With this weekend’s Cop Out, Bruce Willis earns his 76th acting credit (!) on IMDb, and that makes Hollywood’s favorite everyman superstar into prime “Weekly Listicle” material. From his uncredited early quasi-appearances in The Verdict and The First Deadly Sin, to his leading roles in box office smashes like Die Hard and The Sixth Sense, to his participation in just God awful pieces of crap like Striking Distance and The Color of Night, many of us have grown up with Bruce Willis for better or worse.
Today, I present my picks for the better. (Oh, and make sure to add Mercury Rising to the list of the worst. Yeeesh.) The Honorable Mentions include such obvious – and excellent – choices as Die Hard, Pulp Fiction and Twelve Monkeys, but if you haven’t seen those already then there’s just no helping you.
DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (dir. John McTiernan, 1995)
Die Hard is great. Everyone knows Die Hard is great. Die Hard 2: Die Harder is not great, but somehow not everyone agrees on that. (“Yippee-Ki-Yay, Mr. Falcon!”) But it was the inexplicably-titled Die Hard with a Vengeance that took John McClane out of “How the hell can the same thing keep happening over-and-over again” sequel hell and dropped him smack dab into the heart of what I like to call Poor Bastard Cinema. Poor Bastard Cinema takes a likable, down-on-their-luck protagonist and treats them like the universe’s punching bag. Everything bad that can happen, will happen, and only to them. For other classic examples, see After Hours, The Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and Spider-Man 2.
Unlike the coincidental action movie set-ups of the first two Die Hards, in this threequel, directed by John McTiernan before he apparently forgot how to direct good action movies (I’m looking at you, Rollerball…), trouble specifically finds John McClane as a psychotic madman played by Jeremy Irons goes out of his way to torture our hero in inventive ways while trying to pull off the biggest heist in the history of the world. All John wants is an aspirin, all he gets is carnage, and Bruce Willis’s gritty interpretation of plucky determination makes the worst day of John’s life easily the most entertaining, if not necessarily the best, entry in the franchise yet.
UNBREAKABLE (dir. M. Night Shyamalan, 2000)
M. Night Shyamalan (You’re mispronouncing his last name on purpose now, aren’t you?) first teamed with Bruce Willis for The Sixth Sense, a justly-lauded modern genre masterpiece that put a classy new spin on ghost stories by placing it in a modern, working-class setting. His second film also took a classic pop culture concept – the superhero film – and reinvented it along the same lines by removing the element of pubescent fantasy (i.e. getting superpowers as you grow up) and replacing it with a mature and melancholic theme of missed opportunities and mid-life crises.
When Bruce Willis turns out to the sole survivor of a horrific train wreck, and miraculously unharmed, a mysterious superhero enthusiast played by Samuel L. Jackson suspects that he has abilities beyond those of mortal men. What he did not suspect was that Willis had abandoned all of his youthful ambitions when he settled into an average middle-class life of quiet desperation. Bruce Willis gives one of his best performances as a man who opens his mind to new ideas, while struggling with feelings of resentment, inadequacy, fear and finally hope.
And yes, the ending isn’t as good as it could have been. Get over it, will you?
BANDITS (dir. Barry Levinson, 2001)
My “Yeahbutwhaaaaaa?!” entry for this week’s Listicle is this already-forgotten crime caper from director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) about two unlikely bank robbing partners (Willis and Billy Bob Thornton) who pick up more than they bargained for when a hostage (a never-sexier Cate Blanchett) tries to join their gang. The script was very loosely adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, and while the actual robberies are entertaining the real focus here is on the most engaging love triangle of the last ten years. Both Willis and Thornton fall in love with Cate Blanchett (and nobody could blame them… yowza), and although jealousy threatens everyone’s relationship the film boldly decides to ultimately deemphasize the competitive aspects of romance and finally settles into an intriguing take on poly-amorous love. The chemistry in Bandits is so unique, funny and earnest that it’s amazing the film – which admittedly is too long and does lose track of the plot for a while – doesn’t have a bigger fanbase. A sweet and sexy romp with more on its mind that the ad campaign ever really let on, Bandits is very much recommended, and to my mind one of Bruce Willis’s most interesting films.