OpinionContributors

Reflections on Bruce Willis’ Final Decade of Acting

The 'Die Hard' legend's complicated film legacy deserves a fresh look

Two years ago, the world was shocked by the sudden and unexpected retirement of action star Bruce Willis.

We learned the actor has been suffering from aphasia and frontotemporal dementia, which brought an end to the beloved actor’s career.

Reports later suggested he was struggling on the sets of his last few movies.

While video footage and updates have been sparse, recent news is that the 69-year-old actor will likely spend his remaining years progressively deteriorating, surrounded by his wife, children, grandchildren and close friends.

Even his ex-wife, actress Demi Moore, has made peace with the family and is helping them.

I’ve been thinking about Willis’s work as an actor a lot since the retirement announcement, particularly his last decade. Willis developed a negative reputation late in life for effectively selling out and entering the Chuck Norris/Nicolas Cage stage of his career.

He made cheap, Redbox-style action films that were sold on his name and brand appeal.

It’s easy to look at the list of his final decade of filmmaking and conclude Willis was phoning it in. And there’s a good case to be made for that. He did an interview many years back promoting “Red 2” where he was asked his opinions on Studio Ghibli movies. He shrugged, saying he doesn’t care about movies anymore and just likes to watch football.

Bruce Willis’s Career: It’s Very Complicated

The man had grown apathetic, both in his career and in life in general. This was reflected in the fact that the Golden Raspberry Awards began giving out a “Worst Bruce Willis Performance” award — at least until his aphasia diagnosis. The award group rescinded the practice with an apology to Willis.

That said, Willis is still one of the biggest stars of his generation.

He was a great actor going back to his “Moonlighting” days and has given dozens of masterful performances. You don’t end up making films like “Die Hard,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “The Whole Nine Yards,” “12 Monkeys,” “The Fifth Element,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Unbreakable” and “Sin City” unless you have movie-star talent.

The Sixth Sense (1999) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

It could be all too easy to dismiss the last decade of his career by saying he didn’t accomplish anything after 2010’s “Cop Out,” but that isn’t true. He had a few diamonds in the rough.

I’m not going to say that the last few movies he released were all masterpieces. Many of them were quite bad, but some are worthy of a cursory re-examination in light of Willis’s retirement.

For the sake of this retrospective, I am going to focus on his last 12 theatrical releases from 2012 to 2022, which mark the final decade of his career. I will only be indulging a little of his straight-to-Redbox library.

The RedLetterMedia team already tried and unanimously declared the majority of the 36 direct-to-video films in the past decade unwatchable. I defer to their judgment.

Half in the Bag: The Bruce Willis Fake Movie Factory

‘Moonrise Kingdom’ (2012)

I’m starting with the most anachronistically excellent film on the list first. There is a reason I wanted to do this list with the odd number of 13 total movies—because “Moonrise Kingdom” is one of the best films Bruce Willis has ever been in and is a perfect place to start. Rewatching it, it immediately stood out as both a great film and a stellar Willis performance, coming off the tail end of his dramatic career.

Willis is part of a massive ensemble, working alongside Bill Murray, Tilda Swinton, Jason Schwartzman and Edward Norton. As with any Wes Anderson movie, the quirkiness and twee is immeasurable.

Willis plays a police captain responsible for overseeing an island off the coast of New England. His story arc mirrors that of the movie’s Romeo and Juliet-esque romance between two 12-year-olds.

While Willis’s Captain Sharp is attempting to find the lost school children, he is also having an illicit sexual affair, showing a level of identification between himself and the young boy whose anti-societal exploits he’s trying to reign in.

This ultimately plays into his decision to become the boy’s adoptive father figure by the story’s resolution. He wants to protect him from forces that could be far more harmful than himself—namely, Child Protective Services. The body wants to force him into electroshock therapy for being a disruptive child.

Moonrise Kingdom (10/10) Movie CLIP - Social Services (2012) HD

Willis blends well with Anderson’s traditional dollhouse aesthetic. Sadly, he is somewhat upstaged by Murray, who is more deeply ingratiated in the director’s style and more convincingly plays with the artifice.

However, the talent of an Anderson performance comes from an actor’s ability to speak through the purposely stilted and rigid proceedings and speak emotionally through the scenes, and Willis does well in this.

Willis’s performance in “Moonrise Kingdom” reveals several truths.

His acting skills were still fully intact going into this final decade. He largely wasn’t going to be the leading man in dramatic works going forward. His image as an authority figure in action films is easy to manipulate.

