If you were to construct a Mount Rushmore of action heroes, Bruce Willis would be required to have a spot on it. His film and television career spanned more than 40 years and rivals few other stars of the genre. He kicked ass and cracked wise all while flashing that trademark smirk and even encouraged an entire generation of men to go bald. With his sudden retirement from acting due to a diagnosis of aphasia, it seems appropriate to look back at Willis’ career for his best works.
Die Hard isn’t just Willis’ best film, it is arguably the best action film ever made. It has everything we expect from the genre; a hero triumphing against overwhelming odds, timeless one-liners, an intelligent yet menacing villain, incredible spectacle and relatable emotion. While Willis wasn’t the first or second or even third choice to play John McLane, his talent for humor would become a trademark for the character and provide an everyman quality for the hard-nosed New York cop. The success of Die Hard propelled Willis to superstardom all while starring on the critically acclaimed television series Moonlighting.
The first film from writer/director M. Night Shyamalan, Willis was cast as Dr. Malcolm Crowe due to a previous film that was cancelled in order to satisfy his contractual obligations. It was a more dramatic turn for the normally comedic actor and he paired well with a young Haley Joel Osment. While Shyamalan has overused the twist technique, revealing that Dr. Crowe was dead the entire film is simply brilliant filmmaking and even more brilliant, is Willis’ acceptance of his fate and making amends with his widow while moving on to the afterlife. While the film itself has been parodied in the 20 plus years following its release, The Sixth Sense remains a stalwart of the paranormal thriller genre.
While Pulp Fiction is more known as John Travolta’s major comeback (which was then squandered 7 years later thanks to Battlefield Earth), Willis has a badass turn in the film during the middle act. In the all-star cast, Willis holds his own literally and figuratively but you may be surprised to learn that Willis’ character of Butch and Travolta’s Vincent are steeped in symbolism and were bound to clash at some point. While Vincent is symbolic of the suave, cool guy action heroes of the late 80’s and 90’s, Butch is more representative of the tough, men of action heroes that built the genre and Butch killing Vincent in the bathroom is meant to signify that the tough, masculine hero will always have a place in Hollywood. Willis’ contributions go beyond the action genre as he has starred in some of the most critically acclaimed science fiction films of the past 30 years. His performance in 12 Monkeys is often overlooked in large part to Brad Pitt’s Oscar nominated role as a mental patient who befriends Willis and is the rare time travel film where everything doesn’t work out in the end. In the hyper-stylistic The Fifth Element, Willis was able to bring his trademark style to French auteur science fiction/action plus it’s great to see Willis fall back into the reluctant hero role. Looper could be viewed as Willis’ last great film before joining the ranks of the direct-to-video crowd. It’s impossible to pick just one of these films from Willis’ career but it is exceptionally rare for an actor to be involved in one great genre film let alone three.
Bruce Willis’ impact across a multitude of genres is one that is difficult to fully quantify. His sudden retirement is jarring but the reports that have come out since are truly heartbreaking. From having to receive his lines via an earpiece, having pages cut from his role or having difficult memorizing his lines, the fact that his struggles were kept private is a testament to the love and respect the filmmaking community has for the actor. If there is something to take comfort in after his retirement, it is that he can enjoy this time with his family to enjoy what time he has left with them and make lasting memories and we can also have some respect for the man after recognizing that something was wrong with his mind, sought answers and made the best decision for himself and his family. Even though he will no longer be on our screens, we always put on Die Hard and enjoy the laughs and thrills for years to come.