This futuristic thriller about “surries” – artificial doubles that do the dirty work while their owners stay at home – could have had a lot more fun riffing about the inequality between the piggy older Willis and his blonde synthetic double. Still, it’s nice to see him tight with Rosamund Pike, who plays his glassy wife, and briefly be reunited with his Pulp Fiction nemesis Ving Rhames.
Good performance, bad movie. Willis performs a subtle, thoughtful work as a child psychologist who is drawn into the confidence of a boy (Haley Joel Osment) who can see the dead around him. M Night Shyamalan’s sentimental ghost story sinks under the weight of life lessons about emotional closure and a twist that makes the action of the previous 100 minutes ridiculous.
In his second film in a row with Shyamalan, Willis again produces moving results from scary, low-quality material. There are nuances of Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone in his portrayal of an ordinary Joe who is confused by his extraordinary powers. He briefly repeated the role in Split (2016) and finally in Glass (2019).
17. The Siege (1998)
Nearly three years before 9/11, writer-director Edward Zwick imagined a terrorist cell launching an attack on American soil. (After 9/11, Zwick was one of the Hollywood characters with whom the Pentagon consulted on counter-terrorism.) The film, which has rightly been criticized for its insensitive treatment of its Arab characters, has a fruitful tension between Denzel Washington, who calls for caution and Willis, personifies gung-ho military power.
16. The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Misogyny runs through this ugly piece of action cinema from Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black and Top Gun director Tony Scott. What charm it has can only be attributed to Willis, who handled the tricks with awareness when a former intelligence agent turned private eyes, and Damon Wayans as the former NFL star with whom he joins.
The thrill of watching Willis work with an exciting young director (Rian Johnson) in this time-loop thriller, in which he and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play the same assassin of different ages, was only dulled by the fact that he had rode the carousels before in 12 Monkeys. At least he seems more confident here than imbued with Wes Anderson’s whims (which cast him in the same year’s Moonrise Kingdom).
14. Billy Bathgate (1991)
Robert Benton’s gangster yarn starts with Willis facing death in a bow tie and tuxedo. But which way to go: Dustin Hoffman orders the execution, Steve Buscemi ties him up, Nicole Kidman looks horrified. You’ve heard of “Garbo Laughs!” Prepare for something almost as rare: “Willis Cry!”
Mortal Thoughts (1991)
That same year, Willis was again quickly killed by a quality filmmaker – Alan Rudolph this time (who later directed him in a messy 1999 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions). Other villain film roles followed, but Mortal Thoughts was his first: he plays a piece of shit whose wife (Glenne Headly) plans his death. Willis’ then-spouse Demi Moore is her boyfriend.
12. Fast Food Nation (2006)
In Richard Linklater’s film of Eric Schlosser’s McIndustry exposure, Willis has a character as VP of the fictional burger chain Mickey’s, who withdraws from the discovery that his restaurant steaks contain feces. “We all have to eat a little shit from time to time,” says the owner of modern cinema’s finest shit-eating laugh.
11. Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)
This threequel is the wildest of the four additional adventures of John McClane, thanks to a deadly 40-minute opening in which he is sent in zigzagging across New York in a series of perilous errands. Jeremy Irons, as the mocking brother of the original film’s villain, pulls the strings; Samuel L Jackson comes to the rescue.
Bruce plays Bruce in this hangover of Tinseltown comedies. In Robert Altman’s Hollywood comeback, Willis’ doomed rescue of Julia Roberts (“Traffic was a bitch”) at the end of the movie-in-a-movie signals the ultimate compromise. Meanwhile, in Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Art Linson’s memoirs, Willis gets a fit of rage when producer Robert De Niro asks him to throw away his lovingly cultivated beard – a scene based on Linson’s real fight with Alec Baldwin.
9. 16 blocks (2006)
Willis has a stinging ‘tache’ and extra lines of concern like Jack Mosley, the sad cop who accompanies a murder witness to court. If only he had seen Clint Eastwood in The Gauntlet, Jack would realize this is no cakewalk: bent cops with itchy trigger fingers are out to ruin his day. The lively relationship between Willis and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) makes this more fun for us than it is for the characters.
