LOS ANGELES — By now it’s clear that nothing and no one can kill Bruce Willis, whose fifth film in the “Die Hard” franchise, the horribly titled “A Good Day to Die Hard,” opened Friday.
It is not his finest hour. At 57, he still wreaks havoc and looks great in a tight T-shirt, but he doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself very much. Still, it’s a good opportunity to look back at five of the best performances in Willis’ eclectic, enduring career:
“Die Hard” (1988): I had a huge crush on him as the quick-witted David Addison on “Moonlighting,” which seems kinda creepy in retrospect, given that I was in junior high when the series launched, and he’s 17 years old than I am.
But that role set the stage for the character that would go on to define his career: wisecracking New York cop John McClane. Willis is at his charismatic best in this ’80s action classic swaggering, smart-alecky and resourceful, but, at his core, just a regular guy trying to outwit the Euro baddies. The fact that he’s not a superhero actually gives the character more power.
“Pulp Fiction” (1994): One of the most important and influential movies of the 1990s, of course, with Willis in a role that lets him put all his talents on display at once. As a boxer named Butch who’s supposed to throw a fight but ends up winning it instead, Willis is tough but tender, powerful yet vulnerable.
Quentin Tarantino is in love with words, and Willis is an excellent fit for his peculiar brand of verbosity; he’s also very much up for the, um, many freaky and physical demands of appearing in a Tarantino film.
“The Sixth Sense” (1999): If Willis’ characters in the ’80s were all about cunning and bravado, the late ’90s and 2000s frequently found him in a more introspective mode, especially in this hell-of-a-twist blockbuster from M. Night Shyamalan. (The two would reteam the next year for another supernatural thriller, “Unbreakable,” in which Willis is also very good in a low-key way.)
Willis is the ghost at the center of this ghost story, a child psychologist working with a little boy (Haley Joel Osment) who, famously, sees dead people.
The muting of Willis’ action-star persona is what’s so effective here; his quiet melancholy adds to the chilly mood.
“Sin City” (2005): Willis once again plays a cop — John Hartigan, the last honest cop in this corrupt town — searching for an 11-year-old girl who would go on to become an exotic dancer played by Jessica Alba.
In Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s gloriously stylized graphic novel-film noir mashup, Willis is the traditionally hardened, world-weary anti-hero looking to clear his name. It’s a performance filled with both regret and determination, much of which he spells out in dramatic but understated voiceover.
“Moonrise Kingdom” (2012): Wes Anderson’s best live-action movie since “Rushmore” is all about the kids: two precocious preteens who fall in love and run off together but have nowhere to go on an insular New England island.
Still, the adults provide an excellent supporting cast, including Willis as the island’s lonely sheriff on the hunt for the runaways. There’s great subtlety and sadness to his performance; you look at his character and the middle-aged rut he’s gotten himself into and pray that these love-struck kids don’t similarly lose their spark.