Bruce Willis officially retired from acting this past week. His eldest daughter, actress Rumer Willis, took to Instagram to announce the news, along with Bruce’s aphasia diagnosis, which, per her words, is “impacting his cognitive abilities.” The reveal sent a wave of shock and sadness throughout Hollywood, as Willis was, in many ways, one of Hollywood’s last genuine movie stars.
In a career spanning nearly half a century, Willis appeared in more than 100 films and cemented himself as one of the most iconic actors of the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. Largely known for his action films like the Die Hard series, Willis was also a gifted comedian, having won two Primetime Emmy Awards for his work in the sitcoms Moonlighting and Friends. His filmography is full of classics, from action flicks to searing dramas and even uproarious comedies, many of which rank highly on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. These are his top 10:
Die Hard was Willis’ banner franchise, so it made sense he’d come back to it every so often. Nearly 10 years after his last McClane outing, Willis returned with 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard, a quasi-successful attempt to revitalize the series. The plot follows McClane’s attempts to stop a cyberterrorist played by Timothy Olyphant.
Live Free or Die Hard received mainly positive reviews and was a major box-office success, grossing $388 million worldwide, making it the highest-grossing installment in the franchise. Above all, it confirmed that, even at 52, Willis was still a more charismatic and capable action man than most actors half his age. Live Free or Die Hard wasn’t quite capable of delivering on its promise of relaunching the series, but it stands as an entertaining and non-stop adventure for one of cinema’s greatest action heroes.
Released five years after its predecessor, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part follows Emmet Brickowski as he deals with a coming cataclysm known as “Armamageddon.” Willis has an extended cameo playing a Lego version of himself, including several allusions to John McClane.
There’s an undeniable subversive quality to the Lego Movie franchise that allows for fourth-wall breaks and continuity disruptions. They might not seem as fresh as, say, the first Shrek back in 2001, but they still hold considerable charm for both adults and children. Seeing a Lego Bruce Willis recreating one of the most iconic scenes of his career with self-deprecating and dry humor is a highlight in a movie full of them, and the perfect reminder that Willis knew how to laugh at himself.
Described as a Rodriguez/Tarantino double feature, Grindhouse includes two movies, Planet Terror and Death Proof. The former, a horror-comedy about a group of survivors trying to survive a fight against zombie-like creatures, sees Willis plays Lieutenant Muldoon, the story’s de facto antagonist.
As a combo, Planet Terror and Death Proof are a lot, living up to their directors’ sensibilities, for better and worse. However, they are entertaining and suitably unpredictable as separate projects, with Planet Terror being the superior effort. Willis is having the time of his life in one of his most scenery-chewing performances, contrasting the film’s deliberate hammy tone with rehearsed and absurd self-seriousness.
Willis ended the 20th century by starring in the highest-grossing movie of his career. The Sixth Sense follows a child psychologist who develops a close relationship with a young boy who, in the movie’s iconic words, can see dead people. The movie launched M. Night Shyamalan’s career and established him as one of the most visionary and creative writer-directors in the business, at least until he made the dreadful Lady in the Water and The Happening.
The Sixth Sense was a critical and commercial landmark in Willis’ career. Indeed, Haley Joel Osment might’ve been the awards’ darling of the season, but the film doesn’t work without Willis’ subtle, gentle portrayal of Malcolm Crowe. The twist ending is a showcase of Willis’ abilities and proof enough that he was an underrated dramatic actor who should’ve received more vehicles to explore his craft.
12 Monkeys is a highlight of Willis’ career, a thought-provoking and bittersweet sci-fi that finds Terry Gilliam at his most cerebral. The film follows James Cole, a time traveler from the 2030s who journeys back to the 1990s to prevent the release of a virus that will wipe out most of the world’s population.
If there was ever a Bruce Willis performance that deserved an Oscar nomination, it’s his nuanced work as Cole. Willis opts for a restrained approach to mental illness, avoiding the often-cliched take that Brad Pitt adopts in the showier part as an insane asylum inmate. Willis deftly portrays Cole’s weariness and pain while remaining a compelling hero that wins over the audience’s sympathy. Alas, the Academy, ever blind to subtlety and nuance, ignored his efforts, and Willis remained Oscar-less, just like many other A-list actors.
