I have always looked far back through the mists of time for my heroes. I suppose when I was a child I did look forward to a few current television shows that I never wanted to miss. I can think of Happy Days, The Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team and Hunter. But from an early age I was drawn to TV shows that had long been off the air and films from another era. But I can point to a few specific instances that found me enamoured of something current. I remember being blown away by Footloose and having to go right back to the theatre to see it again. And somehow, when I was 14, I discovered what remains one of my all-time favourite television programs, Moonlighting and its stars, Cybill Shepherd and especially Bruce Willis.
What a 14-year-old could get from this classy, hilarious show that borrowed much from the screwball comedy I had yet to discover I do not know. Again, for this old soul romantic, it must’ve been the relationship between Maddie Hayes and David Addison. The writers and the stars of this show created – or at least presented the supreme representation of – sexual tension on television. Every week the viewers wondered if this would be the Tuesday night that David would finally wear Maddie down and they would get together. But this article is not about Moonlighting – the show deserves its own.
It’s also not about Willis’ break-out work as Officer John McClane in John McTiernan’s seminal 1988 action film Die Hard. First of all, many of my readers will know everything about this film and the fact that it propelled Bruce Willis to superstardom. Secondly, I’ve already featured this film in these pages. Read about it here. This piece will not touch on another pivot point in Willis’ career, his appearance in Quentin Tarantino’s Academy Award-winning Pulp Fiction (1994). Again, most people who know anything about Bruce Willis know that his work – down the list of cast members – as palooka Butch Coolidge reignited his career and introduced him to a whole new type of theatre audience.
The purpose of this piece is to illuminate some of the wonderful work Bruce has done in between all these highlights of his long career. And, if you follow entertainment news at all, why I’m doing this in early 2023 is clearly understood. In March of 2022, Bruce’s family announced that he was retiring from films due to the onset of aphasia. Aphasia, it was explained, was “a disorder typically caused by damage to the area of the brain that controls language expression and comprehension”. It was sad and shocking news. Many thought it explained Bruce’s work through the several years preceding this announcement in scores of straight-to-video productions, the work serving as a sort of retirement savings program. The news eleven months later was sadder still. In February of 2023, his family announced that his condition had deteriorated into full blown frontotemporal dementia.
It was a sad and, I think, strange end to a career loaded with quick-witted performances and action films demanding a certain amount of physicality. I think it also struck people as particularly cruel as Willis was only 67 years old.
He was one of my first heroes and I tried back in the day to view all of his films. This lead me to some great movies and some great work by Bruce. OK, fun work, charming, movie star-type work. Entertaining work. So, the point of this list is to highlight the many films Bruce Willis made that you might have missed. Some, maybe, you dismissed as “Bruce Willis movies” and nothing more. As usual here at Vintage Leisure, I’m here to illuminate the hidden corners for you. These corners just happen to exist in an otherwise high-profile and sparkling career.
BLIND DATE (1987) // Interesting to note that Bruce’s first credited, starring role was in this romantic comedy from the master, Blake Edwards with music from Blake’s buddy, Henry Mancini. This madcap romp also stars Kim Basinger, John Larroquette, Phil Hartman and William Daniels from The Graduate. The most important thing, though, about this film that was generally panned is the appearance of the “Blind Date shades”. Few knew how to wear sunglasses or a ball cap like Bruce Willis and – for me, at least – Bruce helped put the Ray-Ban Club Master with its classic styling on the map. In Blind Date, Bruce looks and acts for the most part just like David Addison, whom he was portraying on TV at the time. Except he has the boring first name “Walter”.
