Film Lists

Death Wish’s Bruce Willis – 5 of his best

You gotta have a Death Wish to try and rank Bruce Willis’ career. But at Set The Tape, we thought we’d take a crack at giving you five at the top of the Bruce-based tree.

He first captured the world’s attention in the landmark television series Moonlighting. Since then, he’s gone on to do a lot of variations on the theme of both that and the No. 1 film on this list. He’s always just right as the wisecracking everyman, and at least a third of his career could be described as Die Hard on a….

For example, The Last Boy Scout (1991) was a breath of fresh air that poked fun at the genre that promoted him into the stratosphere and RED (2010) still stands up to almost everything on this list. But look no further than these five for the cream of his crop.

Die Hard (1988)

In 1988, Bruce Willis revived the movie industry a lot like he had rejuvenated television three years earlier, and he added a modern-day entry to the longstanding list of Christmas movie classics in the process. His John McClane single-handedly battles Hans Gruber (the late, great Alan Rickman) and a buff, blithe group of terrorists who seized the Los Angeles building where the New York cop’s estranged wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) works. McClane’s putting up the fight without shoes, with jet lag and despite a lack of weapons — well, at least until he takes a machine gun and explosives off the bad guys.

He’s fighting back against the behest of the police/FBI, save first man on the scene Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), who can’t offer much more than empathy and the ingredients of a Twinkie. So McClane’s very much the modern-day twist on an old cowboy, taking his cues from Roy Rogers while spouting such seminal lines as “Yippee-ki-yay, mutherfucker!” and “Geronimo!”

The sharp script fleshes out all the characters, even poor authority figures like the Deputy Police Chief (Paul Gleason) get zingers about needing more FBI guys, so it takes a lot of John to come on top. It’s a propensity that continues to pay off for Willis, and not just with the litany of Die Hard movies that have come out in the years since this blockbuster.

Moonlighting (1985-1989)

Glenn Gordon Caron created his comedic detective show to revive the career of former model Cybill Shepherd, but he also launched Willis into the stratosphere as the fast-talking cool guy that men wanted to be and women wanted to be with. David Addison wore boxer shorts with hearts on them, sang Motown songs under his breath, instigated limbo contests in the office and taunted criminals — even when they had the drop on him. And less his antics get to be too much, Willis was great at the moments in which David wore his heart on his sleeve as well. It’s how he got the Die Hard gig, guys.

Those who were around to watch the show in its original run remember how often it was in reruns due to behind-the-scenes drama. But the legacy of Moonlighting, which began in 1985 and ran for five seasons, was so much more than that. It didn’t just knock down the fourth wall, it took a pick ax to it. It made Shakespeare and filming in black-and-white cool again with groundbreaking episodes such as “Atomic Shakespeare” and “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice” respectively. And David Addison didn’t just provide a blueprint for detective shows, you can find pieces of him in virtually every genre across the TV landscape.

Unbreakable (2000)

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was a 1999 blockbuster with a nifty twist featuring Willis at the end, but I think both fare even better in the writer/director’s followup the next year. A superhero who never realized he had superhero powers seemed to be another twist on a familiar genre. When Willis’ David Dunn survives a devastating train accident, he comes to see he’s not like every Tom, David or Harry. And he’s actually helped in that regard by the man on the other side of the spectrum, Samuel L. Jackson’s Mr. Glass.

We’re spellbound watching David come to grips with that discovery and attempting to figure out how to make best use of his talents so he can help as much of mankind as possible in true good-guy fashion. But that final denouement with Elijah Price — a fixture in all such battles in the comic universe — is downright spine-tingling. Can’t wait for 2019’s Glass, which marries Shyamalan’s own career rejuvenator Split (2016) with Unbreakable.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Quentin Tarantino found another corner for Willis to come out swinging from in 1994. The fact that the writer/director tapped into a mainstream audience with Pulp Fiction owes a lot to Willis. Just as Tarantino’s story hops back and forth over the canvas between characters and time periods, Willis’ Butch Coolidge kind of does the same. Butch reneged on a plan to lose a boxing match so he and lovely-but-dim gal pal Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) can get enough money for a fresh start, but — as tends to happen in Tarantino-land — things don’t work out exactly as he planned.

It gave us a chance to see Willis play a bit of pretty much every role included on this list over the course of his screen time. He’s the tough guy, he’s a lovable rogue capable of sweet talk, he’s down on his luck and he’s got to work his way out of an impossible situation. Yet when all of it came together, it felt like something completely new.

12 Monkeys (1995)

We’re kind of used to Willis playing a character who cares about saving the world. In Terry Gilliam’s 1995 science-fiction film, James Cole’s just kind of trying to save himself, and not by Willis’ trademark methods — banter or physical strength. He really doesn’t want any part of the greater good, and we’re not sure whether that’s because he’s out of his mind or just disinterested in the world at large.

Is he in the mental institution because he belongs there or because it’s safer to have him there? It’s a testament to Willis and a plot that keeps turning in on itself that we wonder about that for long stretches, it gives the movie more depth and raises it above more traditional sci-fi fare. And it’s equally enjoyable to find him being dragged almost kicking and screaming into trying to save the world. It’s so un-Bruce Willis.

Paige reviews classic television and movies for Sibling Cinema. They’re currently in the midst of a rewatch blog for the complete run of The X-Files.

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