Forget This Last Decade, Bruce Willis is an All-Time Great

Willis is stepping away from acting due to aphasia diagnosis.

For the last ten years, give or take, Bruce Willis’ star has fallen considerably, thanks to an increasingly inept collection of dour, poor-quality DTV action movies. Most have been shot overseas, and Willis’s involvement rarely stretches beyond about fifteen minutes of screen time. Outside of “return to form” performances in Rian Johnson’s 2012 sci-fi thriller, Looper and Shyamalan’s trilogy-ender Glass (and, if you ask me, a pretty fun job in Eli Roth’s 2017 Death Wish remake), Willis has transformed from the smirking “common man” action hero and Planet Hollywood superstar into the butt of jokes. With titles like Out of Death, Cosmic Sin, First Kill, and Midnight in The Switchgrass, a once stellar and iconic career has been reduced to Redbox fodder. Now, however, it appears we won’t even have Bruno to kick around anymore.

Willis and his family announced today that the actor has been diagnosed with aphasia, a brain disorder which gradually robs you of the ability to communicate in, really, any way. It’s a bleak diagnosis for Willis, who just turned 67 a few days ago, and it means he is stepping away from acting. It also explains many of the decisions he’s had to make in recent years. All the insults and barbs feel nasty and mean now, because Willis needed to work, but his cognitive decline was getting the best of him in recent years. We may not be getting any new Bruce Willis movies, but this tragic diagnosis and subsequent retirement should make us all stop and think back to when Willis was the coolest dude in the world.

Though his film career didn’t officially begin with Die Hard (he already had the abysmal Blake Edwards comedies Blind Date and Sunset under his belt), for all intents and purposes, the 1988 action masterpiece sent him to the moon. Willis’s John McClane was a guy you might have known. His biceps weren’t slick and huge, he had a wiseass nature about him, and everything he was doing to save the day in John McTiernan’s film felt real. Like maybe… just maybe, you might be able to pull it off under the right circumstances. This new action hero was also flawed, stressed out, conflicted. Everything wasn’t easy for him, and he was always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And Willis made it all seem so charming. It was a breath of fresh air for everyone looking for a more realistic action hero than the 80s domination of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, and it would forever be Willis’s most iconic role.

Die Hard (1988)

The rest of Willis’s career was a mixture of success and failure, and the variance is staggering at times. Just as he would hit it big in Die Hard 2 or Look Who’s Talking (which showed the power of simply his voice), Willis would stumble with The Bonfire of The Vanities and Hudson Hawk, the latter of which was a passion project that couldn’t find an audience. However, these days, one would have a hard time finding a modern adventure/comedy as unique and utterly weird and entertaining as Hudson Hawk.

Speaking of weird, whenever Willis was given the chance to step out of his tough wiseass persona into a more offbeat, quirky role (a rare occasion), he would crush it; he is marvelous in Death Becomes Her, playing against type as a Dr. Ernest Menville, a spineless, pallid plastic surgeon who is way in over his head with two immortal bitches pulling him in all directions.

If I were pressed into picking five favorites from Willis’s career, the list would, of course, start with Die Hard. From there, a dozen candidates would vie for the other four. Pulp Fiction is the best movie he’s ever been in, hands down. His turn as Butch was such a surprise in 1994, as Willis had fallen on hard times with a pair of big time box-office losers, Striking Distance and the notoriously awful Rob Reiner bomb North. 12 Monkeys is one of his most fascinating performances, all tired desperation and grimy perseverance. It’s remarkable, and the pairing of Terry Gilliam and Willis feels like lightning in a bottle. Die Hard with a Vengeance belongs on this very short list – easily the second-best entry in the franchise – as does his first two Shyamalan films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

But what about Corbin Dallas The Fifth Element? What about 16 Blocks, his late-career actioner and the final film of Richard Donner’s storied career? And, despite the fact he terrorized late director Tony Scott, The Last Boy Scout is a low-key work of mad genius that should never have worked as well as it did. These are solid films, borderline great films, and they somehow only scratch the surface of Bruce Willis as a movie star. His diversity has always been under-appreciated.

That is why so many “clunkers” in Willis’s early career have begun to appreciate as the years tick away, because the Willis Charm is just too powerful to deny over time. Color of Night, for example, one of the hackiest, most ill-conceived Basic Instinct ripoffs to come out of a long run of ripoffs. And, well… it’s still pretty bad. But oh my goodness is it bad in the best kinds of ways, and Bruce Willis is at the peak of his melodramatic phase here. His hair is a little dainty, he’s fragile, he’s captivatingly campy. A few years later, there’s a blockbusting return to form in Armageddon, which worked as a transitional sort of picture for Willis. He was back to being the action star, but his death at the end is significant moment in Willis’s career; he’d never had to die saving the day before.

Willis and Jane March in Color of Night (1994)

There are a handful of other awesome bad movies in Bruce Willis’s career: Striking Distance is maybe one of the biggest action turds to get a theatrical release, but I’ve seen it a dozen times. The same goes for The Jackal, Last Man Standing, Mercury Rising, The Siege… these are all films seemingly lost to time, but if you stop and think about them you can find redeeming qualities in them all. And, more often than not, that sort of warped value starts with the smirking hero (or, in the case of The Siege, the very serious villain) in the middle of the action.

Willis’s last arguably great movie was Looper, where Joseph Gordon Levitt played a young Willis thanks to some amusing facial prosthetics. His next movie was A Good Day to Die Hard, or Die Hard 5, or “this movie does not exist,” whatever you want to call it. From there, the misses began to outweigh the hits, and mileage may vary on what constitutes a “good” movie or a “hit” movie. Willis was slammed for Death Wish, but it’s a take on the source material that’s endlessly watchable. There are the Red films, the first much better than the second, there is Glass, and there is Motherless Brooklyn… and dozens of DTV movies that make much more sense now, given the tragic news.

It would be difficult to think of an action star that means more to me than Bruce Willis. He was the king of my favorite genre from the time I was seven to well into my adult years. It’s definitely been a shame what’s become of his career these past few years, but the recent diagnosis puts it all in perspective. It also helps to remind you of the greatness Bruce Willis once embodied.

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