You can’t think of blockbuster action movies without imagining Bruce Willis smirking ironically while stuffing a clip into his Beretta. Ever since he exploded onto the scene as wisecracking hero John McClane in 1988’s Die Hard, he’s reigned as one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men. Known for hit franchises like Die Hard and crowd-pleasers like The Sixth Sense, Willis has that rare combination of tough guy grit and surprising vulnerability audiences love.
Of course, he’s brought more to the table than just biceps and one-liners. Willis has stretched himself in offbeat efforts like Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and Terry Gilliam’s mind-bending Twelve Monkeys, proving his acting chops extend far beyond the multiplex. And despite his reputation as mainly an action guy, some of his most memorable performances have been in quieter, character-driven drama – just think of that tearjerker moment at the end of Unbreakable.
In a career spanning four decades and over 70 films, Willis has crafted an impressively varied filmography. But at the end of the day, one character still towers above, both literally and figuratively – that’s right, we’re talking about John McClane and the role that made Bruce an icon. So let’s count down the 10 movies that define Willis’ career, culminating with his signature masterpiece. Buckle up, because things are about to get explosive!
10. Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)
When it comes to sequels, the third time’s usually not the charm. But Die Hard with a Vengeance proves the exception to that rule. 13 years after cementing his action hero legend in the original Die Hard, Willis slipped effortlessly back into John McClane’s dirty tank top for what many fans consider the second best Die Hard movie ever.
With John McTiernan back in the director’s chair, Die Hard with a Vengeance recalls the tight plotting, explosive set pieces, and quippy humor that made the first film so beloved. Except this time, McClane gets to trash New York City instead of L.A. Landing in hot water with the NYPD yet again, he’s forced into a deadly scavenger hunt by terrorist Simon Gruber (a scene-stealing Jeremy Irons), who happens to be the brother of the previous film’s Hans Gruber. With the help of shopkeeper Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson), McClane races across NYC trying to solve Simon’s riddles and prevent more buildings from getting blown to kingdom come.
The action comes hard and fast, from anti-theft alarms ripping through Zeus’ ears to RPG attacks on a public park. But between all the mind-blowing pyrotechnics, Vengeance also delivers on character. The interplay between Willis and Jackson – who sneakily infuse humor into high-stakes scenarios – creates excellent buddy cop chemistry. Meanwhile, Irons serves up a villain almost as cunning as Alan Rickman’s iconic Hans. This winning combo of charisma, laughs, and explosions is why Die Hard with a Vengeance remains one of the most rewatchable and purely enjoyable entries in Willis’ filmography. Yippee ki-yay, indeed!
9. Sin City (2005)
In 2005, Willis imported John McClane’s brand of hard-edged heroism into the hyper-stylized world of Sin City. By snagging a role in Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s bleak neo-noir anthology, Willis got to add a dark new chapter to his own archetypal action story.
He plays Hartigan – a tough-as-nails cop with a heart condition and just one day left until retirement. But his policeman’s code of ethics won’t allow him to sit by while the deranged child-killer Roark Jr. (Nick Stahl) stalks 11-year-old Nancy Callahan. After rescuing Nancy and taking a bullet in the process, Hartigan becomes the target of the Roarks – a powerful crime family eager to free their twisted scion. Framed for Junior’s crimes, Hartigan spends eight years in prison before his parole finally offers a chance at redemption and revenge.
A 90-minute rage stroke saturated in stylistic black, white, and red, Sin City weaponizes dark alleys, darker secrets, and darkest desires into a hardboiled fever dream that oozes testosterone. Yet amidst the wall-to-wall carnage, Willis locates the story’s wounded heart. Whether gently consoling a now 19-year-old Nancy or wearily chasing salvation through Sin City’s endless night, he gives classic noir tropes a modern vulnerability. For diehard (no pun intended) Willis fans, it’s a thrill seeing one of action cinema’s greatest heroes plunging gamely into the genre’s history.