Bruce Willis co-starred alongside Hollywood icon Paul Newman in Robert Benton’s 1994 comedy-drama Nobody’s Fool. The film follows Donald “Sully” Sullivan, a hustler in his 60s who is forced to reconnect with his estranged son and grandson after they unexpectedly arrive back into his life.
Willis is a fine foil for Newman, playing a contractor who’s constantly at odds with Sully. The film finds Willis at his most unlikeable, a refreshing change of pace to his other, more traditionally heroic roles of the early ’90s. However, Nobody’s Fool is Newman’s vehicle through and through, and everyone around is merely there to support him. Newman earned his eighth Oscar nomination for the role, proving his place as an Academy favorite and a living legend.
Quentin Tarantino’s seminal crime film Pulp Fiction is a milestone in post-modern cinema. The movie tells several stories centered around criminals in Los Angeles and stars a large ensemble cast led by John Travolta, Samuel L. Jackson, Uma Thurman, and Willis.
Pulp Fiction was an overwhelming critical and commercial success, grossing $213.9 million worldwide and earning seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Willis plays Butch Coolidge, a prizefighter and the protagonist of the film’s second major arc, “The Gold Watch.” As it did for his co-star John Travolta, Pulp Fiction essentially revitalized Willis’ career following a string of flops like Hudson Hawk during the first half of the decade. The film showed Willis at his most restrained, presenting a more grounded take on his everyman action persona and having him quickly descend into antihero territory without ever losing the audience’s sympathy.
Moonrise Kingdom is Wes Anderson in his element. Quirky, colorful, and gorgeous to look at, the movie follows an orphan boy who escapes from a scouting camp to meet with his pen pal and love interest, a young girl with peculiar and somewhat transgressive inclinations. In one of his most endearing and paternalistic roles, Willis plays Captain Sharp, the police captain who organizes a search party to locate the two teenagers after they run away together.
Widely acclaimed for its sweet yet subversive narrative, Moonrise Kingdom is one of the superior efforts in the coming-of-age genre. The movie deftly navigates thorny subjects like teenage sexuality and mental health with a firm yet empathetic approach, resulting in a film as irresistible as it’s symmetrical.
If anyone doubted Bruce Willis was still an undeniable movie star, 2012’s Looper was more than proof enough. One of the great time travel movies of the new millennium, Looper follows a group of killers in the present days — also called “loopers” — hired by crime syndicates to kill victims from the future who they send back in time. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Willis co-stars alongside Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt, all of whom do stellar work in the film.
Looper was one of Willis’ last truly great films and performances. Gritty and fierce, Willis is in top form, reminding audiences why he was one of the all-time best action movie stars in Hollywood history. However, beyond the action and thrills, there’s genuine heartbreak; Willis injects his character with a palpable melancholy, a sense of weary defeat that makes his performance all the more affecting. Looper is thought-provoking and cerebral without becoming inaccessible, and the perfect proof that, with the right material, Willis filled the screen as few other actors could.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Die Hard one of the all-time best action movies. The film follows John McClane, a New York City police detective who becomes involved in the hostile takeover of a Los Angeles skyscraper by a group of German radicals led by the iconic Hans Gruber.
Die Hard revolutionized the action genre by introducing the lone-hero-against-the-world trope. McClane became the first in a long line of everymen — cops, firefighters, detectives — who were real and exceedingly flawed men that failed almost as much as they succeeded. The setting allowed for a new kind of action movie, where audiences could get truly invested in the plot because the hero had an almost 50/50 chance of winning. Die Hard launched Willis’ to mega-stardom and laid the foundations for his legacy as an action star. However, there’s more to Willis’ McClane, a character that’s equal parts charming and tough. Few actors could’ve imbued the role with such charisma, but then again, Bruce Willis wasn’t most actors; he was truly one of a kind, the action star Hollywood needed and deserved.