Bruce Willis returns to cinemas this week with Surrogates, his first starring role since Live Free or Die Hard. It has been 21 years since the original Die Hard, and it seems as if studios and executives are still trying to make lightning strike twice with Willis as an action hero. Fortunately, Willis' finer instincts keep coming through with some of his quirkier choices between the big-budget blow-em-up movies. And though a casual fan wouldn't know it, he has demonstrated over the years a marked talent for acting. That's right. Bruce Willis is an actor, and a damn good one. It's a shame he has yet to earn a single Oscar nomination, and he could have -- should have -- earned some for the following great performances.
1. Butch in Pulp Fiction (1994)
He shows up 20 minutes in, in a single shot that lasts a full two minutes. It's just Bruce, framed in the center of the shot. The background is lit low and mostly out of focus. He doesn't speak for two minutes; we're listening to Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) speak, but we're looking at Bruce. We're looking at that mug. It's a tough, hard mug, but he knows that Marsellus has his number, so his guard is not entirely up. That look of hard disappointment anchors it. Most of Willis' acting is like that: an invisible stamp of quality that makes everything else around him look good. Then, check out the rest of the film, the way Tarantino's dialogue seems to perfectly fit his mouth, and the brilliant way he pulls off his many non-speaking scenes.
2. John McClane in Die Hard (1988)
It's "hard" to remember just why this was such a breakthrough for action movies. At the time, the biggest action stars were nearly fictional, comic-book-sized heroes pumped up and supercharged: actors like Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and even Clint Eastwood to some extent. John McClane was the first slam-bang action hero who was just an ordinary Joe, tired from his plane trip and relaxing with his shoes off. Such a simple and great idea! He's not wearing any shoes! That, and his clothes actually get smeared with grime and blood. In short, he's vulnerable, and he's human. And not just any actor could have pulled it off.
3. James Cole in Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Brad Pitt earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting performance as a loon, but it's Willis that carries the film, and it's an intensely emotional and physical performance that seems to be coming straight from his bones. Portraying such anguish is not easy and many actors could not pull it off; it would be an unpleasant, distancing experience.
But Willis' work draws in viewers and keeps them there.
4. Dr. Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense (1999)
Willis seems to have a knack for earning Oscar nominations -- or at least acclaim -- for those around him. Today The Sixth Sense is a bona-fide classic, known for earning more than $600 million worldwide, and for its six Oscar nominations (including co-stars Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette and writer/director M. Night Shyamalan). But guess who is the quiet, driving engine for the whole thing? His Dr. Crowe is appealingly sad and tender, and he effortlessly takes us in as accomplices. His performance is the sleight-of-hand that makes the film's famous twist work.
5. Harry Rydell in Fast Food Nation (2006)
I voted for Willis for Best Supporting Actor in 2006 for my critics' group, but no one else agreed. Indeed, hardly anyone liked Richard Linklater's smart, fictional adaptation of Eric Schlosser's notorious non-fiction book. In his small role, Willis is so magnetic and so snakily charming, he manages to temporarily sell the opposing point of view -- that what's wrong with a little excrement in your beef? -- all while enjoying a cheeseburger and a beer.
6. Spoofing himself in The Player (1992), Ocean's Twelve (2004), Nancy Drew (2007) and What Just Happened? (2008)
How can a guy who has so much fun with his own movie star image be bad? In The Player, he spoofs his Die Hard image as sweaty, workaday, regular guy who has to swoop in and rescue Julia Roberts at the last second. He's an overbearing jerk (also with Julia Roberts) in Ocean's Twelve. In Nancy Drew, he has a cameo as "Bruce," who can't get along with any of his co-workers on a film set, and in What Just Happened? he out-powers Robert De Niro as a temperamental actor who refuses to shave his "Grizzly Adams" beard before shooting begins.
7. Bo Weinberg in Billy Bathgate (1991)
This period gangster film doesn't really work as a whole, but Willis has one powerful scene as a gangster who has crossed Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman) and pays the price. Ranging from swagger to genuine terror, it's a good enough scene to have gained him access to any acting school in the world, with a full scholarship. During this period Willis was a reliable and unpredictable supporting/character actor, switching from fearsome and dangerous in Mortal Thoughts (1991) to a complex combination of neighborly with a slightly superior tone in Nobody's Fool (1994). I think that, if Willis is ever going to earn the recognition of his peers, this route will be the way to go.