8. Looper (2012)
In Looper, Willis got to play a version of himself rarely seen on screen – his own future. Traveling back from 2074, Old Joe is the older incarnation of young Looper Joe Simmons (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt). When the two versions of the same man come face-to-face in the past, it sets off a twisty temporal showdown.
Packing plenty of sci-fi action, Looper is the kind of brainy blockbuster Willis excels at. But it also allows him to segue out of the invincible action hero mode that characterized much of his career. Instead of wiping out bad guys while escaping without a scratch, Old Joe bears the physical and emotional scars of his violent past. He’s desperate to alter the future and save his wife (Qing Xu) from being murdered by a crime lord’s henchmen.
This lends emotional urgency to Willis’ performance, especially when he first encounters his younger self in a diner. He pleads for understanding, while young Joe mainly wants to know if he becomes as rich as he hopes. We glimpse the regrets and compromises age brings before the generational standoff turns shockingly lethal. Looper taps into Willis’ talent for balancing popcorn thrills with gravitas. And he brings weight to this cerebral sci-fi without sacrificing his action icon status. It’s a blast watching past and future Willis front flip off motorcycles and blast away enemies during the slam-bang climax.
7. Unbreakable (2000)
Willis took a crucial first step toward expanding his acting reputation by re-teaming with The Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan for 2000’s Unbreakable. Trading ghosts and The Shining-esque haunted hotels for the origin story of a reluctant superhero, Unbreakable sees Willis playing ordinary security guard David Dunn. After miraculously surviving a horrific train derailment without a single scratch, David is approached by a mysterious stranger named Elijah (Samuel L Jackson).
Slowly and methodically, Elijah begins to convince David that he has extraordinary, superhuman abilities. And like the best comic books, Unbreakable grounds its premise in real human emotion. David struggles to reconnect with both his estranged wife and young son, who views his dad as a possible superhero come to life.
In one of his most restrained and vulnerable performances, Willis hovers between disbelief and awe at his own powers. His subtle acting meshes perfectly with Shyamalan’s patient direction and realistic superhero origin story. Free of CGI spectacles, Unbreakable thrills by having Willis discover he can bench press 350 pounds or flick a door lock open with his mind. For Willis diehards, it’s pretty awesome seeing John McClane realize he’s bulletproof. Unbreakable proved Willis could nail nuance just as skillfully as he handles a Beretta.
6. In Country (1989)
Before skyscrapers started collapsing around him, Bruce tackled riskier dramatic material like In Country. Released shortly after Die Hard cemented his action hero cred, this low-key 1989 drama saw Willis plumb powerful emotional depths as troubled Vietnam vet Emmett Smith. Still haunted by combat trauma and survivor’s guilt, he lives with his niece Samantha (Emily Lloyd) in small town Kentucky while struggling to reintegrate into civilian life.
Based on Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel exploring the rippling impact of the Vietnam War on heartland America, In Country eschews battle scenes or dissociative flashbacks. Instead Willis simmers with quiet rage and confusion, a man disconnected from the world around him. Weary yet quick to anger, Emmett remains unable to bury ghosts from a chaotic night-ambush that killed his best friend.
In one heartwrenching scene, he gently bathes his elderly, dementia-addled mother who mistakes him for his long-dead father. It crystallizes how the Smith family remains suspended in PTSD purgatory, with Willis expressing volumes through subtle facial cues rather than dialogue. In Country stretched Willis as a performer while showcasing untapped depths. Audiences expecting to see another action spectacle may have stayed away. But true fans witnessed the birth of his serious acting chops.
5. 12 Monkeys (1995)
12 Monkeys proved Willis could handle time loops just as easily as shootouts. Terry Gilliam’s twisty sci-fi thriller casts him as James Cole – a convict involuntary recruited as a time traveler in post-apocalyptic 2035. With a deadly virus having wiped out most of humanity, scientists blast Cole back to 1996 to uncover clues behind the bio-weapon’s original release.
