The Best Bruce Willis Roles Sum Up His Star Power

The actor, who recently announced his retirement, was once one of Hollywood's biggest fixtures. His career highlights include 'Die Hard,' 'The Fifth Element,' and 'Moonrise Kingdom.'

bruce willis
Illustration by Manali Doshi for Thrillist

When Bruce Willis announced last month that he will retire from acting because he has been diagnosed with the cognitive disorder known as aphasia, it was a stark reminder of how little we know about the personalities who loom large in Hollywood. Despite being one of the 1990s’ most bankable actors, Willis spent the last several years making straight-to-VOD action duds for which he reportedly required an earpiece and shortened hours to accommodate his dwindling faculties. Willis’ career decline had become something of a punchline, as evidenced in February when the Razzie Awards devoted an entire category to his less-than-stellar output. Now we know the real reason Willis was no longer booking top-tier films—and that reason doubles as a reminder of the unimpeachable star power he brought to the big screen for so many years. From the macho swagger of Die Hard and Armageddon to the wacky antics of Death Becomes Her and Moonrise Kingdom, Willis represents an everyday virility that he intermittently amplified, softened, or subverted.

In honor of Willis’ remarkable résumé, here are 15 roles worth revisiting.

brad pitt and bruce willis in 12 monkeys
Universal Pictures

12 Monkeys (1995)

Amid the bug-eyed madness of a Terry Gilliam time-travel movie, Bruce Willis is the mediator, one foot in the gonzo sci-fi dystopia and the other firmly planted on more sensible, slower-paced ground. A prisoner living in an underground compound in future virus-obliterated Philadelphia, James Cole (Willis) is sent back in time using an experimental method that hopes to stop a group known as the Army of the Twelve Monkeys from releasing the catastrophic pathogen that destroyed the world. Plagued by nightmares of a foot chase in an airport, Cole wonders about his own sanity as he works to solve the mystery of the past. (If you're familiar with Chris Marker's source material for the movie, you know where this is going.) With Willis' soft-spoken air and Gilliam's well-handled emotional beats, the tragedy of the enterprise soon rises to the surface. —Emma Stefansky

bruce willis in armageddon
Buena Vista Pictures

Armageddon (1998)

Michael Bay's unrepentantly ludicrous disaster movie has a premise, mocked by star Ben Affleck on the famous DVD commentary track, that requires a big buy-in from the audience: NASA recruits a team of oil riggers to drill a hole in an asteroid the size of Texas hurtling toward Earth. It's hard to imagine an actor other than Willis, with his rough-hewn charm and ever-widening smirk, stepping into those astronaut boots. Maybe he doesn't make you believe that this exact scenario could actually happen, an impossible task for even the most committed actor, but he suffuses the material with a wryness that makes the opening sections fly by. Then, when the mission spirals out of control and the apocalypse approaches and the script slips into melodrama, he applies a deft touch to his sacrificial heroics. By the end, you’re shaking your head: Am I really crying at the goofy giant-asteroid movie? —Dan Jackson

bruce willis and goldie hawn in death becomes her
Universal Pictures

Death Becomes Her (1992)

Willis is known for his cocky charisma, but Death Becomes Her gave him a 180. As a plastic surgeon who becomes a mortician tending to reanimated corpses, he trades the hypermasculinity that defines most of his work for a jittery mania made funnier by the mere fact that it's John McClane himself darting around in those nerdy spectacles. This is Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep's movie—the kind of zany-but-clever A-list comedy you might desperately wish Hollywood still prioritized—but their monkey business is evenly matched by Willis' hysterical beta-male élan. —Matthew Jacobs

bruce willis in die hard
Fox

Die Hard (1998)

"Come out to the coast—we'll get together, have a few laughs." When Willis delivers that line, trapped in a skyscraper's air vent and flicking a lighter to illuminate the darkness, the whole appeal of Die Hard gets crystalized. The movie's hero, New York City cop John McClane, would rather not be here. In fact, he would like to be anywhere else. His quips don't come from a need to prove his cleverness or embarrass his enemies; they come from exhaustion. That fundamental reluctance, paired with an ingrained blue-collar skepticism provided by Willis, often gets forgotten when modern filmmakers attempt to resurrect the "yippee ki-yay" spirit of Die Hard. They think it's all about jokes, machine guns, and mayhem. The first three movies, each an intricate example of studio-blockbuster craftsmanship, understood that McClane hates walking through glass. He's not a Terminator, a 00 agent, or an Avenger. He’s just a guy, one who happens to have a knack for saving the day. —DJ

bruce willis carries mila jovovich in the fifth element
Gaumont Buena Vista International