His charisma and screen presence, even in roles he isn’t deeply connected to, lend him that movie-star quality that makes him appealing in action movies.

‘Expendables 2’ (2012)

Willis’ status as a recognizable action star makes it common for him to show up in glorified cameos, as he does in “The LEGO Movie 2” (2019) playing a homeless version of John McClane who enjoys living in air ducts.

In “Expendables 2,” he’s one small part of a large ensemble, another cog in the massive cameo machine that typifies the franchise.

As far as late 2000s action schlock goes, you can do worse than these movies—although there is a reason they’re mostly forgotten. The second film is effectively a no-stakes, nearly plotless story of Sylvester Stallone mumbling his way through a tour of Eastern Europe while spouting references to other action movies.

These movies were pretty much the action-movie equivalent of welfare checks, with Stallone saying he goes out of his way to hire older stars struggling to find work, like Dolph Lundgren, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Mel Gibson and Chuck Norris.

Willis gets a larger role here than some of his fellow actors, but that only amounts to four or five scenes. He plays the enigmatic CIA agent Mr. Church who instigates the plot, yells at people over the phone and jumps into the finale to pose and shoot guns while looking cool.

I’m not sure he’s ever even in danger by the film’s conclusion.

‘Looper’ (2012)

Filmmakers still recognized Willis’ remarkable talent in his final decade of acting, and they sought him out for serious roles. Rian Johnson (“Knives Out”) directed him in one of his smartest science fiction roles to date during this period.

Johnson uses him as both a lead character and a villain in the film. He’s the future version of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s protagonist Joe—a scummy, self-centered hitman who assassinates wanted criminals who are sent back into the past of the 2040s, where it is less difficult to hide murders from forensic advancements.

The fact that Gordon-Levitt and Willis are attempting to mirror each other is the film’s central gimmick. The younger figure tries to find a way to kill his older doppelganger before the mob brutally kills him for making the mistake of allowing him to escape.

Willis’s performance as Old Joe gives a more hardened edge to the character we meet as a young man. It shows that decades of crime, drugs and life have a cost. Willis is still very good at finding the humanity in his performance.

In one scene, he murders a child that he believes will screw him over in the future, and the act is so disturbing he has an emotional breakdown. Not only did he murder the wrong person, it was a child, no less.

Johnson uses Willis smartly in this manner, showing an awareness of his cultural perception as an action hero while quietly subverting his strength and mannerisms for a story about the nature of taking responsibility for one’s actions—and the cost of not doing so.

‘A Good Day To Die Hard’ (2013)

Sadly, there’s no film that better reflects the poor reputation Willis built in this last acting decade than this.

The fifth “Die Hard” film feels both cheap and expensive, emblematic of the shallow ways that Hollywood will rush out poor sequels for the sake of continuing a franchise.

“A Good Day To Die Hard” isn’t a terrible movie in hindsight, but it’s painfully conventional and a poor continuation of the great work Willis did in the first three installments.

Those films are beloved because John McClane is the ultimate Everyman hero. He’s a normal guy getting dragged through an over-the-top 1980s action movie, barely surviving in the process.

The fifth film doesn’t understand this and comes off as a shallow action movie with invincible characters, massive set pieces and a poor grasp of why these movies were appealing in the first place.

Willis glides along through the film with a blank facial expression, empty smiles, weak jokes and constant snarks that he’s “on vacation.” Meanwhile, he gets into deadly shootouts that would’ve killed a younger John McClane.

He clearly didn’t like making the movie and few enjoyed it after it was released.

Regardless, there is still an ounce of the classic Willis underneath these issues. This was still a monstrously successful film, having grossed $304 million at the box office. The underlying snark and charisma are still there, even if Willis doesn’t feel passionate about it.

‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ (2013)

I have no real opinions on the “G.I. Joe” films other than astonishment that there have been five serious Hollywood attempts—including the “Transformers: Rise Of The Beasts” post-credits stinger—to turn the popular 1980s cartoon into a blockbuster franchise.

Much like “Expendables 2,” there is not much to be said about the film as a performance vehicle. Despite being on the cover of the movie’s poster, Willis’s role here is minimal. He shows up late in the story, disappears for half an hour and sticks around for the finale.

He plays a retired military general who is called back into action following the infiltration of the U.S. government by the Cobra organization.