Bounced around the past, present, and future, Cole encounters crazed ecoterrorist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) and psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeline Stowe) while struggling to maintain a grip on reality. Gilliam unspools the puzzle-box plot with surreal flourishes and a blitzkrieg pace mirroring Cole’s own manic confusion.
But amidst the evocative visual chaos, Willis delivers an anchor. His Cole conveys wonder and heartache over his fatalistic mission, conveying both childlike hope and trauma-forged grit. Whether gently wooing Dr. Railly or battling asylum guards after being misidentified as a mentally ill patient, Willis finds truth in even the wildest fabrications. For diehard fans, it’s a revelation seeing John McClane plumb such wounded psychological depths. Twelve Monkeys proved Willis could carry personal, moving sci-fi just as easily he does mass entertainment like Armageddon.
4. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Wes Anderson’s signature precise aesthetics may seem an unlikely match for Bruce’s smirking nonchalance. But as small town sheriff Captain Sharp, Willis proved even his effortless charisma can find a home in Anderson’s diorama-like compositions. Set in a quaint 1965 New England island community, Moonrise Kingdom casts Willis as a lonely, wine-guzzling lawman whose quiet life gets upended when two adolescent misfits run away together.
While the central story focuses on young lovers Suzy and Sam, Willis adds critical emotional texture with his world-weary but compassionate supporting turn. Often relegated to the background, he springs to empathetic action during a destructive hurricane. Risking his life against fierce winds, Sharp heroically climbs a church steeple to save the children. The scene crystallizes Willis’ invaluable talent for quietly grounding unbelievable scenarios in human feeling.
And amidst the artsy, deadpan landscape, Sharp’s caring commitment to rescuing Suzy and Sam takes on stirring resonance. Underplaying to perfection, Willis handily keeps pace with Anderson mainstays like Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. For audiences, it’s an absolute joy realizing John McClane fits right in with Max Fischer and Mr. Fox. Thanks to its sheriff with a heart of gold, Moonrise Kingdom moved Willis appreciators while opening up his appeal to hipster cinephiles.
3. The Sixth Sense (1999)
The Sixth Sense represents a career turning point cementing Willis as both a bankable action star and gifted dramatic performer. His empathetic turn as child psychologist Malcolm Crowe bagged him the most plaudits and audience affection since Die Hard’s game-changing release over a decade prior. Playing a soothing counselor haunted by past failure, Willis grounds writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s creepy supernatural mystery in plausibly rendered emotions.
As Crowe gently draws out Haley Joel Osment’s sheltered medium Cole Sear, the scenes subtly resonate with paternal compassion. And Willis nails the perfect understated tenor to mesh with Osment’s vulnerable prodigy. Free of quips or gun-fu pyrotechnics, Willis disappears into the subtle give-and-take required from Crowe.
Of course, then there’s *that* twist ending. If The Sixth Sense is synonymous with shocking revelations, it’s largely thanks to Willis’ jaw-dropping final scene realizations. His wordless, dawning horror cemented the film’s iconic status while spotlighting previously dormant acting talent. For those who still associated Willis mainly with wisecracks and explosions, The Sixth Sense felt as earth-shattering as realizing they see dead people too. Thanks to one role, Willis gained entrée into prestige Oscar contention projects like The Fifth Element director Luc Besson’s arty sci-fi drama The Story of Us.
2. Pulp Fiction (1994)
Quentin Tarantino exploded onto the film scene wielding pop culture references and razor wit like semi-automatic weapons. With his ironically detached, potty-mouthed writing voice, he turbocharged the careers of John Travolta and Uma Thurman with Pulp Fiction. And flanked by those flashy performances, Willis’ supporting turn as philosophical boxer Butch Coolidge gives the film its bruised heartbeat.