The Fifth Element (1997)

Willis is a grounding force in Luc Besson's wild space opera The Fifth Element. While Milla Jovovich coos "Leeloo Dallas Multipass" and Gary Oldman gives sneering villain, Willis is our everyman hero, couldn't-care-less cab driver Korben Dallas, who gets wrapped up into all this craziness. Korben is a perfect example of the special kind of star power only Willis could wield, a ruggedness mashed together with playfulness he deploys as he develops chemistry with Leeloo, talks down bad guys, and struts alongside Chris Tucker. —Esther Zuckerman

bruce willis in hudson hawk
Tri-Star Pictures

Hudson Hawk (1991)

History has looked favorably on Hudson Hawk, a notorious bomb for which Willis actually conceived the story. And why not? The zany feature directed and written by Heathers' Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters, respectively, with aid from Die Hard writer Steven E. de Souza, stars Willis as a jazzy Jersey thief who goes by the name Hudson Hawk. He's just out of prison, loves cappuccinos, and is coerced into heisting an art auction alongside his best pal Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello). They are charming criminals! They sing songs while they do crimes! This job gets Hudson wrapped up with wacky masterminds wonderfully overacted by Richard E. Grant and Sandra Bernhard and a plot to steal plans for a Leonardo da Vinci invention that turns lead into gold. Andie MacDowell plays a nun who falls for Hudson. It's ludicrous and also very fun, a wild array of tones that deserves more than the scorn it got. —EZ

bruce willis and daman wayans in the last boy scout
Warner Bros.

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Shane Black's script, famously purchased for $1.75 million, puts an immense amount of pressure on Willis to convincingly sell a hard-boiled detective story in the modern era. As Secret Service agent turned private investigator Joe Hallenbeck, he has to be sarcastic, rude, vulgar, cruel, and, most importantly, charming enough that you don't walk out of the theater. The movie surrounding Willis, a flashy and bullet-ridden thriller that opens with a triple-murder during a professional football game, works overtime to hold your attention. Director Tony Scott applies his glossy touch, and Black laces every scene with acidic verbal humor. In comparison, Willis doesn't seem to be working as hard, but that ease—the ability to ground a movie this peculiar and, frankly, mean—might be his greatest asset as a star. —DJ

bruce willis in looper
Sony Pictures Releasing

Looper (2012)

It's a testament to Willis' undeniable star presence that his Looper co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt was plastered with prosthetics to look like him, instead of the other way around. In a movie where two guys play the same character, Willis is the standout as "Old Joe," an aged version of a young contract killer from the future who is on the run from himself while trying to find and kill a young boy before he turns into a supervillain. The intricate plot will boggle your mind a little, but Willis keeps the human element on the surface even when the sci-fi stuff gets really heady. —ES

cybill shepard and bruce willis in moonlighting
ABC

Moonlighting (1985-1989)

Willis, throughout his entire career, has been incredibly charming, as solidified in one of his earliest roles. Willis starred opposite Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting, the ABC comedy/drama that aired for five seasons in the late '80s. Willis plays David Addison Jr., a private detective running his own agency who ends up becoming partners with Maddie Hayes (Shepherd), a former model who owns a detective agency because of a tax write-off. (The '80s, I guess?) But Willis and Shepherd are a dynamic duo—full of banter, sexual tension, and hijinks. Willis is full of swagger and one-liners, and when he's genuine with Maddie, it's hard not to swoon. It's unsurprising that he got Die Hard during his run on Moonlighting, as the threads of John McClane are right there. —Kerensa Cadenas

bruce willis in moonrise kingdom
Focus Features

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Willis had played many cops long before appearing as Captain Sharp in Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom, but this officer is a bit different from the rest. The single policeman on the fictional picturesque island of New Penzance and the only person with a car, his days and nights don't necessarily call him to spring into dangerous action. So when young Suzy (Kara Hayward) and Khaki Scout Sam (Jared Gilman) run away to be together, he's on the case and enlists help from many other islanders. It's an adorable turn from Willis, who plays into his clichéd action-star seriousness throughout the movie, while bringing out a whole lot of sweetness, too. We would be so lucky to be one of the "little guys" he deputizes to help with the manhunt. —Sadie Bell

bruce willis and julia roberts in ocean's twelve
Warner Bros.

