Bruce Willis: A Celebration
To call Bruce Willis an icon of American cinema is an understatement. His career has spanned several decades with massive success, and while his most recent spate of direct-to-video offerings have drawn sniggers from some, you’ll be seeing no such derision here. It’s high time we celebrate the man, the myth, the legend. An incredible actor who gave us so much entertainment over the years and who we know will stand up and fight his most recent health battles with all the vigour, strength and perseverance that he showed in his most beloved roles.
Sadly, we have just seen the release of his final film, Assassin. His early retirement from acting due to his 2022 diagnosis of Aphasia, and his more recent diagnosis of Frontotemporal Dementia is going to leave a huge hole in the movie landscape.
Join us as we take you through the “Best of Bruce”. A celebration of his charisma, his versatility and his effortless star power as a movie leading man, a television actor, and yes, even a bloody decent musician/singer.
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Top Shelf Bruce
Top shelf Bruce Willis movies shared something not many actors of his generation could match. The films themselves were all considered game-changers of their time.
Unfairly pigeonholed as an Action star by the time he did Pulp Fiction in 1994, the reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. He had already starred in an array of genres by that time, and sure, there was Die Hard (a breakout role that would be near impossible for anyone to shake) but there were also risky choices like Death Becomes Her and In Country. Roles that allowed him to flex his acting chops more broadly. Something director’s like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys) and M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) couldn’t ignore.
While Pulp Fiction was an ensemble masterpiece, it was Bruce’s Butch Coolidge that really possessed the beating heart of the movie. He was tough…brutal even…but he was also sensitive, romantic and a good guy who simply could not allow injustice to prevail (“Zed’s dead baby, Zed’s dead…”)
It was his beautifully subtle performance as a child psychologist in The Sixth Sense that we can’t seem to shake though. In a movie that many believe exhibits the single biggest plot twist of all time, it was Bruce who held that glue together with poise. Never allowing the secret to slip, with just the right amount of understated acting prowess.
It’s true, Bruce will forever be known as an “Action Movie Hero”. And while his best films overall may not have always been his Action movies, it was one film and one film only that solidified that title for him forever.
Die Hard is a once in a generation movie that made Bruce a megastar. It was…and still is, the ultimate Action movie centrepiece. The movie any filmmaker will point to as the yardstick with which to measure Action movies themselves. Did any other of his forays into this genre come close to Die Hard? Well, the simple answer is no..but some are still great fun to watch to this day. The Last Boy Scout is dumb and preposterous, but defined the late 80’s/early 90’s action buddy movie template. Frank Miller’s Sin City is an ambitious action/crime fable that has great performances and an original aesthetic, while Red and its sequel were goofy fun with a killer cast and some great moments.
It’s important to remember that before he starred in Die Hard, Bruce was a TV star. Studio execs were nervous at him being cast as John McClane. It’s hard to believe now, but Bruce was considered a very risky and left-field choice, and the role was first offered to the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, James Caan and Richard Gere before it landed in Bruce’s lap.
It’s easy to forget that one of the most appealing aspects of Die Hard was the “everyman character thrown into peril” and Bruce brought that to the table in a way we doubt any of those other actors could have. He was vulnerable, he was flawed…he was human.
Still predominantly planted in the action hero role, Bruce had huge success in the Science Fiction genre. His choices seemed to drift from the big budget, bombastic blockbusters (Armageddon) to smaller, more sophisticated and cerebral Sci-Fi (Looper) but none of his theatrically released outings in this genre were bad movies. In fact, some have gone on to become bona fide classics of the genre. Even his lesser titles, like 2009’s Surrogates at least came with a fascinating premise and was certainly very well made. While a film like Armageddon was pure over-the-top, flag waving Americana cheese, Bruce, in our minds, was probably the best thing about it.
For us it’s a close battle between The Fifth Element, a cult favourite that has garnered a stronger fanbase as years have passed, and Looper, an under-appreciated gem that threw up some challenging and thought-provoking concepts. We’ve also discussed 12 Monkeys earlier, another Bruce film with a strong Sci-Fi edge.
