Twenty five years ago, if you’d told us that the hilarious star of TV’s Moonlighting would become one of the great action icons of in movie history we’d have spat in your face and called you stupid. Twenty-five years later, we’d still apologizing. Bruce Willis brought his everyman comedic charm to one action movie after another in the years that followed, most recently in the upcoming thriller Set Up, but spanning over two decades of superior blockbusters. Sure, we had to endure the occasional Mercury Rising or Live Free or Die Hard, but it was worth it to get The Best Bruce Willis Action Flicks (which we’ve handily listed below).
10. TEARS OF THE SUN (dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2003)
Antoine Fuqua’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Training Day wasn’t, frankly, as good a movie. The story is essentially Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison Loved Black Hawk Down, and follows Bruce Willis as Lieutenant A.K. Waters, a man on a mission to retrieve American nationals from war torn Nigeria. When Dr. Lena Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) refuses to leave her refugees behind, Willis and a team of badasses including Cole Hauser and Eamonn Walker are forced to drag them all through the jungle, evading an unusually motivated army of killers on their trail. Willis is let down a bit by a screenplay that doesn’t properly motivate his character to betray his orders and a storyline that doesn’t build suspense well in the first half, but by the explosive, action-packed finale you’ll have forgotten all about that and be thoroughly immersed in the blood-soaked climactic firefight.
9. 16 BLOCKS (dir. Richard Donner, 2006)
Bruce Willis starred in one of his most underrated films in 2006, a small-scale cop thriller called 16 Blocks. Willis plays Detective Jack Mosley, assigned to the mindless task of escorting a witness played by Mos Def to the courthouse for his testimony. But the routine assignment turns deadly when the rest of the corrupt police force tries to kill Mos Def before he reaches his destination. Unfolding in real time as Bruce Willis and Mos Def struggle to cover a mere sixteen blocks (hey, that’s a good idea for the title), Lethal Weapon director Richard Donner ratchets up the tension but for some reason lets Mos Def play the role with a bizarre accent that gets annoying as the film progresses. But even so, 16 Blocks manages to be the everyman cop action movie that Live Free or Die Hard completely failed to be, and remains an engaging potboiler despite some negative word of mouth.
8. DIE HARD 2 (dir. Renny Harlin, 1990)
Bruce Willis’s second time out as NYPD Detective John McClane found him defending an airport from mercenaries holding incoming flights hostage, one of which happens to have McClane’s wife Bonnie Bedelia on board. They should have checked the manifests first, because McClane ain’t about to take this lying down. Action-packed but suffering from “What Are The Odds?” syndrome, Die Hard 2 only flounders when it tries to too hard to be just like the original action classic, such as including Reginald VelJohnson and William Atherton in the film for no practical reason other than the fact that they were in the last one. Fun Fact: In some TV versions of the film, McClane’s famous line, “Yippee ki-yay, motherf***er” was dubbed to say “Yippee ki-yay, Mr. Falcon,” even though the film doesn’t contain a character by that name. Weird, huh?
7. ARMAGEDDON (dir. Michael Bay, 1998)
We’re not sure what Jerry Bruckheimer was on when he decided to make a big summer blockbuster about oil rig specialists drilling into a giant asteroid to save the planet Earth, but apparently it was good stuff. Bruce Willis stars as Harry Stamper, who reluctantly agrees to save the planet while simultaneously defending his daughter Liv Tyler from young Ben Affleck’s romantic advances. Alas, he only succeeds at one of these missions. Thoroughly overblown, Michael Bay nevertheless turned Armageddon into a pulse-pounding explosion-fest with sweeping dramatic moments that only seem stupid after the credits roll. Of course, at that point they seem very stupid, but hey… such is the power of film.
6. LAST MAN STANDING (dir. Walter Hill, 1996)
Walter Hill’s remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic Yojimbo may be one of the most serious action movies ever made, but if you take action movies seriously it’s a commendable shoot ‘em up in the vein of John Woo. Bruce Willis stars as “John Smith,” a drifter who wanders into the crime-ridden border town of Jericho and gets in between two rival criminal organizations, pitting them against each other so they take themselves out. The story, directly lifted from the original film, works as well as ever and the shootouts are a thing to behold. Just don’t expect the quippy Bruce Willis you’ve come to love.