The Rock, Bruce Willis and The Imposter President | G.I. Joe: Retaliation | CLIP

This version of Willis, though, is fun! He gets a few good scenes and firefights out of this role, particularly his introductory scene where co-star Dwayne Johnson first confronts him in his house and is caught by the stealthy general at the business end of a gun.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much character work to explore. This is mostly a physical role serving a “coming out of retirement one more time” story.

It helps that Willis’s strength as an actor is his ability to embody working-class masculinity. He has the build and moral conviction of a blue-collar man, rather than Johnson’s absurdly muscular frame. That helped him convincingly slip into action roles even if he wasn’t given a complex character.

‘Red 2’ (2013)

The mid-2010s were a period of heavy sequel-making for Willis, with many of his younger roles being explored through the lens of time. No franchise is more emblematic of this than the “Red” films; made as parodies of the persona he built as an action star.

The gimmick of aging action heroes being dragged out of retirement was certainly enjoyable in the 2010 film, and the immediate sequel mostly captures that energy.

The plot is not much to write home about, with a deadly superweapon about to be unleashed on the world and Willis’s Frank Moses character on the run from the U.S. government.

Anthony Hopkins shows up as a mad scientist and most of the actors are having fun. There’s also a giddy subplot about Frank’s relationship with Mary-Louise Parker’s character, and Willis gets to enjoy smirking and making jokes about how old he is.

It’s all infectious, even if the first film did this much more effectively.

As far as franchise work goes, the “Red” films are easily the most enjoyable action films from Willis to come out of this decade—if only because they aren’t pretending like Willis is the same spry young man he used to be.

Again, Willis’s working-class masculinity works here in ways that Harrison Ford’s reprising roles as an 80-year-old man do not.

‘Sin City: A Dame To Kill For’ (2014)

Considering Willis’s character Detective John Hardigan plays such an important role in the first “Sin City” movie, it’s not surprising to see him nine years later for the sequel. Except that his character committed suicide at the end of the last Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s hyper-stylized comic noir film.

RELATED: THESE BURIED BRUCE WILLIS FILMS MUST BE UNEARTHED

He mostly shows up as a ghost, appearing to his former lover as she grapples with self-loathing while working as a stripper. It is a cheesy performance in an otherwise cheesy movie, but his grizzled attitude melds well into what the movie is going for, even if he doesn’t get much to do.

Like the other actors in the film, his performance allows him to growl like he has a mouth filled with marbles and monologues about hell, death and the unending pit of depravity that is Sin City.

‘Rock The Kasbah’ (2015)

This is easily the weirdest of the late-period Bruce Willis performances, and once again it’s a pairing with Bill Murray.

I don’t pretend to understand Murray’s late-career impulses or how he chooses his projects—which span the chasm from Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola movies to “Ant-Man 3” and the live-action “Garfield” movies. He just does whatever he wants, and people like him for it.

The fact that he’d accept work on a Barry Levinson (“Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Wag the Dog”) dark comedy isn’t surprising.

Rock the Kasbah Official Trailer #1 (2015) - Bruce Willis, Bill Murray Comedy HD

Unfortunately, “Rock The Kasbah” is still boring despite everyone’s best chaotic efforts. The box office dud adapted a documentary about a real-life Afghani music competition into a mostly dull comedy about a has-been music producer wandering around war-torn Afghanistan.

It marks one of the least hard-hitting looks at Middle Eastern life since 1987’s “Ishtar.”

Willis has a sizable supporting role, playing an American security guard who tails Murray around and pushes back against his abusive antics, all while trying to keep him safe on his music tour as he attempts to negotiate with Afghani tribal leaders. The role loosely riffs off Willis’s action-hero image as shorthand, but this isn’t for the sake of a joke.

Willis’s character isn’t funny. He’s the straight man in a bizarre “Odd Couple” scenario, cleaning up Murray’s impulsive decisions.

Thankfully, he does this well. His bizarre energy keeps the film somewhat grounded and adds needed tension and gravity to a story that is in desperate need of them.

‘Once Upon A Time In Venice’ (2017)

This is one of the only films on this list that I am thoroughly confused by. Its great title and John Wick-esque premise made it sound unique, but the execution is bizarre. It’s a dull, dark comedy filled with wacky high jinks and an aimless plot that fails at every task it sets forth for itself.

Willis runs a private detective firm in Venice Beach and the film introduces it in the style of a hard-boiled thriller. Unfortunately, this quirky tone is pushed too far immediately, when Willis is chased naked down the street on a skateboard.

