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14 Surprisingly Nuanced Bruce Willis Performances

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. 

  • 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. 

    Does this show his range?
  • 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. 

    Does this show his range?
  • 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.

    Does this show his range?
  • 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. 

    Does this show his range?