It’s hard to imagine what movies would be like today if they had never been touched by the work of Bruce Willis. Arnold might have the muscles and Sly the cold stare, but Willis brought an everyman approach to action movies that made us believe even we could take down the bad guys if confronted with such a scenario. A great comedian as well and all-around actor, Willis possesses something tremendously special that makes him an undeniable Hollywood favorite. Yet for every role that’s come with acclaim, there has been at least one that’s been summarily panned. Here are (almost half with numbers in the title, strangely) the best and worst of Bruce Willis.
No. 5 – “Twelve Monkeys” (1995)
Nobody quite does dystopia like Terry Gilliam, a director whose films, with their incredible visual feats, can almost be enjoyed as much with the sound off as on. In “Twelve Monkeys,” the visuals are bleak and cold, as is the time-traveling story it tells. Willis is the hero here, for sure, but without his trademark bravado and smirk, beaten down by a civilization a virus has vanquished and a past that does not treat his from-the-future interference kindly. At its conclusion, the audience doesn’t feel compelled to jump up and down as they might at the same point in Willis’ normal sci-fi and/or action fare. Instead, they are left with an uneasy feeling, a tangible knot in the chest along with rumination and reflection that they’ve just witnessed at tale of chilling incandescence and substance.
No. 4 – “The Fifth Element” (1997)
It is very common in film for the middle-aged leading man to be paired with a much younger lady love interest. That’s the only typical thing about “The Fifth Element.” Everything else in this high-octane, candy-colored, proudly daffy sci-fi extravaganza is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Willis has made his share of wild escapades that march to their own drum, but this one is the coolest and most enjoyable of that lot. Here he is in full Bruce mode: macho, blue collar, quick with the quotable quip, and the only living being who can save the world. With the nonstop chaos that flies around the screen throughout “Element’s” two hour plus runtime, Willis’ presence maintains a steady ship as he keeps calm and carries on in an effort to prevent Earth’s 24th century from becoming its last.
No. 3 – “The Sixth Sense” (1999)
This movie may dispute the notion that “it’s always sunny in Philadelphia,” particularly when unhappy ghosts of the prematurely dead are out and about. However, what we can agree on is that this is director M. Night Shyamalan’s very best work and boasts perhaps the second greatest twist in film history. It also features the most adorably creepy kid since Frankenstein’s monster tossed that little girl into the lake. But our article is about Bruce Willis, so lets close discussing him. We don’t often see such a subdued side to his roles or him carrying around palpably repressed pain and grief. Why’s he so bummed out all the time? Is it because the kids he treats give everyone else the heebie-jeebies? Or that his wife, exhibiting her own palpably repressed pain and grief, seems to be messing around with that younger dude? A great question that might be easily answered if only he paid more careful attention to the adorably creepy kid’s Hall of Fame-worthy movie quote.
No. 2 – “Pulp Fiction” (1994)
He wanted the part of Vincent Vega since it was the film’s lead, but it had already been promised to John Travolta. That casting choice came with its own controversies, since Travolta’s star had fallen greatly in early ‘90s Hollywood. Willis really wanted to work with Quentin Tarantino since seeing “Reservoir Dogs,” the novice director’s electrifying debut and “Pulp’s” producers wanted a huge box office draw. (At the time, Samuel L. Jackson was mostly just getting mistaken for Laurence Fishburne.) In the end, Willis accepted the smaller role of the washed up boxer crossing a very powerful crime lord. There is perfection in “Pulp Fiction,” a masterpiece that not only shook up the multiplex, but redefined film-making itself. Willis is not just along for the ride here, instead one of a handful of hugely talented drivers, whether behind the wheel of a beat up Civic or atop a recently ownerless chopper.
