Bruce Willis’ family recently revealed that the beloved movie star has retired from the film industry due to a diagnosis of aphasia, a brain condition that affects the ability to communicate. According to the statement that his family shared on social media, Willis decided to step away from acting to focus on his health. Willis’ daughter, Rumer, posted on Instagram that they "are moving through this as a strong family unit, and wanted to bring his fans in because we know how much he means to you, as you do to him."
In the wake of the tragic news, many of Willis’ former co-stars and collaborators have shared their love and support for him and his family during this difficult time. It was very brave of Willis to make the necessary choice and put his health first. Although film fans may still be coping with this sad revelation, there is no better way to celebrate Willis’ legacy than to look back at his filmography.
Willis has had an amazing career. His breakout role was private eye David Addison on the television series "Moonlighting," but it was "Die Hard" that made him a movie star. Willis isn’t just one of the best action heroes ever. He is very versatile and has appeared in acclaimed dramas, comedies, and science fiction films. Here are the 15 best Bruce Willis roles, ranked.
15. Himself — Ocean’s Twelve
Bruce Willis has always been incredibly self-aware. Not every Hollywood star is willing to poke fun at themselves, but Willis hasn’t been opposed to playing himself for laughs. He had amusing cameos in films such as "The Player," "Nancy Drew," "What Just Happened," and "The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part." However, his cameo in 2004’s "Ocean’s Twelve" was the funniest of them all.
"Ocean’s Twelve" is an unusual sequel. While its predecessor, 2001’s "Ocean’s Eleven," is a relatively straightforward heist movie, "Ocean’s Twelve" is a satire of celebrity culture. In one of the most entertaining scenes in the film, Julia Roberts’ character, Tess, pretends to be the real Julia Roberts. Tess needs to steal a Fabergé Imperial Coronation Egg to help her husband, Danny (George Clooney). However, Tess runs into the real Bruce Willis when she is pretending to be Julia Roberts. It’s a great scene. Willis and Roberts have a blast replicating their actual relationship in a fictional context.
14. Frank Minna — Motherless Brooklyn
Although Bruce Willis only briefly appears in the 2019 film "Motherless Brooklyn," his role is essential to the film’s emotional subtext. Edward Norton wrote and directed the adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 mystery novel. The film is a love letter to New York and explores the systemic corruption within the city. Norton stars as the idiosyncratic detective, Lionel Essrog. Lionel has Tourette syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many people mock him, but private eye Frank Minna (Willis) shows Lionel compassion.
Lionel joins Minna’s agency and helps him investigate an important case involving housing disparity. After he confronts shady businessman William Lieberman (Josh Pais) about his involvement in corrupt deals, Minna is shot and killed. It is a gut-wrenching moment for Lionel. He loses the only friend that he ever had. Lionel dedicates himself to completing Minna’s mission. Willis’ emotional performance makes this shocking early moment utterly heartbreaking.
13. Joe Hallenback — The Last Boy Scout
Bruce Willis got the chance to turn the "Die Hard" franchise into a buddy cop adventure in 1995’s "Die Hard With A Vengeance," which co-starred Samuel L. Jackson, but that wasn’t the first time he nailed the popular action subgenre. "The Last Boy Scout," released in 1991, paired Willis with Damon Wayans. The hilarious comedic banter between the two came from screenwriter Shane Black, who also created the "Lethal Weapon" franchise. While Black’s dialogue was already great, the chemistry between Willis and Wayans made it even more entertaining.
"The Last Boy Scout" follows wisecracking private detective Joe Hallenbeck (Willis), who at one point had been considered a national hero. However, Joe has fallen on hard times after being ejected from the Secret Service. As he contemplates his future, he is forced to team up with former pro football quarterback Jimmy Dix (Wayans). Similar to Joe, Jimmy left the football league in disgrace. Together, they must unravel a dangerous conspiracy within the football league.
