If you only know Bruce Willis as an action hero... well, you need to see more movies. He's spent a quarter of a century balancing big-budget projects with smaller, more thoughtful work, while being pretty terrific in everything. Here are his five best performances, including one he reprises in this week's A Good Day To Die Hard.
1. Die Hard (1988)
Bruce Willis wasn't an action hero when he was cast as Officer John McClane of the New York City Police Department, the hapless cop forced to save the day in John McTiernan's revolutionary action movie - and that's what makes his performance so great. Jet-lagged and pissed off, Willis's McClane will do anything to save his estranged wife from a small army of Eurotrash robbers, but he's ridiculously overmatched, and by the second act we can almost see the exhaustion and desperation radiating off of him. It's a human-scale performance that, ironically enough, turned him into a superstar.
2. 12 Monkeys (1995)
The only reason this performance places second to Die Hard is that Die Hard made it possible: Terry Gilliam once told me that he cast Willis in 12 Monkeys because of the scene in Die Hard where John McClane comes close to tears dictating his last message to his wife. The emotional vulnerability of that choice made Gilliam believe Willis was the best person to portray James Cole, the disoriented, possibly psychotic hero of his apocalyptic time-travel romance. Willis makes good on Gilliam's conviction, totally selling the confusion and futility of Cole's tragic arc and raging at the closed loop of his journey. At least the guy got to see Vertigo in a theatre.
3. Nobody's Fool (1994)
As his work last year in Moonrise Kingdom shows, Willis has always been an undervalued ensemble player, but his character-actor chops shine brightest in Robert Benton's excellent adaptation of Richard Russo's novel. Willis plays Carl Roebuck, a small-town asshole who has a difficult relationship with Paul Newman's lifelong slacker. He didn't even take a screen credit, so the film couldn't be (mis)marketed around his presence. He just wanted to play a few scenes opposite his idol, and the movie is much better for it.
4. Pulp Fiction (1994)
In a weird way, broken-down boxer Butch Coolidge is the quintessential Bruce Willis hero: laconic, determined and oddly endearing for not being quite as clever as he thinks he is. He doesn't get his own movie, instead becoming a key player in a much more complex story - killing one major character and saving another's life, but never quite dominating the storyline. But Willis is a canny enough actor to play the character like he's the movie's protagonist; everything Butch does is in the service of his own agenda, even when he's wearily explaining the difference between motorcycles and choppers to his oblivious girlfriend. You can't help but root for the guy.
5. Unbreakable (2000)
More people saw The Sixth Sense, but all Willis had to do there was be calm and composed. In his next collaboration with M. Night Shyamalan, he gets a much meatier role as David Dunn, an entirely average man who discovers he's almost entirely invulnerable to harm after surviving a catastrophic train derailment without a scratch. Shyamalan presents the possibility that David is not terribly bright and had simply never made the connection between lifelong good health and his superhuman resilience. And Willis runs with it, making David's dullness the defining element of his character. Self-negation not being something we expect from a movie star, it's a fascinating twist on the superhero trope. It's a pity Shyamalan never made the sequel, though given the shakiness of his output since Unbreakable, maybe it's not.