Arts & Culture News

Bruce Willis Has Always Been Much More Than an Action Star

We may love Bruce Willis most as John McClane, but he's shown us his versatility.
We may love Bruce Willis most as John McClane, but he's shown us his versatility. Gareth Cattermole/Getty
This week, news broke that famed action star Bruce Willis was retiring from acting because of a health condition called aphasia, which the Mayo Clinic describes as “a condition that robs you of the ability to communicate” and can be caused by a stroke, head injury, a brain tumor or a disease.”

On Wednesday, Willis’ ex-wife Demi Moore and his daughter Rumer shared the official announcement on Instagram. It was signed by Willis' current wife Emma Heming Willis, who thanked his supporters and fans and shared that Willis’ family would be caring for him during this time.

Since the announcement, many of Willis’ former cast mates and collaborators have made public showings of support for the actor, and there's been an outcry of love for Willis from fans. But let us not forget the cruel treatment Willis has received in the recent past.

For the majority of the last decade, Willis has been largely absent from the big screen. After 2014’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, he starred in a string of direct-to-video action films, appearing in dozens of barely distinguishable titles, often for only a few minutes onscreen. In the same time period, he's only rarely appeared in films released in theaters, and a majority of them were sequels: after the Sin City sequel, he popped up for a brief cameo in Rock the Kasbah; had a supporting turn in the Unbreakable sequel Glass; did the meta remake of Death Wish; and had a small role in his friend Edward Norton’s directorial endeavor Motherless Brooklyn.

Critics and audiences were keen to criticize Willis’ performance in derided DTV films and to roast him for appearing in them. The Golden Raspberry Awards, aka the “Razzies," the alternate awards ceremony that celebrate the worst in cinema, even created an “honorary” award for “Worst Performance by Bruce Willis in a Movie.” It’s one thing to call out a bad performance (that’s what critics are for), but Willis became the butt of an ongoing joke. Tabloid rumors about Willis being “difficult to work with,” “lazy” or “careless about his performance” are disturbing in retrospect given the context.

What’s sadder about these speculations is that based on the insights provided by his family's statements, Willis truly loves acting and wanted to continue performing. The perception that he wasn't fully engaged in his last projects likely had more to do with his condition than his interest in the material.

Willis has given audiences more than enough great memories throughout his career. He’s best known for his depiction of John McClane in the Die Hard films. The original 1988 Die Hard is still cited as one of the greatest action (and of course, Christmas) films of all time, and it continues to be used as a reference point to this day. There are countless action films that have been described using the same premise; Speed is “Die Hard on a bus,” Air Force One is “Die Hard on a plane” and both Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down are “Die Hard in the White House,” just to name a few.

The original Die Hard trilogy is still worth revisiting, but Willis isn’t just a charming, butt-kicking hero. Over the course of his filmography, he’s shown a surprising amount of versatility and worked in many different genres. There’s never been someone quite like him; you wouldn’t find today’s action stars appearing in the types of experimental projects that Willis frequently appeared in over the years. Here's a look at Willis' wider filmography showing the range of roles he’s adopted over the years. (Though we'll forget his careers as singer and restaurateur.)

The Comedian
Willis got his start in the 1980s series Moonlighting, and according to the doc series The Films That Made Us, he was so known as a comedic actor that his image was removed from the original Die Hard poster as producers feared audiences would think of it as a comedy.

He's also had memorable roles on the sitcom Friends and in action or dark comedy movies such as Bandits, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Death Becomes Her and The Whole Nine Yards. He also had a memorable voice-acting role as Mikey in Look Who's Talking.

And just because Willis takes his performances seriously doesn’t mean he can't take a joke. Not only was he the subject of a Comedy Central Roast show, but he’s frequently made fun of his own image as the definitive action hero with performances in satirical action-comedies. In the Red films, Willis plays an aging government assassin who is dealing with trying to adjust to a normal life, a character who may be able to snap someone’s neck in two seconds but doesn't necessarily know how to pick up Christmas lights.

Willis also proved that showing up only briefly in a film doesn't make his presence any less memorable. He’s popped up in fun cameos over the years in Ocean’s Twelve, The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part and Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, among others.

The Genre Aficionado
Willis is certainly an icon in the geek community, and he’s helped make science fiction material appealing to broader audiences. Even if he’s in a sci-fi film with complex mythology, Willis can make the material engaging on an emotional level. His memorable science fiction roles include the time-travel mysteries Twelve Monkeys and Looper, as well as cult classics such as The Fifth Element.

There’s also value in an actor who can just elevate the material. Willis’s cheekiness in Armageddon makes the film’s ridiculous logic seem all in good fun.

The Dramatist
Willis is one of the best living actors who has never been nominated for an Academy Award. Even if he’s most closely associated with John McClane’s catchphrases, Willis can deliver a serious line and turn on his dramatic chops for sensitive performances. This is particularly clear from his collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan. He played a sympathetic psychologist in The Sixth Sense and a common man who learns he’s a superhero in Unbreakable.

What makes these roles fascinating is that though they seem like blockbusters on paper, they’re more slowly paced and character driven. In the Unbreakable sequel Glass, Willis spends more time interacting with his son than he does fighting bad guys.

The Character Actor
The versatility of Willis’ talents is evident in the wide range of roles he’s taken on in ensemble productions. You’d never forget his memorable appearance as Butch in Pulp Fiction, his captivating performance as a skillful detective in Sin City, his villainous turn in Lucky Number Slevin or his heartfelt sense of humor in Moonrise Kingdom.

There’s something to be said about an actor who can do so much in a short amount of time. Even if he’s on screen for only a few moments, Willis sends an emotional ripple throughout the story. In one of his last performances, in Norton’s crime noir Motherless Brooklyn, a tragic scene involving Willis’ character sets off the events of the film.

The fact that we remember him best as John McClane, especially come Christmas, is just a testament to Bruce Willis' approach to the character and to the film's excellence, because he's certainly given us his all.
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in About.com, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.

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