The sad news that Bruce Willis is ‘stepping away’ from acting due to an aphasia diagnosis came as a surprise to fans, but the film industry has been rife with rumours about his possible medical problems over recent years.
The slew of cheap straight-to-DVD action thrillers (with relatively little screen time) he starred in since 2014 made observers wonder whether Willis was making as much money as he could to ensure both care in his retirement and a decent inheritance for his family.
The fact that the famously motor mouthed actor of Moonlighting and his long run of hit movies opted for increasingly taciturn roles led insiders to wonder whether something was wrong.
Willis’ last ‘serious’ role was back in 2019, when he took a small but pivotal role in Ed Norton’s Neo Noir Motherless Brooklyn, earning critical praise as private detective Frank Minna.
The actor famously parlayed his TV success in Moonlighting to movie stardom, where his cocky persona from the show began swiftly to give way (with exceptions) to a more morose kind of performance. Willis could allegedly be a prickly customer on set; there are countless tales of his demanding ways.
During the filming of the enjoyably dumb 1993 action thriller Striking Distance (strapline 'They shouldn't have put him in the water, if they didn't want him to make waves.') his behaviour on set earned the actor the sobriquet ‘Orson Willis’.
Willis and Kevin Smith notoriously fell out on the set of Smith’s dire police comedy Cop Out (2010); if you ever watch the film, your sympathies will probably be with Bruce.
The actor may well have mellowed as he approached late middle age; one can be sure that he behaved himself when working with Paul Newman in earlier times on Robert Benton’s fine movie Nobody’s Fool (1994).
Willis recounted that: 'There was a storm and because of the snow, I was two minutes late on the set one day.' He added: 'He yanked me out of the car and said, "I want to teach you one thing about acting. Punctuality is the courtesy of kings". I was never late again.'
Newman also had a problem with Robert Redford’s chronic inability to turn up on time, so Willis wasn’t the only one to incur his displeasure.
Despite the avalanche of mediocre pictures he has starred in over recent years, one never got the impression that Willis appeared in them because they were the only things he was offered (unlike Seagal, Van Damme et al), which made it all the more puzzling, until the news of his illness was confirmed this week.
This also puts the cancellation of the planned sixth Die Hard (the prequel/sequel hybrid McClane) into perspective.
Here’s my personal selection of the top ten Bruce Willis movie performances:
Die Hard (1988) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy
Released in the year before Moonlighting ended, Die Hard represented Willis’ true ascent into movie superstardom.
Sure, he had a sizable hit with Blake Edwards’ comedy Blind Date the previous year, but that very much traded on the actor’s TV appeal.
As everyman action hero John McClane, Willis struck a chord with audiences, delivering a performance that combined wit with physicality. He was aided, of course, by the assured direction of John McTiernan (Predator), Jeb Stuart & Steven E. de Souza’s script and the presence of the great Alan Rickman as baddie Hans Gruber. Not to mention fan favourite Hart Bochner as Harry Ellis, cocaine scarfing Nakatomi executive and failed siege resolving ‘white knight.’
The worldwide success of Die Hard led to four sequels (of variable quality) and the birth of a new action movie genre – ‘Die Hard on a…’.
Which includes Speed, Under Siege, Lockout, Sudden Death, Father Ted (‘Speed 3’) and many, many others.
Pulp Fiction (1994) Amazon Rent/Buy
Willis gained acting credibility playing over-the-hill boxer Butch Coolidge, a bruiser possessed of a unique sense of personal honour.
One that Butch’s crime boss enemy Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) must be profoundly thankful for when the brawling pair fall into the clutches of Maynard, Zed and the Gimp, a trio of very bad intentioned hombres residing in a pawn shop.
The moment when Willis (who has escaped from his bonds) takes a katana from the pawnshop wall and goes back into the basement to save his foe from further abuse is a classic moment in cinema. Although not one for the faint-hearted.
Tarantino originally wanted The Knack’s jaunty 1979 hit ‘My Sharona’ to be used in the sequence. Thankfully, this was refused.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy
Willis is genuinely affecting as dejected but kindly police Captain Duffy Sharp in Wes Anderson’s lyrical (but peculiar) tale of pre-teen romance on a fictional island off the coast of New England.
Along with Looper, Moonrise Kingdom represents Willis’ last hurrah as a serious actor before he entered the final, less prestigious stage of his movie career.
The concluding scenes where Duffy decides to legally adopt tearaway orphan Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) can bring a tear to the eye of the most hard-hearted viewer.