5. PLANET TERROR (dir. Robert Rodriguez, 2007) & THE EXPENDABLES (dir. Sylvester Stallone, 2010)
Bruce Willis had already proved himself as an action icon by the time Planet Terror and The Expendables came out. The two films use him as little more than a celebrity cameo, but his grizzled appearance and charismatic demeanor lent his scenes an air of dramatic authority that might have been diminished with a lesser star. In the zombie-fest Planet Terror (originally a part of the double feature Grindhouse), Willis plays an American soldier infected with a horrible mutagen for finding and killing Osama bin Laden years before it became fashionable. In The Expendables he plays a spook who hires Sylvester Stallone’s crew of action luminaries for an off-the-books mission in the Caribbean. Willis doesn’t get much to do in either film, but his presence boosted each – excellent – action movie’s credibility by the truckload.
4. RED (dir. Robert Schwentke, 2010)
A thoroughly unexpected action comedy treat from The Time Traveler’s Wife director Robert Schwentke, RED stars Bruce Willis as a “retired, extremely dangerous” CIA black-ops agent who’s forced back into action when his fellow retired field operatives are targeted for assassination. Willis seems appropriately tired in the lead role, essentially an action star forced to make yet another action movie, and is accompanied by wonderful performances from such aging icons as Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Brian Cox and Helen Mirren, who seems to have the most fun as a sexy secret agent who gets to mow Secret Service agents down with a gatling gun. Dryly humorous, RED has little to do with the comic book on which it’s based (by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner), but it’s an absolute treat anyway.
3. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (dir. John McTiernan, 1995)
The third, and best, sequel to Die Hard reunited Bruce Willis with director John McTiernan and mercifully abandoned the whole “mercenaries take over the so-and-so” plotline that Renny Harlin recycled in Die Hard 2. Jeremy Irons plays the brother of Alan Rickman’s bad guy from the first film, who has an elaborate plan to take revenge on John McClane and rip off the Federal Reserve Bank in the process. This time, Willis is paired with one of the best comic relief characters in action movie history, Zeus, played by Samuel L. Jackson with humor and dignity and character development usually alien to this sort of movie pairing. With fantastic action sequences that take Willis and Jackson from one side of New York to the other, Die Hard with a Vengeance is a smart, hilarious action thriller that gives sequels a good name.
2. THE FIFTH ELEMENT (dir. Luc Besson, 1997)
La Femme Nikita director Luc Besson directed his most light-hearted film with the sci-fi spectacular The Fifth Element, which cast Bruce Willis as a former special ops agent, now cab driver, in the distant future, who gets swept up in action and adventure when Milla Jovovich literally drops into his cab. It turns out that she’s “The Fifth Element,” an alien being who is necessary to stop the oncoming evil sweeping the universe, which has a direct line to arms dealer Jean-Baptiste Emmanuel Zorg, played by a particularly wonderful Gary Oldman. Although they play the hero and the villain, respectively, Willis and Oldman never share a single frame of the film together, and that’s just one of the many inventive touches in Besson’s crafty original story. Kinda goofy, but a wonderful action movie nonetheless.
1. DIE HARD (dir. John McTiernan, 1988)
Bruce Willis’s first action movie is still his best. Actually, it’s still one of the best action movies ever made, period. In a time when Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger were busy playing larger than life action gods, then-comedy actor Bruce Willis played NYPD detective John McClane as a hapless everyman, as likely to get seriously hurt as he is to kill the bad guys who’ve taken over the Los Angeles skyscraper The Nakatomi Plaza. The film was so clever and revolutionary that it’s influence has almost ruined it: humanized heroes, close-quarters action sequences and believable supervillains (played beautifully here by Alan Rickman) have become familiar in the years that followed, but Die Hard was the film that made them the norm. It still plays perfectly, and it probably always will.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE BRUCE WILLIS ACTION MOVIE?