Last Man Standing (1996)
Walter Hills’ Yojimbo remake throws Willis into the role of Toshiro Mifune as a bodyguard mercenary trapped between two warring gangs. It’s interesting to see him fight Christopher Walken: not only are the two men diametrically opposed in acting style (Walken’s ostentatious strangeness meets Willis’ pulling resignation) and appearance (sharp angles versus doughy softness), but they had also recently played played characters connected through a generation of a gold watch in Pulp Fiction.
7. Banditter (2001)
Willis is the merchant who will put on the charm even when he is about to hijack you (“madam? Do not forget your purse!”). He and partner-in-crime Billy Bob Thornton – nicknamed the Sleepover Bandits for their habit of moving in with the bank director the night before a robbery – acquire a third wheel in the form of Cate Blanchett. Highlights include her and Willis bonding over their mutual love for Total Eclipse of the Heart.
6. In the country (1989)
Rising 1980s British star Emily Lloyd is the fatherless teenager living with her uncle Emmett (Willis), a Vietnam veteran with a mustache who is prone to flashbacks on the battlefield. “Some think he’s going to crack,” say the townspeople, and Willis does well so early in his career to suggest unattainable corners of a damaged psyche. “Something’s missing and I can not get it back,” he admits touchingly as his niece cradles him in the woods.
5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Like the rolled-up slugger who is too proud to strike a blow, Willis has never been sexier than when he spins stupid sweet things for his “lemon pie” (Maria de Medeiros) while hiding in a hotel room. Nor has he been more frightening than when his mood drops a few moments later. Quentin Tarantino compared Willis to Sterling Hayden and Robert Mitchum, calling him “the only contemporary actor to suggest the 1950s”.
4. 12 aber (1995)
Terry Gilliam refused to allow Willis’ entourage on the set of this La Jetée-inspired brain-scrambler and forbade him to draw on his usual repertoire of complacent smiles. The result was an impressively destabilized performance from a man who tends not to make himself vulnerable. He plays a time traveler fleeing a future where 99% of civilization has been wiped out. Gilliam later said Willis would “show he was a real actor”. Mission accomplished.
Nobody’s Fool (1994)
Willis is sublime as part of the flawless ensemble starring in Robert Benton’s acutely observed small-town comedy. He plays Carl Roebuck, a humble, philanthropic construction manager who is engaged in a war of attrition with his occasional co-worker (Paul Newman) who wants compensation for a work injury. Willis raises his stakes to match Newman, Melanie Griffith, Jessica Tandy and a young Philip Seymour Hoffman while still radiating effortlessness. Try hard? It does not appear.
The fifth element (1997)
Breezy abandonment with a top note of excitement has long been Willis’s brand. Yet he has seldom enjoyed himself so visibly or had such a transformative effect on the rest of a film as he does in Luc Besson’s adorable science-fiction escapade. Like a taxi-driving all-rounder, his muddy platinum color work and sticky mandarin-Gaultier vest show him where he is most faint. His chemistry with Chris Tucker (replacing Prince in the squealing sidekick role) is a particular pleasure.
1. Die Hard (1988)
If Moonlighting, the TV romcom in which Willis competed to win with Cybill Shepherd, represented the foundation on which his character was built, then the first and finest Die Hard movie was the skyscraper that lifted it into the heavenly realm. Like John McClane, the New York police officer who rolled his eyes at the airy fairy Los Angelenos, he would have had an appealing Sunday morning sluggishness in any context. Put him in a high-rise, held hostage during the Christmas party season, and he brings fresh comic spark to the shoot-em-up genre.
The main villain Hans Gruber (a lovable Alan Rickman) confuses McClane with a Rambo character, but that could not be further from the truth. Unlike Stallone’s roommate, McClane is not happy about carnage; he would rather have a brew in front of the television. But if he really shall overthrow a team of terrorists on their own, he will give everything.
Within 15 minutes of the opening text, Willis is already wearing his trademark singlet, squint and crooked smile – similar to Chaplin’s bowler hat, cane and mustache. Once the vest is soaked with dirt and grime, he is bare upper body, the father-stall shines with sweat, the receding bed head gives new hope to both nonsense and baldness. Yippee-kai-yay!