16 Underrated Bruce Willis Performances That Remind Us Why We Love Him

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Vote up the best Bruce Willis performances that have flown just below the radar.

He's been so successful it's easy to overlook how many underrated Bruce Willis roles there are. The beloved actor shocked the world by announcing he was diagnosed with aphasia - a condition that diminishes a person's ability to communicate - and would subsequently be retiring from acting. That's certainly sad news, but Willis would most likely prefer fans focus on the work he did, rather than dwelling on his illness. And what a body of work he has accumulated. The Die Hard franchise, Pulp Fiction, Sin City, The Sixth Sense, Armageddon, and The Fifth Element are among his most iconic films, adored by millions across the globe.

He has worked continuously since the 1980s, so his filmography is extensive. As is always the case with a performer whose career has stretched across five decades, Willis has some underrated movies on there. Several were minor hits at the time that never quite expanded out to achieve the same acclaim as his biggest blockbusters. Others simply didn't perform well at the box office for whatever reason, despite their high quality. Anyone seeking to focus on the extraordinarily diverse work this thoroughly likable star did should consider checking out one of the following gems that didn't get the full attention they deserved. Remember to vote up your favorites.

  • 1
    330 VOTES

    Red puts Willis alongside three other screen legends - Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovich. Willis plays Frank Moses, a retired FBI agent. After a close encounter with an assassin, Frank reassembles his old team to figure out why all of their lives are in danger. In order to accomplish this, they need to do the seemingly impossible - namely breaking into CIA headquarters. Needless to say, that requires some heavy-duty planning.

    Seeing all these actors together is the main pleasure of Red, and Willis is fantastic as the ringleader who wrangles everyone into the mission. Watching the interplay among them offers laughs to match the thrills generated by the action scenes. The movie was successful enough to spawn a sequel, but it's rarely mentioned in the same breath as Willis's best-loved action vehicles. Even if it isn't on a Die Hard or Armageddon level of popularity, there's enough fun and chaos here to satisfy any fan looking for an adrenaline rush. 

    330 votes

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  • Death Becomes Her is a morbidly funny 1992 comedy from Back to the Future director Robert Zemeckis. Meryl Streep plays Madeline Ashton Menville, a famous movie star who steals the fiancé of her best friend Helen Sharp (Goldie Hawn). Years later, Helen shows up, somehow looking as though she's barely aged a day. It turns out she's been undergoing a treatment that gives the user immortality. Now she wants revenge. Willis is Ernest Menville, the plastic surgeon they've long been fighting over.

    Once Madeline undergoes the treatment, too, all kinds of macabre things happen. The women inflict various injuries upon one another, finding their bodies mangled in comically demented ways. That's hilarious, and so is Willis. Playing wildly against type, he makes Ernest a nerdy kind of guy. The actor brings wit to the idea his character is somewhat befuddled at having these two ageless beauties fighting so viciously over him. This is not a role you would expect to find him in, but he earns consistent laughs with his spot-on performance. 

    338 votes

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  • 3
    324 VOTES

    Directed by Terry Gilliam, the twisty, mind-bending 12 Monkeys opens in 2035, when scientists are looking to cure a deadly virus that has spun out of control. Eradicating that virus entails going back in time to 1996, before it mutated, to learn more. Their choice for the time-travel mission is James Cole (Willis), a guy with recurring dreams about a shootout at an airport he witnessed as a child. Regrettably for Cole, he repeatedly ends up in the wrong year and is eventually mistaken for someone mentally ill. This leads to him being put in an institution. Because of a repeated inability to get where he needs to be, investigating the so-called Army of the Twelve Monkeys who unleashed the virus proves difficult.

    12 Monkeys is a total head-scratcher for a lot of people. That's because Gilliam is not only playing with the time-travel concept, but also delving into mental health issues. That combination fills the plot with a lot of uncertainty about what's really happening. The effect is intentional, and it's also very appropriate for the story being told. Willis perfectly conveys Cole's sense of dissociation as he finds himself in a place where reality is flexible and truth is subjective. 12 Monkeys is a cult favorite that deserves to be enjoyed by a wider audience.

    324 votes

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  • Willis plays Joe Hallenbeck in The Last Boy Scout, a former Secret Service agent now working as a private investigator. After an exotic dancer he's hired to protect is killed, he joins forces with her ex-football player boyfriend, Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans), to find the person responsible. The search uncovers a conspiracy involving government bribes and legalized sports betting. It's up to this odd couple to expose the whole thing.

    The Last Boy Scout is an action-comedy that leans heavily on both sides of that descriptor. Willis and Wayans exchange comic jabs throughout, many of them hilariously R-rated. The action, meanwhile, is bloody and brutal. Director Tony Scott never wimps out on that count. Like Die Hard's John McClane, Hallenbeck is more than ready to face violent mayhem. Willis makes him a little more surly and rough-edged, though, with a sense of cynicism inside this private eye. It's a nice twist on the type of character we've seen him play on multiple occasions. 

    280 votes

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  • 5
    318 VOTES

    Willis reteamed with M. Night Shyamalan, the filmmaker behind their blockbuster hit The Sixth Sense, for another chiller in 2000. In Unbreakable, Willis plays David Dunn, a seemingly normal guy who begins to question his normalcy after becoming the only survivor of a devastating train wreck. Even more astounding, he doesn't have a single scratch on him. Samuel L. Jackson plays Elijah Price, a mysterious comic book-obsessed figure who suggests David might actually be some kind of superhero.

    Unbreakable was a hit and remains well-regarded, yet it's the story people tend to remember most. Overlooking Willis's central performance is unfortunately easy amid all the plot's twists and revelations. By the time it was released, audiences were used to seeing the actor in heroic roles. Playing David was almost a deconstruction of his career. Willis effectively portrays a guy who is not super-competent and macho. He has to work his way into accepting his role as a being with extraordinary powers. It's beautifully reverse-engineered work from Willis, and it becomes even more potent with every repeat viewing.

    318 votes

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  • 6
    267 VOTES

    Hudson Hawk is an example of a movie that plays much differently today than it did at the time of its release. The action-comedy hit theaters on May 24, 1991. Willis was hot off the first two Die Hard pictures and in a position to call the shots. He exerted lots of creative control over the project, even writing the story. It follows the exploits of an eccentric yet highly skilled burglar hired to steal valuable works by Leonardo da Vinci. Early expectations were the film would be another smash hit. Then gossip about behind-the-scenes difficulties and bad reviews started to seep in, souring audiences in advance of its debut. Far from a blockbuster, Hudson Hawk limped out of theaters with a depressing $17 million domestic gross.

    Is it really an all-time turkey though? Not at all. That reputation has shifted slightly over the years. For better or worse, Hudson Hawk is about as pure a distillation of Willis as you could get. It's a great big cartoon of a movie. He gets to do action and physical comedy. He tosses off wisecracks like there's no tomorrow. He even sings. (Remember that short-lived recording career he had in the '80s?) The movie may not be a masterpiece, but it's Willis doing his thing through and through, and that makes it enjoyable to watch. Hudson Hawk is ripe for continued rediscovery by audiences.

    267 votes

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