many would argue there is absolutely no reason on Earth why this campy piece of melodramatic murder mystery claptrap should be on any respectable film list, it has three things going for it – a pitch perfect (not to mention hammy) Willis performance as the traumatised psychiatrist Dr Bill Capa, Richard Rush’s direction and the presence of the stunningly attractive (and sometimes naked/sometimes dressed-as-a-man) Jane March in what was her second movie.

9. Death Becomes Her (Robert Zemeckis, 1992)

Bruce Willis in Death Becomes HerAs in Brian De Palma’s woeful take on The Bonfire of the Vanities two years earlier, Bruce proves he has, when required, a deft comic touch. This time he plays the sometimes daffy alcoholic cosmetic surgeon Dr Ernest Menville, the henpecked husband of actress Madeline Ashton (Meryl Streep), who gets caught up in a bizarre, ongoing feud between his wife and writer Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). Willis holds his own against two of Hollywood’s leading actresses. He also stands up pretty well against the special effects.

8. Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012)

Bruce Willis in LooperSequels aside, Willis is one of the few leading Hollywood men who has appeared in two major time travel movies – the first being Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys back in 1995 (see below). Fortunately, neither of these pictures is too offensive when it comes to abusing the space-time continuum thingie. Unlike in the Gilliam film, however, Bruce is quite mean-spirited in this one, playing a hoodlum who escapes the future so he can save both his and his wife’s skin, only to become a child killer and an assassination target for his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the process. The real problem here is that one of these two leads is miscast as Willis and Gordon-Levitt don’t really resemble each other.

7. Die Hard with a Vengeance (John McTiernan, 1995)

Bruce Willis in Die Hard with a VengeanceThere had to be a mention of at least one of the Die Hard franchise in this list, so I’ve gone for number three – mainly because Willis is pretty damn good as the hung-over and wisecracking John McClane during the film’s first 15 or so minutes. His repartee with co-star Samuel L Jackson throughout the rest of the movie isn’t too bad either, even if the whole thing eventually turns into pseudo-fascist macho swill.

6. Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998)

Bruce Willis in ArmageddonWhen a meteor the size of Texas threatens to destroy the world, it’s up to Harry Stamper (Willis) and his ragtag crew of drillers to save humankind by planting a nuclear bomb on the approaching space rock. Whatever one may think of this over-directed, haphazardly edited, derivative audience pleaser, there’s no denying that Bruce is one of the movie’s key assets – particularly when he pulls the switcheroo on his “future” son-in-law (Ben Affleck) so he can selflessly rescue the planet from annihilation. What a guy! Guilty pleasure is a term that comes to mind when watching a rerun of this disaster opus.

5. Mercury Rising (Harold Becker, 1998)

Bruce Willis in Mercury RisingWho didn’t silently cheer when errant FBI agent Art Jeffries (Willis) pisses off arch villain lieutenant colonel Nicholas Kudrow (Alec Baldwin) by dropping his prized bottles of vintage wine on the cellar floor? And who didn’t quietly shed a tear when orphaned kid-with-autism Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes) finally embraces Jeffries after the lawman has spent the entire film protecting him from the clutches of Kudrow’s evil intelligence organisation? These two moments alone stop this effort from sliding into Bruce’s B-list.

4. Sin City (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, 2005)

Bruce Willis in Robert Rodriguez's Sin CitySurely one of the most violently stylised moments in modern US cinema occurs when world weary police detective John Hartigan (Willis) finally catches up with evil child-killer Roark Junior (Nick Stahl) and literally smashes his face to a bloody pulp before shooting himself. He may not be Humphrey Bogart, but Bruce shows he’s got what it takes to be an effective noir anti-hero.

3. The Sixth Sense (M Night Shyamalan, 1999)

Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth SenseSPOILER WARNING – A key reason why writer-director M Night Shyamalan managed to pull off what was arguably the biggest surprise twist ending in the late 1990s was the quiet and measured performance of Willis as dead child psychologist Dr Malcolm Crowe, who seemingly takes on the case of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a nine year old who can see ghosts, only to find that his patient has taken him on. Bruce gives absolutely nothing away until the final reel, when it is revealed that he’s actually one of the dead people using the boy to find some kind of spiritual closure.

