As the legendary actor turns 68, Tom Jolliffe celebrates the best of Bruce Willis…
All of Hollywood was saddened last year by the news that Bruce Willis had been forced to hang up his gloves and retire from making movies, with a dementia diagnosis bringing to an end the career of an actor with a thoroughly stellar resume. Willis helped redefine the action genre. He also set forth one of the greatest cinematic debates ever: Is Die Hard a Christmas film? Of course it is. In fact, Die Hard IS Christmas for me. The season cannot begin until Hans Gruber has taken his swan dive. So, as the screen legend turns 68 let’s look back at the very best of Bruce Willis….
Bruce’s big screen break shook up the action genre. It was an era where Arnold and Sly were battling shirtless in run and gun cinema. They were cartoonishly indestructible and infallible. Bruce comes along as John McClane, a shlubby New York cop who doesn’t follow the rules. He was an everyman. A regular shmoe, who would famously become the monkey in the wrench, the fly in the ointment for a ruthless international terrorist, Hans Gruber (played with aplomb by Alan Rickman). Willis imbued his character with bar humour, blustering toughness but also vulnerability.
Die Hard works so well because the regular ol’ John is in way over his head, and as well as the lives of a few dozen hostages to consider, he has his wife to save too (and they’re on the downslope of a marriage). His bathroom confessional to Al Powell, the local beat cop he’s spoken to over radio is a scene that anchors emotional weight to Die Hard as we realise, despite the continued improvisation, daring feats of survival and one upping Gruber, McClane doesn’t fancy his chances. Die Hard hasn’t been bettered in the genre.
Die Hard 2
A sequel to the best action film ever made was inevitable. Willis returned to feature in a film that decided repetition was key. This time the action takes place in an airport where John finds himself walking into another terrorist plot. It may not come close to hitting the emotional points, or even tension of the original film but Die Hard 2: Die Harder is still a great action film given requisite flair by a young Renny Harlin, and with fine support in the cast from the returnees and the new band of villains lead by William Sadler.
The Last Boy Scout
I think I fucked a squirrel to death. Shane Black delivered another buddy up film to die for with The Last Boy Scout. Willis covers some McClane-esque territory but digging further into the depths of a character who is a broken down bum turned private eye. As an action film this benefits from the glossy visuals of Tony Scott and its razor sharp Black script, even if the storyline never quite grips like the genres best. Still, the film is endlessly quotable and the chemistry between Willis and Damon Wayans is palpable. Both also create flawed but engaging characters, and beneath the gruff exterior, Joe Hallenbeck is another family man who wants to be better, even when he has to look himself in the mirror of the car he’s slept in and remind himself; “Smile you fuck.”
Death Becomes Her
For some reason when Bruce Willis appeared in black comedy, Death Becomes Her, it was deemed as something of a surprising diversion. At this point he was firmly established as one of the primo action men of the era, but it had been somewhat forgotten, his beginnings were in the comedically laced TV show, Moonlighting. In Death Becomes Her, Willis is the decidedly unmanly plastic surgeon caught between his current wife (Goldie Hawn) and her old high school rival (Meryl Streep). Madeleine (Streep) then proceeds to steal Ernest (Willis) and Helen (Hawn) wants revenge. On top of this, Madeleine, a failing aging actress, long searching for the secret to prolonged looks, takes a questionable potion gifting eternal youth. Helen finds out and takes the same effective but cursed potion. When they end up killing each other, neither dies and Ernest, the slightly bumbling fool, is caught in the middle. It’s a fun film, with Willis effectively goofy as the easily manipulated Ernest.
Pulp Fiction does as the title suggests in Quentin Tarantino’s groundbreaking masterpiece. A hodgepodge selection of grimy characters and arcs intertwine and cross pollinate. Bruce Willis was the biggest name of the picture upon release, and he gets one of the plum roles accordingly. As Butch, the prize fighter on the run from crime lord Marcelos (Ving Rhames), after failing to take a dive, Willis gives a career best performance. His particular story skews into dark and twisted territory, particularly when he encounters Zed (Peter Greene). This is a prime example of a slightly unfortunate set of circumstances.