12. Korben Dallas — The Fifth Element
Director Luc Besson first came up with the story of his science fiction adventure film, "The Fifth Element," when he was a teenager. Besson knew that to get audiences interested in his madcap space opera, he needed a big movie star. Thankfully, BruceWillis liked the story and agreed to join the film. "The Fifth Element" showed once again that Willis was willing to take risks. His character, Korben Dallas, became an instantly iconic sci-fi hero.
"The Fifth Element" is set in 2263. An evil entity is headed for Earth, and the only way to destroy it is to gather a specific set of artifacts. Among them is a mysterious sarcophagus that contains the "fifth element." Within the sarcophagus is a woman, Leelo (Milla Jovovich). After Leelo is hunted down by the evil business tycoon Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman), she meets former military man Korben Dallas (Willis). Dallas reluctantly agrees to help her escape.
11. Frank Moses — Red
Even though Bruce Willis is a talented dramatic actor, he has never taken himself too seriously. The 2010 action-comedy "Red" allowed Willis to poke fun at his action movie persona. Based on the graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner, the film follows a group of aging black-ops CIA agents who are called back into action. In the film, Willis’ character, Frank Moses, abandoned his former profession years ago. He lives alone in Cleveland and has fallen in love with pension office worker Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker).
When corrupt CIA agents send a hit squad to kill Frank, he is forced to bring his old team back together. He recruits his friends Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), and Victoria Winslow (Helen Mirren). While Malkovich and Mirren give very over-the-top performances, Willis has a more subtle sense of humor. "Red" perfectly mixes action and comedy. While the sequel "Red 2" wasn’t as good as the first film, Willis still delivers a very strong performance.
10. Mr. Goodkat — Lucky Number Slevin
Even if it doesn’t make much sense, the action-packed 2006 thriller "Lucky Number Slevin" is a lot of fun to watch. It is the type of original, mid-budget genre film that Hollywood simply doesn’t make anymore. The film centers on a war between two rival gangs in New York City. There are many great performances in the film, but Bruce Willis manages to steal every scene he is in.
"Lucky Number Slevin" centers on Slevin Kelevra (Josh Hartnett), an innocent man caught between the warring crime lords "The Boss" (Morgan Freeman) and "The Rabbi" (Ben Kingsley). The enigmatic criminal Mr. Goodkat (Willis) is playing both sides to his advantage. He is desperate to protect his identity. "Lucky Number Slevin" has a shocking final twist, which reveals critical information about Goodkat’s backstory: He saved Slevin when he was a child, casting Willis’ performance in an entirely new light.
9. Harry Stamper — Armageddon
"Armageddon" is completely ridiculous. The story is implausible, even if director Michael Bay claims that it was based on actual scientific developments. Bay’s later films are more cynical, but "Armageddon" does not take itself very seriously. The film is gleefully ridiculous, and most importantly, the characters are all very likable. There isn’t anyone more inherently charismatic than Bruce Willis. He helped turn "Armageddon" into the blockbuster event of the 1998 summer movie season.
In a story written by J.J. Abrams, an asteroid the size of Texas is headed towards Earth. NASA scientists determine that the only way to prevent a deadly collision is to break the asteroid in half before it reaches the surface. NASA recruits a group of oil drillers, led by Harry Stamper (Willis), to execute the mission.
The blue-collar workers have hilarious banter throughout. However, Willis also makes the serious scenes work. Stamper agrees to the plan to protect his daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler), who is engaged to driller A.J. (Ben Affleck). Although Stamper and A.J. have their disagreements, Stamper decides to save A.J.’s life, knowing that he will protect Grace.
8. John Hartigan — Sin City
In any anthology film, there are some segments that work better than others. When Robert Rodriguez decided to create an adaptation of Frank Miller’s neo-noir graphic novel "Sin City," he assembled a fantastic ensemble cast. However, the best chapter in the film is the two-part section, "The Yellow Bastard." This segment focuses on Bruce Willis’ character, hard-boiled Detective John Hartigan. Willis shows that underneath Hartigan’s tough persona, he is a sensitive man.
