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)
While 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)
As 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)
Sequels 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)
There 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)
When 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)
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? 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)
Surely 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)
SPOILER 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)
Dishevelled 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)
After 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.