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Yippee-ki-yay! Bruce Willis’ best and worst

Bruce Willis might be our most underrated actor. To be certain, he doesn’t have anyone to blame but himself: he’s starred in some pretty horrible films. Here are five of his best and five of his worst. By Joseph Tirella
/ Source: contributor

Bruce Willis might be our most underrated actor. To be certain, he doesn’t have anyone to blame but himself: he’s starred in some pretty horrible films.

But like John Wayne before him, Willis has come to define a certain archetype in American cinema. He’s the modern-day equivalent of a cowboy: a world-weary or morally comprised cop/private detective albeit one who, when push comes to shove, always does the right thing. He’s a hero — an anti-hero; a loner who can’t make his marriage work or is estranged from his kids.

Unlike the other bone-headed action stars of the 1980s (Stallone, Cruise, Schwarzenegger), Willis is able to imbue his characters with an everyman humanity that’s evident even in a popcorn flick like “Armageddon.” So here’s to Bruce Willis, an action hero with a heart, and, all things considered, an actor with some great films under his belt.


“Pulp Fiction” (1994)
Of this film’s cast, only Willis was a genuine star at the time, which lent “Pulp Fiction” some much-needed box office cred. And his character Butch Coolidge, an aging boxer who gets paid by a crime boss to throw his next fight, is the one good guy among the pimps, hit men, moles and lowlifes who populate the mind of Quentin Tarantino. He’s also the one guy you’re hoping survives this mess. Willis took the role and illustrated that there was more to him than just mindless action heroes delivering predictable one-liners. This film changed Hollywood, and although the credit usually goes to Tarantino (and rightfully so), Willis deserves some props too.

“The Sixth Sense” (1999)Once again Willis took a chance and worked with a then-unknown young director, M. Night Shyamalan and made this horror classic. Here, Willis plays against type; his Dr. Malcolm Crowe is no gun-toting, one-liner spewing superhero. Instead, Willis turns in a nuanced and subtle portrayal of a child psychologist desperate to help a disturbed young boy who sees dead people — and a husband desperate to reconnect with his wife. His performance is less John Wayne (in “True Grit”) and more Gary Cooper (in “High Noon”).

“The Player” (1992)
OK, so he only has one line in the film: “Traffic was a bitch.” That’s not the point. By 1992, Willis had already starred in two “Die Hard” films and the atrocious “The Last Boy Scout” and the impotent “Bonfire of the Vanities” (see below). He had become a poster-boy for Tinsel Town’s uber-commercial action movies. And yet, when director Robert Altman called him to play a parody of an action hero — running in to rescue Julia Roberts at the last moment in “The Player’s” film-within-a-film — he did it. Thus, ridiculing himself and the entire Hollywood system that had made him a multi-millionaire in the process. Let’s see Tom Cruise do that.

“Sin City” (2005)
An underrated masterpiece that’s actually a series of inter-related short stories, artfully woven together by directors Robert Rodriguez, Frank Miller and Quentin Tarantino (a special guest director). However, at the emotional center of these blood-soaked tales is Willis’ character, Hartigan, and his father-daughter relationship with the stripper Nancy Callahan (played by Jessica Alba), who he saved from a rapist when she was a kid. Willis plays yet another world-weary anti-hero cop, this time with a bad heart that could give out at any time. “Sin City” is  ripe with video-game violence, but Willis’ redeems it with his character’s simple good-guy humanity.

“Die Hard” (1988)
This is not a great movie, despite the acclaim it has won, but it is considered one of the great Hollywood action films of all time. And the role of Officer John McClane, a wisecracking, street tough cop who single-handedly takes on a group of terrorists, has been the archetypal character that has defined Willis’ career — for better or worse. Of course, in our post-9/11 world, the terrorist plot at the heart of the film seems innocuous and dated: German terrorists seek to steal $640 million from a multi-nation corporation. Ah, those halcyon Cold War days when America was fighting terrorists who actually wanted to do something besides blow themselves — and others — up.


“Hudson Hawk” (1991)
As hard as it was to pick Willis’ best movies, it’s far, far harder to pick his worst. He’s made so many of them! But the absolute worst has to be this action-comedy-quasi-musical spoof about a thief who gets roped into an international plot involving the Vatican, the CIA and a couple of androgynous international types (played oh so campily by Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard) to steal three priceless artifacts by Leonardo Da Vinci. Just how bad is it? Picture this: Willis and Danny Aiello storming an Italian castle to save Andie MacDowell while singing. If that’s not bad enough David Caruso plays a cross-dressing CIA mime. But really, the blame lies with Willis: he co-wrote the damn thing.

“The Last Boy Scout” (1991)
Too bad this wasn’t the last action movie that Willis ever made. Once again, he’s a private detective on the outs with his wife and daughter, who teams up with a disgraced ex-NFL quarterback (Damon Wayans) to save a corrupt senator’s life and prevent a bomb from going off at an L.A. football game. What were you expecting — “Citizen Kane”? One more mindless action film from director Tony Scott (“Top Gun”) and written by Shane Black (the literary genius behind “Lethal Weapon”). Sample scene:  A villain holds a knife to Willis’ face and says, “I want to hear you scream,” to which Willis responds “Play some rap music.” Man, they don’t write ’em like that anymore.

“Bonfire of the Vanities” (1990)
You can’t blame this one entirely on Willis. Even Tom Hanks stinks in this movie. At the time, “The Bonfire of the Vanities” was an immense bestseller by Tom Wolfe. Everyone in Hollywood wanted in on this one and with Brian De Palma directing how could it fail? Oh, but what a failure it was. The film is listless, lifeless and lost. Willis plays the down-on-his-luck big city tabloid reporter, Peter Fallow, who makes the most of a salacious story involving a Wall Street titan (Hanks) and his mistress (Melanie Griffith). One of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history.

“Armageddon” (1998)
Can the real Armageddon be as painful as this? This film put the “easy” in cheesy. But it’s still cinematic popcorn at its best/worst. This time Willis is an oil driller who leads a rag-tag bunch of lovable losers on a suicide mission to destroy an asteroid the size of Texas. How? Why they’re going to fly to the ’roid, drill a hole in it, then drop an atomic bomb in its center and save the world. Still, despite everything … Willis is, strangely likable, once again breathing a little life into a role that has no business being anything other than a cartoon character.

“Die Hard 2: Die Harder” (1990)It’s bad studio movies like this one that spurred on the 1990s American New Wave. So on one hand, we film-lovers should say “thanks.” However, the first “Die Hard” was far too successful for Hollywood to leave alone, so this film was almost a fait accompli. This time John McClane (Willis) happens to be in Dulles Airport in Washington when another band of terrorists plan on taking the airport hostage on Christmas Eve — exactly one year after the first “Die Hard” — what are the chances!? And once again he has to rescue his wife, and kill lots of bad guys with accents.