Coming off underwhelming star vehicles like Hudson Hawk, Billy Bathgate, and Bonfire of the Vanities, Willis was in serious need of fresh gusto when Pulp Fiction came calling. As laconic pugilist Butch, he joins a sprawling narrative odyssey also featuring gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), loose-cannon Vincent Vega (Travolta), his partner Jules (Samuel L. Jackson), and drug kingpin’s trophy wife Mia (Thurman). Though originally tapped for Vega, Willis slides effortlessly into Butch’s battered character. A once-promising boxer paid to throw dubious fights by Wallace, Butch rankles at orders to take the fall yet again for upcoming bout.
When Wallace subsequently puts out a hit on Butch for refusing to lose, the figurative walls start closing in. But Willis lets glints of steel flash beneath Butch’s battered persona. After calmly laying waste to hapless assassin Vincent, Butch finds himself held captive by deranged backwoods rapists. Cue Willis going Leatherface on his tormentors with a samurai sword and baseball bat. The scene unfurls with crunchy, wince-inducing ferocity only paralleled by Die Hard’s super-glass feat. Among the many splatter-ific delights, Pulp Fiction announces Willis once again master of his exploitative, wisecracking domain. In the follow-up confrontation between Butch and Wallace, Willis foregrounds the character’s essential dignity with spare power and restraint.
Smartly, Tarantino placed his highest value actor asset in the episodic storyline allowing maximum freedom and impact. Saddled with scant screen time, Willis energizes Pulp Fiction with simmering machismo and code of honor. His Butch Coolidge beats a steady pulse amidst all the fractured violence and pulp fiction flourishes. No surprise Willis soon signed on for future Tarantino bloodbaths like Robert Rodriguez’s vampire black comedy From Dusk Til Dawn and Kill Bill Vol. 1 cameo. Yeah, Butch runs a pretty cool ship.
1. Die Hard (1988)
We’ve covered some stellar titles in Bruce’s filmography, but let’s cut to the climax. It all comes back to Die Hard, the movie that made him an icon by creating the template for virtually every action extravaganza that followed. As NYPD cop John McClane, Willis attained cinematic immortality while cementing his charismatic underdog persona. Trapped alone against a skyscraper full of terrorists on Christmas Eve, wisecracking McClane quips and blasts his way to blockbuster history.
From its first moments, Die Hard exudes hardboiled coolness with McClane casually securing his Beretta in an airport bathroom. Yet what immediately distinguishes both character and performance is vulnerability. This is no invincible superhero, but rather an everyman forced into desperate circumstances trying to save his estranged wife. Bleeding profusely or whimpering in pain with broken glass lodged in his feet, Willis makes McClane endearingly human. He takes more abuse than Rambo or Schwarzenegger while spitting out sarcasm sharper than the shards puncturing his soles.
It perfectly encapsulates why audiences instantly embraced this new action archetype. previously characterized by musclemen like Sly and Arnold. Beneath the bravado, McClane feels relatably mortal. And Willis locates the perfect balance between courageous tenacity and terrified mortal. It fuels both the film’s adrenaline rush while allowing unexpectedly moving character beats with Bonnie Bedelia’s Holly.
McClane’s against-all-odds triumph similarly codified Die Hard’s enduring legacy. From jumping off the tower with a firehose tied around his waist to that fist-pumping “Yippie Ki Yay” coup de grace, Willis cemented himself in cinema’s action pantheon. Though countless knock-offs followed, Die Hard’s quintessential status remains bulletproof. No matter how many glass-littered feet or demolished buildings, no one sells human vulnerability meeting insurmountable odds better than Bruce.
Die Hard famously launched a durable franchise spanning three decades (so far). But even better, it announced Willis as both an action colossus and versatile performer capable of expanding his skills in films like Pulp Fiction, armageddon and The Sixth Sense. However, anyone who’s seen Hudson Hawk realizes the odds were against him becoming anything more than a quick flash in the pan TV star. We should all feel grateful Bruce Willis stuck the landing by creating an icon for the ages. Yippee Ki Yay, now and forever.