No. 1 – “Die Hard” (1988)
Somehow, he had us at “Fists with your toes?” “Die Hard” may begin with a plane landing, but from start to finish it soars higher than most films can ever dream of reaching. And in any discussion of the best action movie of all time, this 1988 blockbuster features prominently, if not definitively. (That this is also the best Christmas movie ever made is a compelling argument all its own.) Willis had only led a big screen cast once before in the uneven and modestly seen comedy “Blind Date.” Television audiences had already fallen in love with him in the sharp, charming one-hour private eye comedy “Moonlighting,” but as John McClane–a role he would go on to revisit four more times–the actor literally blew the roof off this nonstop roller coaster ride of a film. A film whose influence can be felt in the way action movies are made today. For a movie to make us cheer “yippe-ki-yay, motherfucker” with every repeat viewing is only further evidence that “Die Hard” is Bruce Willis’ best.
No. 5 – “Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990)
It was the novel that had everyone talking in the ‘80s. A fierce, cynical exposé of greed and excess set at the intersection of a politicized legal system and the tabloid press in the heart of a racially divided New York City. Its international success made its author, Tom Wolfe, already a legend of nonfiction, break through into the world of fiction with immediate acclaim. Then, Hollywood and Brian DePalma got a hold of it and spent tens of millions of dollars turning it into a disgraceful bomb. Devotees of the book saw that Willis was miscast from the get-go, and his bad behavior on set has been well-documented. A truly amazing cast that included Tom Hanks, Melanie Griffith, Morgan Freeman and more couldn’t save it, either. While “Bonfire” burned up quickly at the box office, it left behind a stench that has never really gone away.
No. 4 – “Breakfast of Champions” (1999)
Nothing nutritious here. Just another failed attempt at making a bestseller into a socially conscious black comedy. As a successful used car dealer coasting through daily life in perpetual mental breakdown, Willis’ onscreen mania achieves no payoff, descending only into directionless hysterics. Even though Kurt Vonnegut makes a cameo in this adaptation of his highly influential novel, like the critics, even he himself was not able to muster an endorsement. In some closing commentary for the audiobook of “Breakfast of Champions,” the maverick author would go on to agree that the film version was “painful to watch.”
No. 3 – “Hudson Hawk” (1991)
This was the first writing credit of Willis’ career… and his last. A muddled mess of an action comedy with over-the-top performances from just about everyone on screen, yet with little to nothing to laugh at. Not Willis and co-star Danny Aiello singing–yes singing–through heist sequences. Or the revelation that the items they’d be stealing possessed components for a device that would turn base metals into gold. There is nothing golden found in any one of “Hawk’s” one hundred chaotic minutes. Instead, the film flopped very loudly in theaters as the summer of 1991 began, and though Willis did not win a Razzie award as a nominee for this performance, the film itself took home three.
No. 2 – “The Whole Ten Yards” (2004)
The first one, with “Nine” in the title, was kind of good. Maybe? There were some laughs and it did well at the box office, but did it really need a sequel? Watching “Ten,” one realizes that answer is no. Matthew Perry, as a hapless dentist, teams up again with retired hitman Willis for more jokes and bloodshed. However, the jokes aren’t so funny and the plot is so befuddling that the bloodshed just stands out as the icing on what is essentially a urinal cake of a film. Audience response to this flop was so dismal that it likely won’t spawn an “Eleven.” Then again, that didn’t seem to stop “Ocean’s Twelve.”
No. 1 – “Cop Out” (2010)
“A pair of cops suspended from duty hunt for one’s stolen, valuable baseball card–now possessed by a dangerous gangster–so it can be sold to pay for his daughter’s wedding” already sounds like the premise of an unwatchable buddy comedy even before you find out it was directed by Kevin Smith. Willis and Tracy Morgan lead a pretty great cast in what is inevitably an awfully terrible movie that is our featured subject’s worst. What’s more interesting than “Cop Out” itself is what happened after it flopped. Smith called out Willis publicly for excruciatingly unprofessional behavior on the set and then Smith was called out in return for being a pothead director. Now that’s a behind-the-scenes we’d definitely plunk down 14 bucks to see.