Whatever the film is going for never gels. Jason Momoa steals his dog but offers to let him buy it back, so Willis runs around the city borrowing money and breaking things, meeting quirky characters, getting kidnapped by transgender hookers and having sex with random women.

So much is happening and the characterization jumps between depicting its lead as a melancholy detective, a wacky man-child and a lecherous, absent father figure.

The entire film feels like a mid-life crisis in motion.

Willis can’t make the script’s inconsistent characterization come together, and who could blame him? What might have been an interesting fusion of “John Wick” and “Under The Silver Lake” instead amounts to an over-produced noir comedy, with neither noir nor comedy.

That said, it is almost worth recommending the film for Willis’s gonzo performance, given how much he’s forced to commit to uncomfortable creative decisions.

‘Death Wish’ (2018)

I adore the original “Death Wish” movies, even if I recognize they’re morally questionable vigilante thrillers with some of the most grotesque rape scenes ever filmed. That said, the first movie is a classic and the three immediate sequels are great Cannon Films fodder, even if star Charles Bronson couldn’t have cared less about his performance.

It is a curious match made in heaven then that Willis was cast in Eli Roth’s remake of the series—set in Chicago no less for maximum topicality. It’s a controversial franchise with a controversial lead, and the movie only succeeds in making a movie that’s as dumb and schlocky as the Cannon movie.

In other words, it’s a perfect “Death Wish” movie. Willis only needed to play the hits and act irresponsibly, and he does so gloriously.

RELATED: WE NEED ‘DIRTY HARRY’ NOW MORE THAN EVER 

In what largely turns out to be his last major blockbuster action role, Willis turns up to play. He still looked checked out and exhausted, but so did Bronson. He’s only here to put the fear of God into Chicago’s criminal underclass, and he gets a few chances to do that well.

He slips comfortably into the role, and even adds some new wrinkles to the scenario by morphing the franchise’s lead character from an architect to a doctor. That plays into some of the film’s brutal torture scenes.

“Death Wish” certainly doesn’t make Willis look great, but the pairing is a fascinating example of how directors could still use him effectively in the right context.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t always the case.

‘Glass’ (2019)

As much as I want to praise Willis’s late-career arc, it needs to be reinforced that what bothers so many people about Willis is that he seems to no longer care about his craft. While plenty of directors can take advantage of his charisma and energy, Willis was still checked out for the majority of this decade.

“Glass” is a particularly egregious example. It’s a direct sequel to one of Willis’s best performances in “Unbreakable.” He played a middle-aged father who suspects he might have superpowers after miraculously surviving a train crash.

The sequel is a lazy, bloated and egotistical experience. Willis’ screen time is limited to 30-odd minutes, which gives him little opportunity to elevate the film and explore his character.

As film writer Dan Olsen points out, he likely only gave Blumhouse a few days to work with him—as it was reportedly common in his riders that he only works a short time on set before letting a stunt double takeover.

Plenty of the directors Willis worked with in the past decade were able to push past this limitation, but late-period Shyamalan is uniquely ill-suited to the task. Willis still brings some sadness to the role, particularly regarding the fate of his beloved character, but “Glass” lacks the great script and screen time to draw on his humanity in the way that made “Unbreakable” a masterpiece.

‘Motherless Brooklyn’ (2019)

As time went on, Willis’s roles grew smaller and less frequent. This could be a logical consequence of the actor demanding larger paydays for his work, or simply a reality that he didn’t want to accept larger roles. 

In any case, his role in “Motherless Brooklyn” is notable for this reason. Edward Norton’s long-time Neo-Noir dream project was a film nearly 20 years in the making. The film earned decent reviews but an unreceptive box office.

It also marks the last time Willis would act in a major, theatrically released film.

The film only has about 10 minutes of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime dedicated to Willis’s character, but he played an outsized role as the plot instigator and mentor figure of the main cast.

The film introduces him as the leader of a Brooklyn-based private detective agency investigating an unknown party when a bad deal results in his murder. Norton is his brilliant assistant who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome. The character takes on the task of investigating the murder and subsequent criminal conspiracy that he discovers.

RELATED: WHY ‘HUDSON HAWK’ IS THE BRUCE WILLIEST BRUCE WILLIS FILM

Willis doesn’t get much of a chance to shine in his final theatrical role, but I can’t imagine anyone in the production assumed this would be such a key role. He does a solid job playing an emotionally distant mentor, in a clear case of Norton knowing how to use Willis’s persona as an actor appropriately.

He only gets one short dream sequence later in the film but overall the movie is the best film he acted in towards the end of the decade. He seems to have cared about showing up and helping his colleague make his dream project.