SUNSET (1988) // If you thought it was interesting that Bruce Willis started his film career with Edwards/Mancini, how about his very next film being another Blake/Hank joint but this one set in the 1920’s with Bruce playing Tom Mix? Can’t make this stuff up. In the same year that Bruce hit theatres as party-crasher McClane, he appeared in this impossible-now-to-find movie – another flop, lambasted by the critics. This hard-to-categorize title starred Bruce as Mix alongside James Garner as Wyatt Earp. While Earp is consulting on a film of the gunfight at the OK Corral that Mix is starring in, the two become buds and investigate a real life case involving murder, prostitution and corruption. Also of the party are Malcom McDowell, Mariel Hemingway and Kathleen Quinlan. As you can see below, I still have my taped-off-TV copy some 35 years later. I best keep it; you can’t find this one in Region 1.
Update: Sunset is available on DVD in North America on a Bruce Willis “8 Movie Collection” easily found on Amazon or at your neighbourhood Walmart
IN COUNTRY (1989) // So, you see, he was trying. Released right after Die Hard was this substantial drama that taught me what the term “in country” meant. This film starred Emily Lloyd and Bruce plays her uncle, Emmett Smith, a Vietnam vet who suffers from PTSD – and this was the first time I had heard of this disorder under that name, one that has proved so compelling to me over the years. Canadian Norman Jewison directed Willis to a Best Supporting Actor Golden Globe nomination. In Country had its world premiere at the 1989 Toronto International Film Festival. Willis attended and dedicated the film to Canadian veterans of the conflict in Vietnam. This movie was educational for me and particularly memorable were the final scenes at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. A captivating story of those left at home but still affected by foreign wars.
The BONFIRE of the VANITIES (1990) // Now, I know what you’re thinking. Major bomb, one of the biggest in Hollywood history. Sure, but I’ve always had a special affection for this Brian De Palma fiasco. I was still a teenager when I tackled the huge (for me at the time) novel by Tom Wolfe. The movie, I’ve always felt, had a special sort of grandiose aura – maybe like a big land-yacht of a ’73 Lincoln with ringing valves. Looks great with plush interiors and has a gleaming clear coat finish but it rides rough and pulls to the right. Famously, the stellar cast did nothing to help the film at the box office or in film history. I think the appeal comes down to Willis as Peter Fallow. The epic opening steadicam shot finishes on a great image of Bruce once again wearing the Blind Date shades or a pair similar. At the time, I thought I would like to be a writer so the fact that Bruce played one – one that lived an excessive lifestyle – was very appealing to me. But, if I’m honest, The Bonfire of the Vanities rightly belongs to Alan King. His scene in the restaurant with Bruce is an absolute comedy classic.
MORTAL THOUGHTS (1991) // Direct from the era during which I was avidly following his film career, Bruce for the first time plays a disreputable villain opposite his wife, Demi Moore. Mortal Thoughts is a neo-noir thriller that co-starred Harvey Keitel and was co-produced by Moore who had begun to wield some clout in La La Land in the wake of her success in Ghost. This one stood out for me back in the day for Bruce’s irredeemable James Urbanski and his impressive goatee and for his assault on Cynthia (Moore), his wife’s best friend. And also for the use of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting”. Definitely a sleeper movie to check out.
HUDSON HAWK (1991) // Speaking of Hollywood clout, Willis had amassed enough by this point to finally get one of his pet projects made. Hudson Hawk is a bonkers action comedy film that finds Bruce as Eddie Hawkins traversing the globe after being recruited – fresh out of prison – by everyone from the Mafia (the Mario Brothers crime family) to the CIA to stage art heists. The movie plays like an updating of In Like Flint that starred James Coburn who shows up in this film and joins Danny Aiello, Andie MacDowell and others. Another bomb for Willis, it may be emblematic of his own personality and his ego enabling him to avoid noticing signs that perhaps he is on the wrong track. After Die Hard, though, this film – love it or hate it – is perhaps the very quintessence of Bruce Willis in full-blown superstardom. As a teenager, I had the poster for this film on my bedroom wall.