2. 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)

12 Monkeys, Film, Terry GilliamDishevelled time traveller James Cole (Bruce) tries to save the world from being exposed to a deadly virus that he survived as a child, only to find he is more sacrificial foot soldier than commando. A top notch piece of acting in a flawed, albeit intriguing, American masterpiece.

1. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

Bruce Willis in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp FictionAfter washed up boxer Butch (Willis) refuses to throw a fight for the mob, he has to delay his escape plans in order to retrieve a family heirloom (a gold watch) that has been left behind by his girlfriend (Maria de Medeiros). A towering performance by Bruce in this landmark gangster movie. If anything, it’s a crime he wasn’t nominated by Oscar for best supporting actor given he pretty much carried a good portion of the film on his shoulders.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: What are your favourite Bruce Willis performances?

About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    Ted S. Reply

    Who didn’t silently cheer when errant FBI agent Art Jeffries (Willis) pisses off arch villain lieutenant colonel Nicholas Kudrow (Alec Baldwin) by dropping his prized bottles of vintage wine on the cellar floor?

    I didn’t

    And who didn’t quietly shed a tear when orphaned kid-with-autism Simon Lynch (Miko Hughes) finally embraces Jeffries after the lawman has spent the entire film protecting him from the clutches of Kudrow’s evil intelligence organisation?

    I didn’t

    Sorry, didn’t mean to be a smart ass but I’m not a fan of that film. It’s one of the few action pictures from that era that took itself way too seriously and not enough action for a Bruce Willis film!

    Personally I would put John McClane from Die Hard 1 not 3 on the list but otherwise I agree with most of what you included there.

  2. Avatar
    J0hn [email protected]!! Reply

    Die Hard without a doubt. First big movie and was just great…….

  3. Avatar
    DR .AADYA Reply

    1)pulp fiction 2)the sixth sense 3) moonrise kingdom

  4. Avatar
    HARSHer than thou Reply

    Die Hard, 12 Monkeys and Looper

  5. Avatar
    Neil Mitchell Reply

    12 Monkeys, clearly.

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    James Brogan Reply

    Die Hard and Pulp Fiction and Sin City.

  7. Avatar
    Michael Scoates Reply

    Your top 3 were my top 3! I’ll add A Whole Nine Yards where he basically plays himself and… Moonlighting.

    • Avatar
      CineGirl Reply

      …and Matthew Perry basically plays Chandler out of Friends.

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    Amélie Poulain Reply

    Korben Dallas in The Fifth Element, his Die Hard role and Hudson Hawk.

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    ArchE Reply

    Ah… Bruce!

    I like that we have a distinction between performance and film here. However, I’m not sure there’s any point in making that distinction when we look at your top 2 (good choices). Actually, I might swap them around myself.

    Would I find a place for The Last Boy Scout – oh, yes Sir! Would I have mentioned the first Die Hard for the sake of it – oh, yes Sir (thanks for NOT doing that by the way).

    …I’m inspired… to watch Mercury Rising again. I’m sure I fell asleep the first time round…

    Good read Top 10 Films!

    • Avatar
      CineGirl Reply

      The Last Boy Scout – good one!

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    Greg Reply

    10. Planet Terror
    9. Hudson Hawk
    8. The Fifth Element
    7. Sin City
    6. Death Becomes Her
    5. The Sixth Sense
    4. Die Hard
    3. Lucky Number Slevin
    2. The Whole Nine Yards
    1. 12 Monkeys

  11. Avatar
    Lukey Luke Reply

    Love Die Hard 3 and Willis was so into the role by that time that I agree it’s his best performance of John McClane. However, I still think the first film is the best of the series. I do agree with your top 2 but wouldn’t include The Sixth Sense – never loved it as much as most, I felt Unbreakable was better.

    I would also have included The Fifth Element – his funniest role.

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    Sarah-Jane Reply

    top5 – Looper, The Fifth Element, Die Hard, Sin City aaaaaand Hudson Hawk. Sorry. #notsorry

  13. Avatar
    CineGirl Reply

    You’re right about Armageddon – a definite guilty pleasure.

    The Sixth Sense has a twist I never saw coming – it’s even better watching the film a second time through.

    My favourite two Willis performances are, however, the first Die Hard and The Fifth Element.

  14. Avatar
    Andrew Ellington Reply

    Moonrise Kingdom, Sixth Sense, Pulp Fiction, Die Hard, Looper, Death Becomes Her

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    Fulmer Reply

    Nobody’s Fool, Die Hard, 5th Element, 6th Sense, Red

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    Emily Reply

    Armageddon but not the original Die Hard??? Ehhh.