Unintentionally, it ends up being something of a sweet role for Willis—a swansong to Willis’s career that is itself about the challenge of giving a flawed man justice.

‘Assassin’ (2023)

It is worth noting again that Willis’s career mostly shifted away from dramatic acting in the 2010s and early 2020s. Willis spent the majority of his energy acting in 36 straight-to-DVD action movies. Most of them have been forgotten.

“Assassin” is only notable among them for its status as the final canonical appearance of Willis on film. Appropriately, he is only a minor character, playing a villainous government agent who is murdered halfway into the story.

The film’s plot resembles Brandon Cronenberg’s “Possessor,” being about a secret technology that allows agents to possess another person and use their body to commit assassinations. The similarities mostly stop at the premise. “Assassin” amounts to little more than a tirade against the military-industrial complex, that would’ve felt outdated a decade before it leaked onto Redbox.

Alas, “Assassin” marks the last time Willis will likely ever appear on screen. His villainous character is menacing, a quietly detached government agent who knows how to spend human lives to get the results he needs. His abrupt death mostly relegates his character to being more of a symbol, with his screen presence towering over the less famous co-stars.

Conclusion

I initially felt disappointed after watching these films.

One always goes into a study like this hoping to find a lost thread or the missing needle in the haystack—something that can explain the secrets of a person’s soul like Rosebud in “Citizen Kane.”

It was sad looking over this filmography, realizing how talented Willis is, seeing how many diamonds in the rough could still come out of this sausage factory and wondering why he didn’t do more.

However, the research has certainly given me more appreciation for Willis as an actor and a person. There is still a lot going on in these roles; an active dialog with his legacy and reputation as an action star and several excellent character studies.

In recent months, there has been a great deal of reflection on the actor and his legacy.

Producer Jerry Bruckheimer spoke this past week of Willis’s kindness and generosity on the set of “Armageddon,” noting his willingness to support the film’s crew. Tarantino similarly praised Willis’s enthusiasm on the set of “Pulp Fiction.”

Shyamalan recently told of how Willis’s passion for filming “The Sixth Sense” has been a tremendous inspiration for his career. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised Willis last year as a “fantastic” and “kind” man who will be remembered as a great movie star.

On March 19, Bruce Willis’s wife Emma Willis celebrated the actor’s 69th birthday with an Instagram post calling him “a true gentleman. With so much love to give and share. That’s what I get to see, his true core.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
View this post on Instagram
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

A post shared by Emma Heming Willis (@emmahemingwillis)

Just this past week, she posted photos of Willis cuddling with his infant granddaughter. Thousands of messages of support and love followed.

It’s easy to be cynical about Willis, dismissing his later work as cheap cash grabs. However, the knowledge of his advanced frontotemporal dementia casts his final performances in a new light. He was suffering memory issues for much of the last decade and still gave strong performances in most of these films.

More importantly, Willis seems to have been—and continues to be—a wonderful human being when it counts.

Willis made the same career calculation Nicolas Cage did in the early 2010s. He made a high volume of low-budget films for the money. I certainly don’t blame the man for forgoing the art at times in favor of a consistent paycheck.

Who among us can cast the first stone for doing so?

Unfortunately, Willis will never get a second chance at a late-career revival as la Cage with films like “Mandy” and “Pig,” setting the record straight that he is the same great actor he always has been.

Thankfully, he did some solid work in the past decade. He remains one of the greatest actors of his generation—even if you have to read between the lines to appreciate it.

For whatever time he has left, I hope audiences have the opportunity to go back and celebrate him as a wonderful artist and he continues to be surrounded by love and appreciation for his best efforts.

He deserves that much for the good work he has done.

Tyler Hummel is a Nashville-based freelance critic and journalist, a member of the Music City Film Critics Association and the 2021 College Fix Fellow at Main Street Nashville.

3 Comments

  1. I couldn’t disagree more with your flamboyant interpretations of many of Willis’ later movies. A Good Day To Die Hard and Red2 were both very entertaining. Which is what movies are supposed to be. Sheesh….

  2. Good list. Willis is my favorite living actor (Denzel Washington is a close second), and this is a fine tribute to his work.

    I would also add the Between Two Ferns movie, where Willis played a satirical version of himself being interviewed by host Zack Galifanakis. It’s a very funny bit where he pokes fun at his own career and reputation, and there’s a little sadness mixed in as well, which in retrospect seems appropriate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to top button