Accompanied by a wonderful soundtrack, which includes an original score by Alexandre Desplat accompanied by existing performances of works by Benjamin Britten, Saint-, Franz Schubert, Mozart, and Hank Williams.
Sin City (2005) Amazon Rent/Buy
A stoic but committed turn from Bruce as aging Detective John Hartigan in the Robert Rodriguez/Frank Miller adaptation of Miller’s graphic novel of the same name.
Hartigan’s dodgy ticker and uniformly corrupt police colleagues won’t prevent his rescue of Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) from the aptly named deformed rapist ‘The Yellow Bastard’ (Nick Stahl).
Willis returned in spectral form for 2014’s less impressive Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.
Death Becomes Her (1992) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy
Willis took the role of nebbish plastic surgeon Ernest Menville in Robert (Back to the Future) Zemeckis’s dark fantasy-comedy about the quest for eternal youth.
Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn very much take centre stage as vain, youth obsessed rivals, but Willis is pretty good and resists the temptation to mug (too much).
This is a better Bruce comedy than The Whole Nine Yards (2000) and its imaginatively titled sequel The Whole Ten Yards (2004), that’s for sure.
Nobody's Fool (1994) full movie available free to watch on YouTube
As with Death Becomes Her, Willis takes a subsidiary role in Robert Benton’s engaging slice of life comedy-drama set in rural New York State.
In the movie he plays womanising local contractor Carl Roebuck (Willis), constantly pursued by ornery codger Sully Sullivan (Paul Newman) for unpaid wages and compensation for the disability he claims was sustained working for him.
Willis plays it straight in an unsympathetic part, and consequently is excellent.
Two years before, Willis first worked with Benton in the failed big budget prohibition gangster drama Billy Bathgate (adapted from E.L. Doctorow's 1989 novel), taking the minor part of real-life mobster Bo Weinberg.
Red (2010) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy
When Moses is targeted for assassination, he hooks up with long distance love interest GSA worker Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) and decides to ‘get the band back together’, recruiting his fellow espionage retirees to unravel a conspiracy at the highest levels of US government.
His former colleagues (and rivals) include Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Karl Urban, Brian Cox, Richard Dreyfuss and Ernest Borgnine.
Not too shabby.
Willis did not return for the third instalment of the Expendables ensemble action-comedy series, as his fee demands were branded ‘greedy and lazy’ on twitter by franchise boss Sylvester Stallone.
Looper (2012) NOW, Amazon Rent/Buy
Willis proved a steady hand in Rian Johnson’s (Knives Out) time travel thriller, where he teams up with his younger self (Joseph Gordon-Levitt avec prosthetic hooter) to prevent the emergence of all-powerful future gang boss The Rainmaker.
The picture was one of the actor’s last big critical and box office hits, earning $176.5 million on a modest $30m budget.
Bandits (2001) Amazon Rent/Buy
An overlooked entry in the Willis filmography, Barry Levinson’s (Rain Man) amiable contemporary crime comedy riffs on the likes of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid (1969) to produce one of the actor’s most relaxed performances.
He plays Joe Blake, one of the 'Sleepover Bandits' along with pal Terry Collins (Billy Bob Thornton) who employ a unique modus operandi in their bank heists.
Cate Blanchett plays the object of the duo’s affection.
Willis teamed up with Levinson again for the underwhelming Bill Murray comedy Rock the Kasbah (2015).
If you liked Bruce in Bandits, you may want to take in Stephen Frears betting comedy Lay the Favourite (2012) where he takes on the role of professional gambler Dink Heimowitz.
The Last Boy Scout (1991) Amazon Rent/Buy
Like his equally underrated Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) this Shane Black scripted action comedy delivers thrills and yuks in equal measure and is apparently a favourite of Quentin Tarantino.
The late Tony Scott directs in his expert fashion this story of illegal shenanigans in the world of American Professional Football.
Willis is up washed-up ex-secret service man (having saved President Jimmy Carter from an assassination attempt) turned drunken PI Joe Hallenbeck, forced to team up with disgraced former Quarterback star Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) to investigate murder and murky goings-on surrounding sports betting in the big leagues.
Wayans and Willis allegedly didn’t get on at all during filming; a scenario that was to repeat itself in Wayans’ case with his Lethal Weapon TV series co-star Clayne Crawford.
For additional undemanding but fun old school Bruce Willis action thrillers, why not check out the aforementioned Striking Distance (1993), as well as 16 Blocks (2006), Last Man Standing (1996), Hostage (2005) and Mercury Rising (1998).