The ongoing appeal of Bruce Willis, archetypal action hero

One of the last movies filmed by the actor, Detective Knight: Independence, is released this week

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Bruce Willis occupies a formidable place in Hollywood’s pantheon of legendary action heroes, a position that often overshadows the diversity of the actor’s range.

Much of this is down to his role as John McClane in the 1988 film Die Hard, a character that skyrocketed Willis to public attention, before evolving into the archetypal unsuspecting action hero.

Unlike Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator — who were both seen as the quintessential action personas of the early 1980s — McClane, and Willis’s depiction of the character, changed what an action hero could be, someone with not only gumption, but wit and humour too.

Willis did not stop there when it came to pushing the boundaries of action. From 12 Monkeys to The Fifth Element and even Red, Willis has continued to play with character tropes with an idiosyncratic smoothness.

One of Willis’s last films, Detective Knight: Independence, is released this week. The film, directed by Edward Drake, is the third and final instalment in the Detective Knight trilogy and follow-up to 2022's Detective Knight: Redemption. Willis plays the titular role, as an LAPD detective.

In March, Willis announced his retirement from acting after being found to have aphasia, a language disorder caused by damage in the brain.

“To Bruce's amazing supporters, as a family we wanted to share that our beloved Bruce has been experiencing some health issues and has recently been diagnosed with aphasia, which is impacting his cognitive abilities,” his family said on Instagram. “As a result of this and with much consideration, Bruce is stepping away from the career that has meant so much to him.”

Willis has starred in more than a hundred films in the past four decades. Here, we take a look at some of his most memorable performances.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

In Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis plays Butch Coolidge, an aging boxer on the run from the gangster Marsellus (Ving Rhames) after having double-crossed him. Photo: Miramax Films

Willis plays Butch Coolidge in the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction. By this time, Willis had released three Die Hard films and had acted in off-beat titles, such as providing the voice for baby Mikey in the family-friendly Look Who’s Talking films with John Travolta and Kirstie Alley, as well as the 1992 satire Death becomes Her, opposite Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn.

Pulp Fiction brought Willis renewed attention and boosted his credentials as an actor.

12 Monkeys (1995)

In the Terry Gilliam-directed film, 12 Monkeys, Willis stars opposite Brad Pitt as a convict who goes back in time to understand how a manmade virus wiped out most of the human population.

Dark and sombre, the film has a winding plot line, but the performances of the cast make it, as the critic’s consensus on Rotten Tomatoes reads, “a kooky, effective experience”.

Much like Die Hard, Willis spends a considerable amount of time in the film bleeding and dripping with sweat. But here, time-traveller James Cole arguably has a little more nuance than McClane, as he stumbles to stay on his mission and maintain his sanity. The film earned Willis an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.

The Fifth Element (1997)

In Luc Besson’s quirky sci-fi epic The Fifth Element, Willis plays Korben Dallas, a flying taxi driver and former ranger in Earth’s special forces who crashes into a humanoid woman named Leelo, played by Milla Jovovich. Things get only wilder from there on as the plot swirls at the hands of a cast that includes Gary Oldman and Chris Tucker.

The film won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, British Academy Film Awards, and the Cesar Awards. That being said, it was also subject to some criticism and was nominated for the infamous Golden Raspberry Awards and Stinkers Bad Movie Awards. Whether a cult classic or a film with an overreaching, meandering storyline, either way it’s a memorable ride.

The Sixth Sense (1999)

In The Sixth Sense, Willis proved his aptitude for psychological thrillers and sparked a professional relationship with the director M Night Shyamalan that would go on for several films. Willis takes on the role of a child psychologist who is treating a nine-year-old boy who claims he can see and talk to the dead.

If you don’t know how the film ends, and have somehow avoided references to the twist, we’re not going to ruin it for you.

Willis was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, highlighting that he was capable of taking on roles outside the action realm.

Unbreakable (2000)

Another M Night Shyamalan film, Unbreakable upends the understanding of what a comic book hero with superpowers could be. Willis takes on the role of David Dunn, a man who survives a horrific train crash unscathed, acting alongside Robin Wright as Audrey Dunn, who plays his wife and therapist, and Samuel L Jackson as Elijah Price.

By now, Willis had become a staple in Hollywood’s action offerings. In Unbreakable, he transformed the idea of what a person with superpowers could be, displaying a flawed character burdened with the psychological weight of being the sole survivor of a tragic event.

Sin City (2005)

Pictured: Nancy Callahan (JESSICA ALBA, right) and John Hartigan (BRUCE WILLIS, left) in a scene from SIN CITY, written and directed by Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez.  

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Distributed by Buena Vista International. THIS MATERIAL MAY BE LAWFULLY USED IN NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES ONLY TO PROMOTE THE RELEASE OF THE MOTION PICTURE ENTITLED "SIN CITY" DURING THE PICTURE'S PROMOTIONAL WINDOWS. ANY OTHER USE, RE-USE, DUPLICATION OR POSTING OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED WITHOUT THE EXPRESS WRITTEN CONSENT OF MIRAMAX FILMS, AND COULD RESULT IN LEGAL LIABILITY. YOU WILL BE SOLELY RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY CLAIMS, DAMAGES, FEES, COSTS, AND PENALTIES ARISING OUT OF UNAUTHORIZED USE OF THIS MATERIAL BY YOU OR YOUR AGENTS.

Willis’s performance in Sin City shines despite the stellar ensemble cast that includes Rosario Dawson, Benicio del Toro, Jessica Alba, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen and Michael Clarke Duncan. Willis takes on the role of Detective John Hartigan, an aging police officer on the trail of a serial child murderer all while suffering from a heart condition.

The neo-noir film is based on the Frank Miller graphic novels of the same name and is co-directed by Miller, with Machete filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.

Updated: January 20, 2023, 6:02 PM