He’s been a television star, recording artist, wine cooler pitchman, and Idaho real estate tycoon, but Bruce Willis is best known for his films — and his latest, this weekend’s Death Wish remake, returns him to the wounded tough guy mode that helped launch him to worldwide fame. Not too shabby for a guy who’s been cranking out movies for more than 25 years — and whose filmography includes some of the most beloved hits of the last quarter century. In honor of this latest achievement, we decided now would be the perfect time to take a fond look back at some of Mr. Willis’ brightest critical highlights, and you know what that means…yippee-ki-yay, it’s time for Total Recall!
By the early ‘90s, Willis seemed to lose his footing for a bit, vacillating between tired action-hero retreads like Striking Distance and high-profile duds like The Bonfire of the Vanities and Billy Bathgate. But by the middle of the decade, he started to to regain his script-picking mojo, passing up big paychecks in favor of smaller, more warmly received indie films like Mortal Thoughts — and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, which proved Willis hadn’t lost any of his physical, comedic, or dramatic gifts by offering him a role that gave him a chance to use all three (not to mention one of the most memorable lines in the script). “It’s the movie equivalent of that rare sort of novel where you find yourself checking to see how many pages are left and hoping there are more, not fewer,” wrote Mick LaSalle for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Plenty of people would love to take the opportunity to travel back in time and see our younger selves, but Rian Johnson’s Looper takes this premise and adds a nasty twist. When a hit man (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) realizes his latest quarry is his older self (Willis) — an event known among his peers as “closing the loop” — he muffs the job, allowing him(self) to escape and setting in motion a high-stakes pursuit that puts a widening circle of people in danger. Tense, funny, and surprisingly heartfelt, Looper may suffer from some of the same scientific story flaws as other time travel movies, but it also manages to turn its by-now-familiar basic ingredients into an uncommonly affecting and thought-provoking sci-fi drama. “Looper imagines a world just near enough to look familiar,” mused Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, “and just futuristic enough to be chillingly askew.”
Willis joined Wes Anderson’s repertory quirk factory with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, which found the director focusing on a New England island in 1965 where of a pair of tweens (Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward) run away together, causing a kerfuffle that throws the lives of the boy’s scoutmaster (Edward Norton), the girl’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand), and the local sheriff (Willis) into chaos. “The usual complaints and caveats about Anderson — he’s precious, his characters have no grounding in the real world — can be made about Moonrise Kingdom,” admitted the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Steven Rea. “But so what?”
A man, a tank top, and a high rise full of murderous terrorists. It seems like such a simple formula — hence the many, many thoughtless imitations that followed — but the original Die Hard was far greater than the sum of its reductive parts, thanks largely to the bruised, wisecracking humanity Willis brought to what could have been just another chin-jutting tough-guy role. Although the franchise would quickly spiral off into silliness, its first installment remains an action classic. “For what it is, this is the top model,” argued ReelViews’ James Berardinelli. “Flash, bang, and witty one-liners all included.”
An ensemble dramedy that brought to life Richard Russo’s book about an aging ne’er-do-well who’s forced to confront (or at least acknowledge) the error of his ways in a small New York town, Nobody’s Fool quietly matched its smart and funny script with an impeccable cast that included Paul Newman, Jessica Tandy, Melanie Griffith, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Pruitt Taylor Vince, and — as the spendthrift construction company owner who spends much of the movie trading quips with Newman — Bruce Willis. Although it made a pittance at the box office, most of the critics who watched it came away impressed; as Scott Weinberg pointed out for eFilmCritic, “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.”
Any time director Terry Gilliam manages to wrangle one of his films through the studio system, it’s a cause for celebration — and that goes double for a picture like Twelve Monkeys, which almost seamlessly weds Gilliam’s signature flights of fancy with good old-fashioned commercialism to produce a knotty time travel story starring a pair of matinee idols (Willis and Brad Pitt) in an apocalyptic thriller that never stops asking questions — or forcing the audience to answer their own as they hustle to keep up with the unfolding drama. “There’s always overripe method to his madness,” observed Janet Maslin for the New York Times, “but in the new 12 Monkeys Mr. Gilliam’s methods are uncommonly wrenching and strong.”
As the ‘90s wore on, Willis tended to gravitate toward quiet dramatic roles that sublimated his famous smirking charisma — a trend that reached its commercial apex with The Sixth Sense, the supernatural thriller that introduced writer/director M. Night Shyamalan to the world, turned Donnie Wahlberg into a character actor, and doomed Haley Joel Osment to a life of hearing people whisper “I see dead people” whenever he walked into a room. Some of its luster has been lost thanks to Shyamalan’s downward career spiral, but Sense was one of the biggest movies of 1999, and for some very good reasons — not the least of which was a Willis performance that helped inspired the San Jose Mercury News’ Charlie McCollum to call the film “An intense, haunting, often beautifully crafted character study and meditation on the nature of death and life after death.”
For awhile, it looked like 1995’s <em>Die Hard with a Vengeance</em> would be the last time audiences got to see Willis saving the day as Detective John McClane — but the lure of the beloved franchise (and its attendant paycheck) eventually proved too strong to resist, and in 2007, he finally returned with <em>Live Free or Die Hard</em>. Swapping out the earlier films’ Everyman conceit for a tongue-in-cheek humor that wholeheartedly embraced the silliness inherent in the series, <em>Live Free</em> amped up the action to such a ridiculous extent that it might as well have been a non-<em>Die Hard</em> movie — but the result was still entertaining enough to satisfy critics like Jonathan F. Richards of Film.com, who wrote, “Movie characters like McClane are the Paul Bunyans and John Henrys and Pecos Bills of our age, the stuff of tall tales spun with the technology of an age whose campfires are found in multiplexes with stadium seating.”
A blackly cartoonish noir whose garish violence seeps into every millimeter of the frame, Sin City united a stellar ensemble cast (including Willis, Mickey Rourke, Elijah Wood, Clive Owen, and Benicio del Toro) on a journey into blight, corruption, betrayal, and death. Not exactly cheerful stuff, in other words, and plenty of viewers took issue with what they saw as the movie’s misogynistic overtones — but for fans of the genre, Sin City provided one of the most hard-hitting and skillfully crafted entries in years. “It’s a hard, viciously funny little movie, one with all the subtlety of a billy club,” admitted Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek. “But there’s artistry here, too.”
Willis might be most famous for his smirk, but he’s made pretty good use of his voice, too — scoring a Top Five hit single with “Respect Yourself,” lending his pipes to the Look Who’s Talking movies, and entering the vocal booth for projects as varied as the Apocalypse video game and the Bruno the Kid cartoon series. Oh, and there’s also Over the Hedge, 2006’s star-studded adaptation of the syndicated comic strip about a crafty raccoon (Willis) who helps a group of woodland critters (voiced by Garry Shandling, Steve Carell, Wanda Sykes, William Shatner, among others) cope with their habitat being encroached upon by a suburban neighborhood. “Over the Hedge may be ‘just’ a cartoon,” admitted Roger Moore for the Orlando Sentinel. “But it’s also a biting and funny jab at SUV-MSG Nation.”