NOBODY’S FOOL (1994) // Something Bruce did when nobody else was – he would just show up in a movie, sometimes credited, sometimes not. So as not to detract from this excellent adult drama with his action star bona fides, Bruce’s inclusion among this cast was unheralded. Great to see him here – playing a jerk again – alongside Newman, the legend. Bruce had appeared only barely amongst the extras in The Verdict (1982), which featured yet another Oscar-nominated performance from Paul Newman. This is one of my favourite movies of all-time and I particularly enjoy watching it in winter. Willis plays Carl Roebuck opposite Melanie Griffith as his wife in this film from Robert Benton based on the novel by Richard Russo.
12 MONKEYS (1995) // Excellent and utterly fascinating film from Terry Gilliam. Bruce’s first foray into science fiction, 12 Monkeys tells the harrowing tale of a virus unleashed in 1996 that wipes out much of humanity. Bruce plays James Cole, a prisoner living in 2035 who is tasked with going back in time to provide the virus that would help scientists cure this virus. It’s a fascinating story helped greatly by a sterling cast. I always wonder what happened to beautiful Madeleine Stowe and also in the cast are Canadian legend Christopher Plummer, Frank Gorshin and Brad Pitt putting in his perhaps his first really stellar performance as bonkers Jeffrey Goines. Pitt was nominated for an Oscar and won a Golden Globe. I highly recommend this one – a science fiction film noir – that contains many visual references to Vertigo and The Birds.
LAST MAN STANDING (1996) // Die Hard in a Fedora. Poor Bruce. After the enormous success of Die Hard, every action movie he made was given such an appellation. I saw this one in the theatre. Bruce plays, basically, “the Man With No Name” in this remake of Yojimbo scripted and directed by the legendary Walter Hill. “John Smith” wanders into a desolate Texas town during Prohibition and lands smack dab in the middle of a feud between Irish and Italian gangsters. The excellent cast includes Bruce Dern, Christopher Walken and Michael Imperioli as well as Karina Lombard who played the unwitting temptress in The Firm. Hill told Bruce he wanted a “Bogart, Mitchum kind of guy” and Willis obliges with a stoic performance. Another “box office bomb” for Bruce, critics’ complaints included “the oppressive and depressing atmosphere of the film”. Still, this is worth a look.
BREAKFAST of CHAMPIONS (1999) // Maybe the deepest cut in Bruce’s vintage catalogue. Here, Willis really steps away from the mainstream in this adaptation of the Kurt Vonnegut novel of 1973. In this satirical black comedy, Bruce plays Dwayne Hoover, a car salesman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He is joined by one of the most notable casts he ever surrounded himself with; Albert Finney, Nick Nolte, Barbara Hershey, Glenne Headly (from Mortal Thoughts), Omar Epps, Buck Henry, Owen Wilson, Alison Eastwood and Michael Clarke Duncan. Even when he took a flyer, Bruce produced a “bomb”, one that Vonnegut called “painful to watch”. Directed by Alan Rudolph (Mortal Thoughts), this one is notable for a soundtrack loaded with the music of Martin Denny.
The STORY of US (1999) // Not known for romantic comedies, this is another flyer for Bruce Willis. Bruce is Ben Jordan, husband for the last 15 years of Katie, played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Director Rob Reiner employed the interview technique used in his previous film, When Harry Met Sally…, to tell the tale of the unravelling of this marriage. Music by Eric Clapton and a cast including Rita Wilson, director Reiner, Tim Matheson and old schoolers Red Buttons, Jayne Meadows, Tom Poston and Betty White. Yet another “bomb”, one reviewer called it When Harry Divorced Sally. It’s been years but I seem to recall this one having poignant moments and of course, you know me, I’m drawn to oddities like this – Bruce in a Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy with Michelle Pfeiffer. Check this one out – if you can find it.
UNBREAKABLE (2000) // M. Night Shyamalan, one of my favourite filmmakers, here provides Bruce Willis with a character he can put in the bank and earn interest off for the rest of his days; David Dunn. This is the first film in Shyamalan’s stunning Eastrail 177 trilogy comprising, after this film, Split (2016) and Glass (2019). Unbreakable is considered a superhero thriller and a psychological horror film. But these three films are un-superhero superhero films, they are “a deconstruction of the superhero genre”. Unbreakable – like Bruce’s earlier film with Shyamalan, The Sixth Sense – demands to be seen.