Hartigan tracks down the serial child predator Roark Junior (Nick Stahl), who has captured a young girl named Nancy Callahan (Makenzie Vega). Roark Junior has eluded justice for a long time. His father, Senator Ethan Roarke (Powers Boothe), has bribed the police to cover up his son’s crimes. That doesn’t matter to Hartigan. After he attempts to speak up about the corruption, he is framed for Roark Junior’s deeds and sent to prison.
"Sin City" is a very bleak film, but Willis brings out the story’s heart. The moments in which Hartigan interacts with an older Nancy (Jessica Alba) are genuinely sweet.
7. Captain Sharp — Moonrise Kingdom
No one can bring together an amazing cast quite like idiosyncratic writer-director Wes Anderson. Bruce Willis gives one of the many great performances in Anderson’s 2012 coming-of-age dramedy, "Moonrise Kingdom." It is impressive that he can stand out in the stacked ensemble. It’s easy to dismiss Anderson as a filmmaker who is all style and no substance. However, "Moonrise Kingdom" is very empathetic to all of its characters, and Willis’ scenes are among the most touching.
"Moonrise Kingdom" follows a "Romeo and Juliet"-style romance between two 12-year-olds, scout trooper Sam (Jared Gillam) and rich girl Suzy (Kara Hayward). The two young lovers decide to run away together. Suzy’s parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) report them to the police, and Sam’s scout troop begins their own search. However, it is Police Captain Duffy Sharp (Willis) who finally tracks them down.
Sharp is very empathetic to Sam and Suzy. He allows them to stay with him. Sam has never had a real father figure in his life, and Sharp proves to be a nurturing mentor. Sharp decides to adopt Sam during the film’s heartwarming conclusion.
6. James Cole — 12 Monkeys
Terry Gilliam’s 1995 film, "12 Monkeys" was inspired by French filmmaker Chris Marker’s groundbreaking 1962 short film, "La Jetée." There’s an element of surrealism in "12 Monkeys," but it also contains Gilliam’s trademark humor. Given the complex time travel story, Gilliam needed an empathetic character to hook in the audience. Bruce Willis brings his signature charisma to the character of James Cole.
In 2035, criminals are held in an underground prison. A deadly virus has forced humans to abandon the surface. Cole is released and sent back in time to stop the virus before it spreads. Although he was supposed to be sent to 1996, Cole is accidentally sent to 1990. He is locked up in a mental institution. Cole meets another patient, Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Cole learns that Jeffrey is the leader of a radical environmentalist group called the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Cole suspects that the 12 Monkeys unleashed the virus.
Pitt delivers a very eccentric performance, which earned him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Willis plays a more grounded character who helps make the gravity of the situation more impactful.
5. Old Joe — Looper
Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt worked together to create a complex character in "Looper." It’s easy for time travel films to become confusing. If there isn’t a strong emotional hook, the viewers aren’t going to care about following the various timelines. "Looper" writer-director Rian Johnson avoided these issues by focusing on the themes of redemption, destiny, and loss.
"Looper" is set in 2044 and centers on the assassin, Joe (Gordon-Levitt). A Kansas City criminal gang uses specialized hitmen called "loopers," who execute targets sent back from the future. The police force’s advanced identification tools in 2074 make hiding corpses nearly impossible. It is easier to send prisoners back in time. However, each looper is required to "close their loop" and execute their future self if they manage to survive for 30 years. The older Joe (Willis) escapes, so the young Joe has to track himself down.
The brief scene in which Willis and Gordon-Levitt have an extended conversation works brilliantly. Willis makes the older character heartbreaking. He tells his past self that the only thing he really cares about is his wife (Xu Qing). Joe’s wife was killed by a mob boss known as "the Rainmaker." Old Joe has gone back in time to kill "The Rainmaker," before he grows up.
4. David Dunn — Unbreakable
"Unbreakable" has a great premise. M. Night Shyamalan’s second film with Willis explores a very untraditional superhero origin story. What if someone had superpowers but didn’t understand what they meant? "Unbreakable" isn’t directly based on a specific comic book character, but it contains many references to the heroes and villains from Marvel and DC. The supernatural elements are relatively subdued. Shyamalan makes the hero’s journey more compelling by setting it in the real world.