The Fifth Element takes the prize by a nose, simply for its bold spin on the Sc-Fi movie aesthetic and its ability to not take itself too seriously. We think this could be a rewatchable classic for years to come.
Perhaps it was growing up and first encountering Bruce through his TV stint on Moonlighting, where he played a brash, fast talking and wickedly humorous private investigator, or maybe it’s because he always seemed to inject strong elements of comedy into his most famous action roles, but I’ve always seen Bruce as a comedic actor who happens to do a lot of Action movies.
It could also have been that Bruce’s first major film role was 1987’s Blind Date. A straightforward comedy farce, complete with hit and miss one-liners, hilarious pratfalls and a dog that steals the movie. It was far from a success, but this was pre-Die Hard Bruce, and it was the genre we all thought he’d continue with.
Even after Die Hard, in 1989’s Look Who’s Talking, his voice acting as the baby in the film was the secret sauce that made it such a massive hit (and still Bruce’s 4th highest grossing career movie). He would later go on to find some great comedic roles in hits like Death Becomes Her and The Whole Nine Yards, while he also provided memorable support in movies like Moonrise Kingdom, where his “sad, dumb policeman” is said to be one of his favourite characters he has played.
Bruce has great comic ability, and his most successful movies often have at least an element of humour to them, but as far as direct comedic roles, we would lean towards Death Becomes Her. It’s a silly movie no doubt, but if you go in with a low set bar you’ll have a wildly fun time.
It’s not uncommon for successful, established actors to try their hand at different genres. We’ve seen Jim Carrey do Drama, De Niro do comedy, but despite his status as an Action icon, we never really doubted Bruce as a dramatic actor. It’s not the genre he’s best known for, but his stoic performance in The Sixth Sense was no fluke. Much earlier in his career he had several dramatic roles where he excelled.
1989’s In Country, a slow burn drama where Bruce plays a Vietnam vet with PTSD was one such example. Released a year after Die Hard, it’s Bruce in a completely different light, showcasing his range beautifully, and even garnering him a Golden Globe Award. The Story of Us was also a good fit. This Romantic Dramedy costarring Michelle Pfeiffer once again allowed audiences to see a different side to Bruce. More recently he had a pivotal role in the underrated Ed Norton film, Motherless Brooklyn. A late career reminder that Bruce could still bring the goods.
At a time when he was fetching circa $15 million per film, Bruce chose to take a significant pay cut to appear in Nobody’s Fool starring Paul Newman. Sitting at a 91% Rotten Tomatoes rating this was without doubt a Paul Newman vehicle, but it’s also well worth watching for Bruce in his absolute prime. He commands the screen with charisma, and his usual sly sense of humour.
After a small handful of guest roles in shows like Miami Vice, Bruce was cast in Moonlighting, the series that would make him a TV star and set the trajectory for his entire career. It was a role that fit Bruce perfectly – a smug, cheeky private investigator in a show that swung from comedy to drama, to off-the-wall experimentation throughout its 67 episodes. At its peak, Moonlighting was a ratings hit and a critical darling. For those interested, it’s still an extremely watchable series to this day.
Bruce had other noteworthy TV roles worth calling out. He starred in the first (and perhaps the best) episode of the 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone called Shatterday (it’s got high 80’s cheese-factor, but well worth a watch) and was of course a superstar guest player as Paul Stevens on Friends, Ross’s much younger girlfriend’s over-protective father. Yet another reminder of his effortless comic timing. Perhaps the best display of Bruce’s comedic chops can be found in his 2-time hosting stint on Saturday Night Live in both 1989 and 2013. A quick youtube search will show you some great sketches he appeared in from both periods.
Rock Star Bruce
In the late 80’s Bruce tried his hand at singing, releasing his debut album The Return of Bruno in 1987. Not to be scoffed at, the album peaked at number 14 in the US charts with the single, Respect Yourself hitting number 5 in the singles charts.
Truth be told, Bruce was always a killer blues harmonica player. A fact re-established by this recent instagram post.
Action, Comedy, Sci-Fi, Drama. Bruce can do it all. TV star, movie leading man and damn fine musician. Here’s to you Bruce Willis!
Enjoy your well deserved retirement and keep up the fight. We are all behind you.