For John Travolta, Pulp Fiction was a comeback story, after years in career decline. For Samuel L Jackson, it was a breakout role for a character actor who had done the rounds but was still relatively unknown. They received the recognition Oscar season, whilst Willis was overlooked. He was certainly more than deserving and it was proof that wasn’t really needed, to some naysayers, that he could really act.
Die Hard With A Vengeance
The third Die Hard proved an effective diversion from formula, as McClane finds himself being toyed with in a game by Simon Gruber (brother of Hans). Sent to perform a series of deadly tasks and diffuse chemical bombs laid around New York, it becomes increasingly apparent that he’s being kept distracted whilst the younger Gruber can pull off the ultimate bank job unhindered. Sam Jackson gets unwittingly roped in along the way.
With perfect pacing, great action and performances, the third Die Hard gets closer than any of the sequels managed, to hitting par with the original. Additionally, this came hot on the heels of Speed which had a similar dynamic between hero and villain. This had aged just as well and is still one of the best action films in the last 30 years. Willis slips into the role with ease, as charismatic, gruff but vulnerable as ever.
Terry Gilliam’s Sci-fi masterpiece sends Bruce Willis back through time. He goes from post viral apocalypse to pre-apocalypse in order to try and stop it. The film is prescient, clever and at times darkly comic. There’s an argument that this might be Bruce’s best performance and it’s certainly up there with Pulp Fiction. Additionally, whilst Brad Pitt snagged himself a best supporting actor nod, Willis was a little unfairly overlooked as Best Actor and he most definitely gave one of the best leading performances of the year for this, as a character struggling to hold together his fragmented mind state from both his grim existence in the future, and the effects that the time travel have had on him (particularly once he finds himself in an asylum, suggesting he might be imagining the whole quest).
Last Man Standing
A somewhat undervalued action epic from the mid 90’s, Last Man Standing has Willis do Yojimbo riff with Walter Hill. It’s Hill’s last great work, heavy loaded with brilliantly weighty gun battles and with Willis on great stoic form playing an Eastwood-esque gunslinger in this prohibition era fusion of Western and Gangster films. As John Smith, Willis is the devious tough guy who plays two warring factions off against each other with his own end game in sight. Hill knows action, Willis is in his prime and this one kicks serious ass. The support cast including Christopher Walken, Bruce Dern and Hill stalwart David Patrick Kelly, are superb.
The Fifth Element
Grab your multipass for this colourful and vibrant cult classic. It wears its influences, from Blade Runner to Star Wars, like badges of honour, but Luc Besson’s gleefully enjoyable romp is a perfect vehicle for Willis, here able to blend his brand of action heroism, with some broader moments of comedy. Gary Oldman is legendarily great as the Universe threatening villain and the rest of the cast are also in good form. It’s also a perfect role for Milla Jovovich in her breakout role.
One of the most iconic world ender specials, Armageddon also remains one of the best. Sure it’s cheesy, overblown and has the emotional subtlety of a small town panto production, but it’s so much fun. Michael Bay’s all star film makes good use of the eclectic and game cast. Willis is the stoic tough guy with the weight of responsibility and now the world on his shoulders, whilst Ben Affleck is kind of vacant as his would be son-in-law. The concept is so goofy but the gusto approach to the film hooks you in.
The Sixth Sense
M. Night Shyamalan broke out thanks to a film that become synonymous with its twist. The director would then find himself intrinsically linked to ‘twist’ cinema for the rest of his career. The Sixth Sense remains his best work. A huge part is down to the restraint of the drama (where occasionally since, M Night has lent on melodrama). It’s also the most engaging story the director has crafted. Haley Joel Osment was exceptional in this child-centric film that would have fallen flat were it not for his abilities. Willis is very introspective in his role as a Doctor trying to help a young boy apparently struggling with his sense of reality. Okay, we all know the twist now, but the film still holds up thanks to its principal cast (see also Toni Collette).