Ocean's Twelve (2004)

An emblem of movie-star prowess is the ability to dramatize—and, often, mock—your own public persona. Willis and Julia Roberts did it together twice: first in Robert Altman's brilliant 1992 Hollywood satire The Player, and later in the standout scene from Ocean's Twelve. In Ocean's, the joke is on Roberts, who plays an excitable Tess Ocean pretending to be Julia Roberts in order to help steal a Fabregé egg in Rome, but it's Willis who steers their exchange, mistaking Tess for the actual Roberts and launching a meta back-and-forth that includes references to Roberts's real-life publicist. They are clearly having a blast, with Willis performing the entitlement that accompanies fame while plastering on the sort of smile that any movie star knows will melt mortals' hearts. —MJ

bruce willis in pulp fiction
Miramax

Pulp Fiction (1994)

John Travolta dances, Uma Thurman takes an adrenaline shot to the heart, and Samuel L. Jackson gets most of the best lines, but Willis, as down-on-his-luck boxer Butch Coolidge, supplies Quinten Tarnantino's episodic crime saga with its surprisingly tender heart. His teasing relationship with Maria de Medeiros's Fabienne, who wants nothing more than a "sexy" pot belly, creates a tender, necessary pause in the movie. The two are so sweet together, which only makes the violent terror of Butch's ill-fated watch retrieval mission that much more vivid and suspenseful. Tarantino has said he cast Willis because he had the look of a '50s actor, an observation that's borne out in the performance. He never feels like he's doing a noir tribute act. He's simply Butch, the sensitive tough guy who wants his watch back. —DJ

bruce willis in sin city
Miramax

Sin City (2005)

Of all the grimy, violent vignettes in Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez's adaptation of Miller's graphic novel, Willis leads the grimiest, starring as aging cop John Hartigan on the trail of a serial rapist whose crimes have been covered up by his corrupt senator father. His detective work is thwarted again and again as the bad guys keep getting away with their misdeeds, and he repeatedly ruminates on the worthiness of a good death in exchange for saving someone else's life. Willis plays Hartigan with a surly, wearied grace, like an old dog that has just one more bite left. —ES

haley joel osment and bruce willis in the sixth sense
Buena Vista Pictures

The Sixth Sense (1999)

The reveal that Willis' Malcolm Crowe was dead the entire time in M. Night Shyamalan's breakout feature was the twist that shook the '90s. Watching the movie now, it's hard not to question why audiences didn't pick up on the clues at the time—but it's largely because of how much life and tenderness Willis brings to the ghost story, playing the child psychiatrist to Haley Joel Osment's 9-year-old, dead-people-seeing Cole. The Sixth Sense isn't one of Willis' many physically demanding roles, but it is one of his more thoughtful ones, as he fully embodies a man who's heartbroken but cares endlessly in trying to understand Cole and make him less afraid. Osment's role is perhaps the most memorable from the film, but because Willis' performance is more subdued and lets the child actor shine, they make for a perfect duo in guiding the dead to the other side. —SB

bruce willis in unbreakable
Buena Vista Pictures

Unbreakable (2000)

M. Night Shyamalan followed up his first enormously successful Willis collaboration (The Sixth Sense) with his covert superhero movie, Unbreakable. He casts Willis as David Dunn, a man who survives a train accident and is convinced of his own strength by a wheelchair-using comics-store owner named Elijah (exquisitely portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson). No one grasps the reluctant-savior mode better than Willis, and he's able to make an audience truly believe he's impenetrable. Willis returned as the character in Split for a brief cameo and had an even bigger role in Glass, one of his final theatrical films before his retirement announcement. —EZ

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