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      Dan Reply

      Given that Armageddon is one of my most despised Hollywood “summer” blockbusters, I’d tend to agree with you. I should like its straightforward thrills, one-liners, heroic posturing, action sequences etc., (just like I do in Independence Day, for example) but I don’t. Maybe it’s because it’s insufferably stupid – that might have something to do with it!

  17. Avatar
    Cinema Gang Reply

    Get Red in there – cracking performance!

    Also Lucky Number Slevin, The Last Boy Scout and 16 Blocks were all better than Mercury Rising and Armageddon!

    Most anti-Bruce role was 12 Monkeys so has to be up there at number one. Pulp Fiction is good though.

  18. Avatar
    sati Reply

    I love Death Becomes Her inclusion, he was so fantastic in the film, the movie is also incredibly underrated

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      …a bit like most of director Robert Zemeckis’ work. Aside from Back To The Future, his body of work seems to get lost as it’s seen as sort of Spielberg-lite.

  19. Avatar
    Rodney Reply

    You lost me at Color of Night. Easily one of the worst films ever.

    The rest – yeah, nice list.

    But having to witness Willis’s wiener in CON was just a step too far. Jane March should have been a superstar by now. She is freakin’ hot!!!

  20. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    I thought he was terrific in Unbreakable. Of course Sixth Sense and Die Hard are probably his other standouts.

    • Avatar
      Dan Reply

      Me too. That’s my favourite Shyamalan film.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    I can’t say I agree entirely with the list, but nice to see Color Of Night on here. I would have it a lot higher than at 10. It’s such a great thriller and Willis is great in it!. Death Becomes Her I didn’t care for very much.

  22. Avatar
    Neal Damiano Reply

    I liked Color Of Night, I’m not afraid, lol. Would it be on one of my top film lists, no. But it’s a fun thriller.

  23. Avatar
    Mark Reply

    @ all – thanx for the feedback. After I did this I checked some other Brucie top 10s and came to the conclusion that most people agreed on a hard core of them (Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, The Sixth Sense, Die Hard, Sin City and Armageddon). This forum has shown opinions are not as straightforward and a little more diverse, which makes Willis’ career even more interesting IMO.

    @ Ted S – I thought you were more funny than smart-arse. Anway, I did ….

    @ ArchE – You’ll probably fall asleep again. But yeah, he was good The Last Boy Scout … pity the film seemed to enjoy wallowing in misogyny, machismo and Tony Scott’s choppy editing

    @ CineGirl – What I liked about 6th Sense is that with the first viewing he gets away with it; with the second it’s all so bleeding obvious, yet he’s still flawless. Now there’s the mark of a clever actor

    @ Emily and Dan – you have a point; it’s just that I thought he really nailed it in DH III (plus he was pretty good in No 2 as well) …. not sure Armageddon deserves to be despised, as insufferably stupid as it might be

    @ Greg – I did consider Planet Terror for the novelty of it … such an unshamedly out there movie that even Tarantino’s presence couldn’t ruin it

    @ Lukey Luke – I didn’t mind him in Unbreakable, but I was only ever going to put one M Night Sharlatan film in there; besides I reckon he was a more interesting ghost than avenging angel.

    @ Rodney – cheers. And yes, whatever did happen to sister Jane?

    @ Neal – You would put CON higher? Wow!Sorta explains why your lists are always interesting …..

    • Avatar
      Neal Damiano Reply

      Yeah, I don’t fear what people think, Mark! I like what I like.

  24. Avatar
    Matthew Liedke Reply

    Nice list. Bruce Willis is a great actor and can be a bit under appreciated sometimes. I think two more performances I would have put on a list would be “Unbreakable,” and also “The Siege” where he played opposite of Denzel Washington.

  25. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    What, no Hudson Hawk? Just kidding. Your list hits pretty much all of my favorite Bruce Willis roles except for The Fifth Element and The Last Boy Scout. Those two would be very high on my top 10 Willis roles. Death Becomes Her, Color of Night, and Mercury Rising are less recognized Willis performances so I was glad to see them on here. Personally Looper and Diehard would move up further on my list than Sin City, Sixth Sense and Pulp Fiction (even though I love the movie as a whole).

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