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Film

10 Bruce Willis roles that confirm him as a legend

Whether or not he’s your favourite actor, there’s no denying the fact that Bruce Willis is a very good actor, and undeserving of the Razzie award that was intended for him until the news of his ill health made them reconsider their decision. One wonders why they bothered considering the diversity of his work.

Willis made his presence known on television when he appeared in Moonlighting during the 1980s and went on to become of the most important titans of 1990s cinema. He worked with some of the most inventive directors of the decade and brought a sense of integrity to every role offered to him.

Even at his smallest, Willis exuded gravitas and greatness, happily peeling back the layers of the character to showcase an insight into the world of the person saying the line. In essence, he became his character, leading a body of work that was built from the bottom up.

If this reads like a eulogy, it shouldn’t, but it’s unlikely that we will see the actor enter the cinesphere in the near future. Instead, the actor can luxuriate in a body of work that stands as a life, as well as a collection of finely crafted roles.

The 10 best Bruce Willis performances:

10. Oceans 12 (Steven Soderbergh)

Trust Bruce Willis to appear as himself in a cameo that was as assured in itself as strongly as it resisted the urge to enter into a complete farce. In an inconvenient turn of events, Willis turns up and unwittingly puts the kybosh on the gang of criminals who have dressed up one of their crew as Julia Roberts (who, incidentally, is played by Julia Roberts),

He punctuates the scenery with something of a Samuel Beckett style pause, and the ultimate joke is that the characters are so wrapped up in their fiction, they forget to check out their reality.

9. Armageddon (1998, Michael Bay)

Before Ambulance, this was the only Michael Bay movie worth watching, precisely because it was so keen to pinpoint the general absurdity of the situation. Indeed, actor Ben Affleck recalled the ludicrous nature of the plot, asking his director why these characters were being sent to space. Bay told him to “shut your mouth”.

Willis plays a hard at work drill mechanic, strong with his hands and quick with a quip, unwilling to sit by and let incompetency ruin his great country. In one way, he’s mocking the hard-knuckled average American that sees their country as the best in the world.

8. The Fifth Element (1997, Luc Besson)

And we’re into the world of science fiction, although it’s hard to say what science went into this film, as it’s almost entirely fiction. But Willis is solid, catering to fans who were growing tired of the fairy-tales bandied by George Lucas, giving them something meatier and sturdier to clutch on to. The actor managed to bag himself Fridays off as part of the arrangement, but there’s nothing flimsy about the performance.

“So then I made a deal with Bruce,” the director recalled, “And I said what about rather than working 5 days, you know, from like Monday through Friday, you work for 4 days per week? Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, but you sit on the box next to me by the camera and we shoot like crazy, and he said OK”.

7. The Expendables (2010, Sylvester Stallone)

The Expendables is one of the worst films issued during a decade of terrible films, but it does have one moment where Willis shares the screen with fellow 1980s beefcakes Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The scene is inflected with a collection of barbed remarks and haughtily knowing references. Neither Willis nor Schwarzenegger were credited with their performances, which is more the pity because there’s more whimsy in this scene alone than in the rest of the film.

So, this was the scene that launched a thousand ships, curating a series that has seen Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas and Chuck Norris joining the scenery in the unfortunate franchise that followed this truly dreadful piece of cinema. To call the film flat is an insult to the surface of roads that help lift elderly people on their way to the post office. If you wish to swip the film – I certainly will be doing so – Willis’ scene can be found on YouTube.

6. Pulp Fiction (1994, Quentin Tarantino)

Quentin Tarantino may be Hollywood’s bête noire, but there was a time when he was the most exciting director on the countercultural circuit. His scripts were written with a great punch; his action set-pieces were directed with terrific fire; and his screenplays drew in such celebrated actors as Samuel L. Jackson, Robert De Niro and Bruce Willis.

Willis appears in Pulp Fiction, playing the alpha male boxer that had populated cinemas in the 1980s. It’s less Raging Bull, as it is “racing pussycat”, as Willis’ character tries to screw over every employer he has to ride off into the sunset, with no care in the world. He gets an arc in his short amount of screentime, saving the life of the very man he tried to rip off.

5. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)

Invariably, Willis wound up working with seminal auteur Wes Anderson, in an attempt to return to his slapstick comedy roots. Willis had a quirky side to his wheelhouse, that few directors were happy to take advantage of, but the director of The Royal Tenenbaums was happy to tap into the weird and wonderful performances that lay behind the eyes of an actor better accustomed to action that angular, arch post-modernistic realisation.

The actor holds a certain poise as the film’s anchor and muscle, gifting it a sensibility that is ostensibly quite modern and sullen. He brings a masculine detachment to a film that is otherwise populated by the fey, finely felt and nicely tuned performances. The film is Anderson to a tee, capturing the proclivities of the work, making it an essential addition to the body of work for both him and Willis.

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

Endlessly imitated, but never bettered, The Sixth Sense was the first of the low-key horror movies to capture the imagination of the world at large. What it held was a striking, even ghostly, performance from Willis, who had to carry the film almost entirely on his own two shoulders. He’s there, but he isn’t really there, disappearing into the shadows whenever the script or the scene requires him to do some hiding for the sake of the audience and the story.

Arguably the most accomplished film to make this list, the film holds up nicely over the years, creating a new sense of entanglement and tidy collection of responsibility of horror cinema. Rewarding the intellectual sensibilities of the audience, the film allowed audiences the chance to imbibe the nuances of the tale in question. It’s glorious.

3. Twelve Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995)

Director Terry Gilliam reportedly gave Willis a list of cliches he didn’t want to see in the performance. That Willis had the stomach to take it, and not slap him says everything about his commitment to the story was rewarded with one of the most impressive lead performances of his career. He stars alongside heavyweights Christopher Plummer and Brad Pitt, happily playing as part of an ensemble of crazy players.

Although the finished product isn’t as strong as Brazil, Twelve Monkeys carries on the narrative of the 1985 film, creating a portal into the far edges of man’s sanity, and by doing so, lets the narrative explode before the eyes of the viewers who helped create the world we collectively sink in.

2. Looper (2012, Rian Johnson)

Contrary to what I said earlier about the 2010s being one of the worst decades in cinema, it did produce one genuine classic, the same year the world fell for the flimsily plotted SkyFall in a last-ditch attempt to celebrate Britain in a time of dying Empire. Looper, on the other hand, is simply brilliant, re-calibrating the time-travelling narrative for the more discerning audiences of the 20th century.

Viewers demanded a hefty degree of intellectualism to go along with their Saturday afternoon spectacles. Willis plays across from Joseph Gordon Levitt, playing the older, wiser character, in a labyrinthian web of lies and levity, never falling down to the promise or the power of the tricky plot in question.

1. Die Hard (1988, John McTiernan)

There could only be one because it’s the mother of all modern action movies. Tightly coiled, and brimming with suspense, not forgetting the wickedly funny one-liners that soar through the script, Die Hard started a franchise that never reached the heights of the first film. But that’s ok because no action film has reached the heights of the first Die Hard film. And it’s unlikely any action film will ever reach the heights of it.

Indeed, the film is nicely paced, creating an icy sense of pathos and despair, putting the central character in the middle of the building he needs to save from demolition, for the sake of his wife and marriage. The film is a brilliant one, and although Alan Rickman gets the best lines, it’s Willis who holds the film together.