SIN CITY (2005) // Bruce Willis’ elder statesman reputation was assured by 2005. He had already been called upon by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and M. Night Shyamalan and then in 2005 Tarantino crony Robert Rodriguez cast Bruce as Det. John Hartigan in the film of Frank Miller’s graphic novels, Sin City, completing Bruce’s ascendancy. Sin City is a visually stunning neo-noir crime anthology film with an ensemble cast featuring Jessica Alba, Powers Boothe, Benicio del Toro, Michael Clarke Duncan, Rutger Hauer, Michael Madsen, Clive Owen and my man, Mickey Rourke as Marv. Something was said about Willis’ place in the pantheon when he was given the job of heading up this cast in this striking film.
Bruce Willis started to make direct-to-video movies in 2011. I remember being shocked that he would make this move. I figured he was too good for this and it was a practice for lesser actors who were simply not going to be cast in major studio films. After 2011, though, Bruce did appear in theatrical releases. He was appropriately cast among action movie heavyweights in two of Sylvester Stallone’s Expendables movies, made Looper for Rian Johnson, played John Hartigan again in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, made the terrible Rock the Kasbah with Barry Levinson, starred in the surprisingly excellent remake of 1974’s Death Wish, played David Dunn one final time in Glass and then, in 2019, he was among the party in Edward Norton’s fine neo-noir Motherless Brooklyn, which will stand as the final major motion picture of Bruce’s career.
Since 2019, Bruce has made 26 direct-to-video films, most in which he features for mere minutes representing only days of work on set. The assumption is that he was taking the big paydays to subsidize the extent of the treatment he would need as he aged and his condition worsened. It had been reported that often times on the set of these movies, Bruce would openly comment to others that he had no idea what he was doing there. It has certainly been a sad end to an entertaining career.
As we fans get older and travel through life with all of its ups and downs, we gain some sad knowledge about the vagaries of health, mental and physical. For so many of us, watching our parents age has brought home the many challenges that can befall our loved ones as they grow older. So, to learn of 67-year-old Bruce suffering as he has has been a somber and sobering experience. As reports come in from his family, we are able to empathize with them and perhaps it binds us all together. It is one of the sad – but somehow wonderful – ways that cinema unites us.
And for me personally, Bruce Willis will always be my hero.
Well done Gary, and thanks for the reminders of some of the Willis’ works that I had forgotten about. While a big “Moonlighting” fan as well, I did enjoy a lot of Bruce’s work through the years. I remember going to see both “Hudson Hawk” and “The Last Boyscout” at the theater back in the day, and always thought he was very good in “Sixth Sense” (one of those “mind-blown” movies for me) and “Unbreakable.”
My mom (now in her 70’s) had early onset Dementia that began in her mid to late 60’s. I certainly wish Bruce and his family and caregivers the very best as they navigate this horrific disease.
Well, thank you, my friend, for reading and commenting. It pained me to leave some films out like The Last Boy Scout, The Siege, The Jackal and Mercury Rising but I had to draw the line somewhere. The two Red films…
Just the idea of such a terrible affliction is horrible; I can only imagine how it affects the families of those who suffer.
HI Gary: I’m a latecomer to the Bruce Willis fan club, as I wasn’t a big fan of his work, including Moonlighting (that’s another whole story). But when I saw him/his work on Fifth Element, I became a convert. I love him/his character in that movie and have seen it a number of times. I also liked him in Sin City. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Sin City also includes one of my all-time favourite actors Clive Owen.
And, I’m so sorry to read that he is ill with a disease for which there is no cure.
Well, Betty, it’s good to hear from you again!
Yes, The Fifth Element – another one I had to leave out. I love that he was joined in that film by my man, Luke Perry.
Thanks for reading and for commenting!