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14 Surprisingly Nuanced Bruce Willis Performances

Updated October 9, 2019 326 votes 57 voters 2.0k views14 items

List RulesVote up the movies that prove Willis is a better actor than he gets credit for.

When audiences think of Bruce Willis, the phrase "yippie kay yay" tends to come to mind. Chances are if you've seen Willis on screen, he was playing either a tough as nails cop or a cop with a wry sense of humor. As great as some of those roles are, his best film performances are those where he stretches himself or makes a kind of meta-commentary on his own star power. 

Rather than save these performances for independent movies, where a nuanced performance is rewarded, Willis gives these interesting interpretations in pretty big blockbusters as well. Movies like Looper, The Fifth Element, and Pulp Fiction all feature Willis at the top of his game, showing audiences that he can find the subtleties in any character. It's a drag that so many of Willis's modern performances are overshadowed by his feuds and crazy stories about his weird career - because you never know when he's going to surprise you. 

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  • It's rare that Willis is given a chance to play a mustache twirling villain - a baddie so evil that there's no way to misconstrue his intentions. In his role as "The Jackal," he plays an assassin who's being paid $70 million to off the acting FBI director. 

    So often the straightforward hero, here he spends the film committing crime after crime and never letting up until Richard Gere puts a bullet in him. In many ways, this is his most intense role, and it's obvious from his steely gaze how much he enjoys sinking his teeth into this unrepetently and happily bad guy. 

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  • Last Man Standing is a pop culture mash up of the classic Django films and spaghetti westerns like A Fistful of Dollars, but rather than being set in the 19th century, it takes places in a Dust Bowl ghost town. Willis plays "John Smith," a literal man with no name who pits the town's many gangsters against one another for fun and profit. 

    The film is pulpy for sure, but he lends an air of gravitas to the setting, making the movie feel so much bigger than it is. Willis leans into the gunslinging machismo of the role, but it's the meta device of Willis as an action hero that adds depth to the proceedings. On examination, he brings the baggage of his Die Hard persona to bear here, allowing him underplay crucial aspects of the character.

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  • Hudson Hawk may not have set the world on fire upon its release, but for all its faults, the caper is definitely worth watching. In the role of a cat burglar in the middle of an international scam, Willis is free-flowing, self-referential, and natural. As the title cahracter, he goes big and is clearly having fun, which audiences rarely see in his more subdued performances. 

    Usually, even when Willis is acting in a hammy movie, he's self-serious, but in this movie he drops all of that and noticeably goofs around with an energetic charm and a palpable sense of showmanship. His sings, he dances, and he even winks at the camera. It's a very interesting thing to watch. 

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  • In Looper, Willis plays a man who's aware of the various digressions his life could take and each of them weighs him down. In one timeline, he's an ex-drug addict who's lost the woman he loves, and in another he's his old self with only vague memories of a life once lived. 

    In order to save the woman he loves (whom he's never really met) he has to do away with his younger self. These aren't simple character traits to portray, regardless of the tone of the film. But Willis manages to bring pathos, pain, and desperation to the role. And it's a compelling two-hander, as both he Joseph Gordon-Levitt meet in the middle, portraying the same character at different stages in his life.

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