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.
12 Monkeys is a wild movie. Not only does it put all of director Terry Gilliam's proclivities on display (the drudgery of bureaucracy, time travel, an examination of mental illness), but it leans into a kind of ironic and nihilistic '90s filmmaking that audiences rarely see in contemporary commercial movies.
As James Cole, Willis goes through some major changes. He loses his mind, finds it, and has to dig deep in order to show the audience what true insanity looks like - and all of this is happening while Brad Pitt is going absolutely HAM in a high-energy, scene-stealing supporting turn. It's easy to miss a lot of what Willis is doing in this role, but if you watch closely, you can see how much the character weighs on him.
Willis's turn as David Dunn, the reluctant superhero in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable, is one of the most subdued performances in Willis's career. While his co-star Samuel L. Jackson gets to throw out villainous monologues and chew up the scenery, Willis is tasked with grounding the film.
This is a subtle, contemplative piece of acting that makes the viewer believe that Dunn is in a world where humans with extraordinary powers exist. As Dunn, he exudes a quiet remorse for a life gone unlived. He doesn't gnash and wail but instead, he slowly erodes from the inside until he finally accepts the truth of himself and his abilities with the same internal steeliness.
As Captain Sharp in Moonrise Kingdom, Willis plays a type of character that he so rarely gets to sink his teeth into - a lovelorn old man. The small town constable is head over heels for Mrs. Bishop, played by Francis McDormand, but she's married and there's nothing that he can do about it.
Rather than act out or let his most bitter impulses get the best of him, Sharp instead throws himself into the investigation behind the disappearances of young runaways Sam and Suzy. Throughout his hunt for Mrs. Bishop's daughter and the wayward boy, he remains almost reluctantly warm and open-hearted, something audiences don't often see from Willis.
It's hard to believe that one of Bruce Willis's most memorable performances occurs in a French science fiction movie where he sports bleach blond hair and an exceedingly tight orange tannk top, but that's how the cookie crumbles. Throughout the film, Willis alternates between being tender with his romantic interest Leeloo, and showing his hard edge in fantastic action sequences with a disgruntled, cynical streak even more pronounced than Jon McClane's.
Usually Willis sticks to one mode in his films, but as Korben Dallas, he oscillates between these two major emotional poles to paint a full picture for the audience. In a big, bold film like The Fifth Element, this kind of nuanced performance is a must-have, giving the audience a character to which they can cling throughout the colorful madness.