"Unbreakable" follows football stadium security guard David Dunn (Willis), who boards the Estrail 177 train. When the train crashes, Dunn is the only survivor. He is contacted by the enigmatic art dealer, Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson). Price suspects that David survived the crash because he has superhuman strength and endurance. David is initially skeptical but begins to test his powers. He has always wanted to help people. Price encourages him to accept his destiny.
The twist ending of "Unbreakable" reveals that Price is actually a criminal mastermind. He is the villain in Dunn’s story. Although the film ends with Dunn finally learning the truth, Willis reprised the role for a cameo appearance in Shyamalan’s 2017 film "Split." A third film in the trilogy, 2019’s "Glass," concludes the story arcs set up in both "Unbreakable" and "Split."
3. Malcolm Crowe — The Sixth Sense
Bruce Willis began one of the most successful professional relationships of his career when he decided to work with M. Night Shyamalan on "The Sixth Sense." Shyamalan’s notoriety for twist endings can be traced back to this 1999 horror masterpiece. However, "The Sixth Sense" holds up on repeated viewings. It’s a devastating drama about a struggling child who is looking for an explanation for his frightening visions of the dead. The film became a sensation and earned many Academy Award nominations. Willis’ co-stars, Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment, were recognized for their work, but Willis’ performance was sadly overlooked. In one of the most sensitive and soft-spoken roles of his career, Willis captures the empathy of a caring medical professional.
"The Sixth Sense" follows Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Willis), a child psychologist in the Philadelphia area. Malcolm is coping with a traumatic incident in which his former patient Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg) died by suicide. Grey forcefully entered Malcolm’s home and shot himself.
Several months after the tragedy, Crowe begins working with a young boy named Cole Sear (Osment). Cole’s mother, Lynn (Collete), is worried that he is not making friends. She hopes that Crowe will encourage Cole to be more engaged and social. However, Crowe discovers that a supernatural force is haunting the sensitive boy. Willis and Osment do a great job of showing how both characters learn to heal.
2. Butch Coolidge — Pulp Fiction
Quentin Tarantino’s game-changing masterpiece, "Pulp Fiction," has many iconic performances, but Bruce Willis has one of the most memorable roles. Butch Coolidge is simply a great character, and Willis perfectly fits within Tarantino’s darkly comedic style.
Tarantino broke traditional storytelling norms with his unique narrative structure. "Pulp Fiction" is an anthology that focuses on various criminals, drug dealers, and mob figures who are all interconnected. The story is presented out of order. Some of the best scenes in the film follow Butch, a famous boxer preparing for a major fight. Butch receives an ultimatum to throw the fight from the gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Although he takes the bribe, Butch decides to bet the money on himself. Unfortunately, double-crossing a merciless crime boss has its consequences.
Although there are many disturbing scenes in "Pulp Fiction," the moment when Butch is captured is the most difficult to watch. The shocking sequence would not have been nearly as effective without Willis’ amazing performance.
1. John McClane — Die Hard
It would be wrong if any other role was ranked in the top spot. Bruce Willis is John McClane, and any ill-advised reboot with another actor in the part is doomed to fail. The original 1988 "Die Hard" isn’t just one of the greatest action movies of all time. It’s essentially the template for an entire genre. Dozens of great action movies that came after "Die Hard" used similar premises. "Speed" is pretty much "Die Hard on a bus," "Cliffhanger" is "Die Hard on a mountain," "The Rock" is "Die Hard in Alcatraz," and "Olympus Has Fallen" is "Die Hard in the White House."
John McClane is one of the definitive action movie heroes. Unlike other franchise protagonists, he’s a vulnerable character. Willis captures the struggles of a man separated from his wife who simply wants to get through the Christmas season without any stress. However, McClane is in over his head when he is forced to stand up to the terrorists that take over Nakatomi Plaza where his spouse works. He must face off against the evil and charismatic Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) to save the day.
Willis brings an element of humor to the film. McClane’s one-liners make him more relatable, and no one can say "Yippee Ki-Yay, motherf**ker!" quite like Willis.