Total Recall: Bruce Willis' Best Movies
Yippee-ki-yay! We take a look at the best-reviewed work of the Surrogates star.
5. 12 Monkeys
After popping up in two of 1994's best-reviewed films, Willis retained his momentum the following year, dividing his time between a return to the blockbuster antics of John McClane (Die Hard with a Vengeance) and a starring role in Terry Gilliam's far quirkier, though still ultimately quite profitable, 12 Monkeys. Willis' 12 Monkeys character, a time-traveling convict forced to try and avert a global virus outbreak, had the shiny scalp and perpetual five o'clock shadow of a Hollywood tough guy, but fans expecting their usual fix of skull-cracking action might have been surprised by the nervous, somewhat mousy demeanor Willis adopted for the film. It was an admirably atypical element of one of the year's most unusual mainstream movies, and it earned praise from critics like Film.com's Sean Means, who wrote, "Willis gives a quietly intense performance, looking like he's trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle in his head."
The late 1990s found Willis firmly ensconced as one of Hollywood's biggest and most bankable stars -- but not necessarily one of its most astute script choosers, as attested by the thudding sounds made by Last Man Standing, The Jackal, The Siege, and Breakfast of Champions. Of course, he also starred in some big hits -- including Die Hard with a Vengeance and Armageddon -- but they found him dipping back into his action hero's bag of tricks instead of doing much in the way of real acting. That changed with The Sixth Sense, which cast Willis opposite Haley Joel Osment as a psychologist with a secret so big that not even he knows it. A hit so big it made a jumble of letters like "M. Night Shyamalan" a household name, Sense revealed a quiet strength previously unseen in Willis' repertoire, and earned praise from critics like Brian Webster of the Apollo Guide, who wrote, "More than just a scary movie, it's ultimately about love and death and allowing ghosts to rest. It's a highly successful film."
The early 1990s were not kind to Bruce Willis, to put it mildly: After starring in a pair of successful-by-default sequels (Die Hard 2 and Look Who's Talking Too), he entered a miserable skid that boasted some of the decade's most notorious flops, including The Bonfire of the Vanities, Hudson Hawk, and Color of Night. But just when it seemed safe to write him off for good, Willis reinvented himself, turning in a pair of smart, dialed-down performances in two of 1994's best films. Pulp Fiction is the one we all remember, but the low-key Nobody's Fool proved Willis could hold his own in some pretty fine company, including Jessica Tandy, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Melanie Griffith, and Paul Newman. There are no explosions, no car chases, and no high-concept plot devices in this adaptation of Richard Russo's 1993 novel -- just a rock-solid script and plenty of terrific acting. In the words of eFilmCritic's Scott Weinberg, "Nobody's Fool offers a hell of a lot more than just Paul Newman at his very best, although that alone would make the flick worthy of your attention."
2. Pulp Fiction
"Zed's dead, baby." And before his career-resurrecting supporting role in Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis seemed to be headed that direction too, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned: he squandered his Die Hard capital on 1991's roundly panned Hudson Hawk, helped take the action movie to absurd new lows with The Last Boy Scout and Striking Distance, and even had a hand in the dreaded North. Then along came this Tarantino classic, which may not have asked Willis to do anything out of the ordinary (how many world-weary tough guys had we seen him play at this point?), but at least surrounded him with terrific dialogue and stellar performances from a cast that included Samuel L. Jackson, Tim Roth, and John Travolta, the latter of whom enjoyed his own post-Pulp professional comeback. Willis wasn't the focus of the movie -- in fact, Tarantino himself arguably stole that spotlight -- but it did help break him out of the rut he'd fallen into, and perhaps proved to Willis that his most interesting roles didn't have to be his least commercially noteworthy. In a career full of successful films, it might be Pulp Fiction that has had the greatest impact in the Willis filmography; it is, in the words of Variety's Todd McCarthy, "a spectacularly entertaining piece of pop culture."
1. Die Hard
Die Hard was Bruce Willis' third major film role, and it could easily have ended up being one of his last: After being rewarded for Moonlighting's immense (albeit brief) popularity with a clear shot at movie stardom, Willis stumbled out of the gate with a pair of Blake Edwards-directed flops -- 1987's Blind Date and 1988's Sunset -- that generated equal antipathy among audiences and critics. By the time Willis earned an eye-popping $5 million for Die Hard, the emerging consensus was that he was a television star whose luck in the big leagues was about to run out. The rest is action movie history: this 1988 classic not only proved Willis could carry a hit film, it reinvigorated the genre (and provided a plot framework for dozens of copycats, but let's not hold that against Die Hard). As NYPD Detective John McClane, Willis found the perfect character to blend his gift for smart-mouthed riffing with his ability to add a little much-needed Everyman blood and bewilderment to an increasingly ridiculous style of movie. Surrounded by a strong cast, including Bonnie Bedelia as McClane's estranged wife, Reginald VelJohnson as a sympathetic cop, and Alan Rickman as the perfectly villainous Hans Gruber, Willis kicked off his film career in earnest with Die Hard -- and inspired countless cries of "Yippee-ki-yay." As Caryn James of the New York Times wrote, "The scenes move with such relentless energy and smashing special-effects extravagance that Die Hard turns out to be everything action-genre fans, and Bruce Willis's relieved investors, might have hoped for."
Finally, here's Bruno extolling the virtues of his favorite beverage -- in song: