This futuristic thriller about “surries”—artificial lookalikes who do the dirty work while their owners stay home—could have had a lot more fun with the disparity between the grizzled older Willis and his blond synthetic doppelganger. Still, it’s fun to watch him struggle with Rosamund Pike, who plays his glassy wife, and is briefly reunited with his Pulp Fiction nemesis Ving Rhames.
Good acting, bad movie. Willis does a subtle, judicious job as the child psychologist drawn to the intimacy 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 laughable.
In his second consecutive film with Shyamalan, Willis once again produces moving results from ominous, low-quality material. There are shades of Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone in his portrayal of an ordinary Joe stunned by his extraordinary powers. He reprized the role briefly in Split (2016) and extensively in Glass (2019).
17. The Siege (1998)
Nearly three years before 9/11, writer-director Edward Zwick envisioned a terrorist cell launching an attack on American soil. (After 9/11, Zwick was one of the Hollywood figures consulted by the Pentagon on counterterrorism.) The film, rightly criticized for its insensitive treatment of its Arab characters, has a fruitful tension between Denzel Washington, who urges caution and Willis, personification of gung-ho military power.
16. The Last Boy Scout (1991)
Misogynie runs through this sordid piece of action flick from Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black and Top Gun director Tony Scott. The charm it has can only be attributed to Willis, who tackles the jokes with confidence as a former secret agent turned private detective, and Damon Wayans as the ex-NFL star he’s teamed up with.
The thrill of seeing Willis work with an exciting young director (Rian Johnson) in this time-loop thriller, in which he and Joseph Gordon-Levitt play the same hit man at different ages, was only slightly dulled by the fact that he was on that merry-go-round for 12 Monkeys. At least he seems more at ease here than immersed in the quirkiness of Wes Anderson (who cast him in Moonrise Kingdom the same year).
14. Billy Bathgate (1991)
Robert Benton’s gangster thread begins with Willis facing death in a bow tie and tuxedo. But what a way to go: Dustin Hoffman orders the execution, Steve Buscemi ties him up, Nicole Kidman looks on in bewilderment. You’ve heard of “Garbo smiles!” Get ready for something almost as rare: “Willis Weeps!”
13. Mortal Thoughts (1991)
The same year, Willis was again quickly murdered by a quality filmmaker — this time Alan Rudolph (who later directed him in a jumbled 1999 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions). Other villain movie roles followed, but Mortal Thoughts was his first: he plays a villain whose wife (Glenne Headly) plots his demise. Willis’s then-husband Demi Moore is her bestie.
12. Fast Food Nation (2006)
In Richard Linklater’s film of Eric Schlosser’s McIndustry exposé, Willis has a cameo as the VP of the fictional hamburger chain Mickey’s, who shrugs off the discovery that his restaurant’s patties contain feces. “We all have to eat a little bit of shit from time to time,” says the owner of modern cinema’s best shit-eating grin.
11. Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
This threequel is the wildest of John McClane’s four further adventures, thanks to a killer 40-minute opening in which he is sent zigzagging across New York on a series of dangerous errands. Jeremy Irons, the taunting brother of the villain from the original film, is pulling the strings; Samuel L Jackson comes to the rescue.
Bruce plays Bruce in this series of Tinseltown comedies. In Robert Altman’s comeback in Hollywood, Willis’s rescue of Julia Roberts (“Traffic was a bitch”) at the end of the movie-within-a-movie is the ultimate compromise. Meanwhile, in Barry Levinson’s adaptation of Art Linson’s memoir, Willis throws a tantrum when producer Robert De Niro asks him to shed his lovingly cultivated beard — a scene based on Linson’s real-life standoff with Alec Baldwin.
9. 16 Blocks (2006)
Willis plays with a bushy tache and extra worries as Jack Mosley, the distressed cop who escorts a murder witness to court. If only he’d seen Clint Eastwood in The Gauntlet, Jack would realize this isn’t a cakewalk: bent cops with itchy fingers are out to ruin his day. The lively rapport between Willis and Yasiin Bey (formerly Mos Def) makes this more fun for us than for the characters.
8. Last Man Standing (1996)
Walter Hill’s Yojimbo remake casts Willis in the Toshiro Mifune role of the bodyguard mercenary caught between two warring gangs. It’s interesting to watch him take on Christopher Walken: not only are the two men diametrically opposed in acting style (Walken’s ostentatious quirkiness meets Willis’s shrugging resignation) and appearance (sharp angles vs. doughy softness), but they played recently also father and son in Pulp Fiction, albeit without appearing on screen together.
7. Bandits (2001)
Willis is the heist merchant who will keep the charm even when he carjacks you (“Ma’am? Don’t forget your wallet!”). He and associate Billy Bob Thornton — nicknamed the Sleepover Bandits because of their habit of moving in with the bank manager 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)
Emerging British star of the 1980s Emily Lloyd is the fatherless teenager who lives with her Uncle Emmett (Willis), a drooping, purring Vietnam veteran prone to flashbacks on the battlefield. “Some think he’s going to snap,” say the townspeople, and Willis would do well to suggest unreachable corners of a damaged psyche so early in his career. “Something is missing and I can’t get it back,” he confesses touchingly as his niece cradles him in the woods.
5. Pulp Fiction (1994)
As the coiled slugger too proud to fight, Willis has never been sexier than when he spins crazy sweet nothings on his “lemon pie” (Maria de Medeiros) while they hide in a hotel room. Nor has he been more intimidating than when his mood changes moments later. Quentin Tarantino compared Willis to Sterling Hayden and Robert Mitchum, calling him “the only contemporary actor to suggest the 1950s”.
4. 12 Monkeys (1995)
Terry Gilliam refused to allow Willis’ entourage on the set of this La Jetée-inspired brain teaser, forbidding him to draw to his usual repertoire of smug grins. The result was an impressively destabilized performance by a man who is not vulnerable. He plays a time traveler who escapes a future where 99% of civilization has been wiped out. Gilliam later said that Willis “wanted to show that he was a real actor”. Mission accomplished.
3. Nobody’s Crazy (1994)
Willis is sublime as part of the impeccable cast in Robert Benton’s keenly observed small-town comedy. He plays Carl Roebuck, a gruff, flirtatious builder who is engaged in a war of attrition with his occasional worker (Paul Newman), who wants compensation for a work accident. Willis ups his game to match Newman, Melanie Griffith, Jessica Tandy and a young Philip Seymour Hoffman, while still exuding effortlessness. Try hard? It doesn’t show.
2. The Fifth Element (1997)
Airy abandon with a top note of irascibility has long been the Willis brand. Yet rarely has he enjoyed it so visibly, or had such a transformative effect on the rest of a film, as in Luc Besson’s crazy science fiction escapade. Like a cab driver, his muddy platinum paint job and clinging tangerine Gaultier vest show him he swoons the most. His chemistry with Chris Tucker (who replaces Prince in the squeaky sidekick role) is a particular delight.
1. Die Hard (1988)
If Moonlighting, the TV romcom on which Willis co-starred with Cybill Shepherd, represented the foundations on which his persona was built, then the first and best Die Hard movie was the skyscraper that took him to the realm of heaven. As John McClane, the New York cop who rolls his eyes to breezy Los Angelenos, he would have had an appealing Sunday morning slowness in any context. Put him in a high-rise, held hostage during the Christmas party season, and he brings new comedic sparkle to the shoot-’em-up genre.
Main villain Hans Gruber (a ravishing Alan Rickman) mistakes McClane for a Rambo figure, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Unlike Stallone’s brute, McClane isn’t merry about causing carnage; he’d rather drink a brew in front of the TV. But if he really must if he single-handedly takes down a crack team of terrorists, he will give it all.
Within 15 minutes of the credits, Willis is already wearing his signature shirt, cross-eyed and skewed grin — the equivalent of Chaplin’s bowler hat, cane and mustache. Once caked with grime and blood, the vest is bare-chested, the father’s body gleaming with sweat, and the receding headboard gives new hope to slobs and baldies. Yippie-kai-yay!