M Nights follow up film saw Willis return. Here he’s a character carrying oodles of repression but also a secret. He’s seemingly indestructible. The film is a grounded superhero movie/not superhero movie with a leading man struggling to find his place in the world or some reasoning behind his ‘gift.’ He meets a stranger, played by Samuel L Jackson, who has the polar problem, he’s suffering from an affliction that makes him dangerously brittle. The film raises interesting ideas and whilst it didn’t catch on as quickly as The Sixth Sense, it did eventually find enough of a cult audience to create its own mini-franchise for Shyamalan.
During a brief fascination with shooting comic book inspired films entirely on green screen, Sin City ranked as far and away the best exponent. For one, Robert Rodriguez’s film oozed style and perfectly fitted the world created by Frank Miller and additionally, despite filming in the restrictive backdrop of green screen studios, it had lots of visceral energy. These are the intertwining stories within the world of Basin City, a city rife with crime and corruption. It’s all star and proved a first step in the Mickey Rourke comeback express (cemented by The Wrestler). Bruce Willis plays a hard bitten over the hill cop looking to rescue Jessica Alba’s once innocent stripper. Willis is great in the last great work of RR.
From the late Richard Donner, came 16 Blocks. It’s a simple but effective action thriller that sees Willis as an over the hill and morally obtuse cop, plagued by a bad heart and increasing indifference. He has to transport a minor criminal to appear in court but it seems said crim (Mos Def) is targeted for termination by a group of nefarious cops who need this key witness eliminated. An unlikely bond forms between Willis and Def, whilst the old detective finds renewed purpose.
16 Blocks is not Willis’ best film, nor Donner’s, but the two slip into the by the numbers genre exercise with ease, helped by David Morse in good villain form. It’s a decent film and far and away the best thing to come out of Millennium Films canon.
Live Free or Die Hard
Somewhat maligned for a final act that takes McClane from fallibly tough, to utterly indestructible (not least a little F15 surfing), this still proved a little ahead of his time with a plot that gave McClane his ultimate challenge – the digital era. The film’s best set pieces are loaded toward the front, as they’re the most grounded and Willis gets back into the swing of McClaning with relative ease. Timothy Olyphant continues in the tradition of good Die Hard villains.
An all star action comedy about over the hill agency specialists who find themselves back in action. Willis heads up a group including Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich and a badass Helen Mirren. Red is great fun, riffing on classic action and spy tropes as well as sending up Willis’ action image nicely. It never ventures into spoof territory, and still retains a workable and engaging through-line. It’s certainly elevated by the cast, but it’s a later era Willis film that sees him in great form.
A decade ago, Willis found himself on a pretty good run. He also jumped aboard the Wes Anderson express with Moonrise Kingdom which is everything you expect from an Anderson film. It’s colourful, odd and quirky and of course crammed with stars revelling in the atmosphere. Willis enjoys himself a lot, proving he was still adept at comedy.
The Expendables 2
The indifferent Expendables franchise peaked with the second film, which found a good balance between ironic humour, nostalgic reverence and actually crafting an enjoyable action film. It also has the best roster of the lot. Additionally, whilst Bruce Willis has a small role in the first film, he’s back and in a more substantial role in the second film. Willis gets in on the action, the highlight of which sees him and Arnold Schwarzenegger forming a mini-double act during the films finale as the pair double team against faceless villains, whilst driving a smart car. It’s a fun sight gag and one of the more imaginative set pieces from the entire franchise. It’s just sad that Willis’ part in the franchise ended on a sour note after the much publicised pay row ahead of the third film.
The last great Willis masterpiece. Rian Johnson’s low budget Sci-fi actioner cobbled elements of Twelve Monkeys and Back to The Future and added in an interesting concept where criminals send people back to the past to be executed and disposed of by loopers. One such is Joe, but matters are complicated when one of the marks sent back for him to finish off happens to be his older self.
Looper is an imaginative and engaging sci-fi film and one of the best of the last two decades. The all star cast are all on form, and Joseph Gordon Levitt does a great Willis as the younger Joe. Meanwhile, Willis is engaging, playing a sympathetic character. He’s fantastic in this in what was probably his last great role and he’s the films biggest strength.
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls and several releases due out soon, including big-screen releases for Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see.
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