It's hard to believe, but there was a time when Bruce Willis was considered nothing but a goofy television actor. No one ever expected him to be anything more than a guy who hopped from sitcom to sitcom or who vanished completely into the world of off-Broadway shows. It seemed his legacy in pop culture consciousness would be showing up as the answer to a trivia question about Cybill Shepherd.
He was such an unbankable, unknown entity that he wasn't even the first choice for "Die Hard;" he was the sixth. (Can you imagine John McClane played by Burt Reynolds? Because it almost happened.) 20th Century Fox was so dubious about his playing McClane that they initially left his mug off the poster until the film — and its newly minted action star — was a proven success.
Willis became an instant icon as McClane, but his career has never been as solid as his fellow '80s action stars. He's been declared over, been praised for his comeback, hailed for reinventing himself as a character actor, crowned an immortal action treasure... and so the cycle goes. Through it all, Willis has kept on working, proving he was capable of more than simply blowing things up by taking on dramas and comedies; he's ably shared the screen with ghosts, shuttled a space taxi, donned a fedora as a singing cat burglar and traveled back and forth through time like a pro.
After such a varied career and amazing successes like "Die Hard" and "The Sixth Sense," one wouldn't expect Willis to name a recent film as the best that he's ever made, but that's what he's said about "Looper." We're still waiting to see it and judge for ourselves, but until we do, here's the best and worst of Willis' career, according to us.
The Top 5
Whether you love or hate Luc Besson's frenetic, candy-colored future, it's hard to deny that Willis turns in a terrific performance as Korben Dallas, a former soldier turned space taxi driver who's such a loser he's lost his license. But then a fare — the perfect fare — falls into his lap. Korben is instantly smitten with Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), and it's love, not any grand ambition of heroism, that encourages Dallas to pull himself up by the bootstraps. Saving the entire planet is a nice touch, too. Man, what is it with Willis and emotional, sniffly, heart-cluching endings?
Willis is no stranger to sci-fi, and one of his best performances is the twitchy time-traveler James Cole in "Twelve Monkeys." Cole's instability only increases as he bounces from year to year, searching for the cure for an apocalyptic virus. Midway through the film, Cole convinces himself he's suffering from delusions, and Willis' performance, which ranges between hysteria, panic, relief and anger, makes us think he just might be right.
"Pulp Fiction" sits squarely in the middle of our best, not because it's somehow a lesser film than "Die Hard" or "The Sixth Sense" but purely because Willis isn't the lead. However, you'll never find a better showcase of his trademarked loser-with-a-heart-of-gold character as Butch the boxer, or a more desperate and sweaty fight sequence than the one in Maynard's basement. (It's hard to say who had a worse day: Butch or John McClane...)
After a few sterling years, Willis had hit a bit of a career slump in the late '90s. That abruptly changed with one boy and four whispered words: "I see dead people." "Sense" is not only a delicious ghost story (it still works even after one knows the famous twist), but a terrific elegy on love, grief and loss. In fact, once you know the ending, Willis' performance is all the more remarkable. Those broken tears at the end are the stuff of great acting.
A predictable pick? Yes. But it's Willis – and action – at its most pure and enjoyable. John McClane is just an ordinary cop, and one whose personal problems seem like the worst thing he'll have to deal with this Christmas. When a pack of East German terrorists crash his wife's company Christmas party, McClane snaps into action. Not only is he quick on the draw, but he never loses his sense of humor, even when he's picking broken glass out of his bare feet.
The Bottom 5
Willis can do action that's serious or funny, but he's not the sort of actor that's cast in a slick spy/assassination thriller. His dour turn as the Jackal colors the whole film, making it flat and unremarkable. Of course, its sheer dullness may be because it's a loose remake/adaptation of "The Day of the Jackal," and when you have to change every aspect of the plot except for the main hook, it's not a surprise when it plays this thin. (To be fair, you could swap most of Willis' '90s action output for this. They all played the same.)
For every really good movie on our list from the '90s is another that's the bottom of the barrel. You have to hand it to him for taking as many risks as he did ("The Color of Night" is a rare descent into sheer sleaze), and for failing big in stuff like this adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s novel. Willis can be hilarious in the right role, but "Champions" tries so hard to be dark and zany that it's simply painful to watch. It does have a memorable poster, though.
Many people love this film, and it seems plenty of actors, directors and screenwriters hold dear a hope of remaking it. It's a bold and surreal experiment, and that's always worthy of praise. However, the singing is really a grating conceit, as is Hudson's desperation for a cappuccino. (It's funny at first, and then it just gets old.) On the other hand, Willis somehow predicted the 2000s' obsession with conspiracies, secret religious societies and Leonardo Da Vinci.
There are a few films that are not just lousy, they're legendary disasters. "Vanities" is one of them. Adapted from Tom Wolfe's bestseller, it misses every social mark and criticism from the novel while spinning an awkward racial commentary of its own. Willis is wildly miscast as Peter Fallow, a character who is supposed to be a lean and mean English journalist; instead, he's transformed into one of Willis' weaker nerd characters.
As failed buddy-cop satires go, "Cop Out" is rather harmless, and the Harold Faltermeyer soundtrack is a joy to the ears. However, given the critical and filmmaker furor that surrounded it, one has to give it the top spot. (Director Kevin Smith talked much trash about Willis on Marc Maron's podcast, and there were plenty of rumors about on-set strife.) It completely wastes Willis, who normally excels at action-comedy, and is practically unbearable to sit through. You'll spend your time wondering why you're not watching "The Last Boy Scout." Or "Die Hard." Or, heck, even "Hudson Hawk."