6 Bruce Willis Movies That Showed He Was More Than Just an Action Movie Star

Bruce Willis is stepping away from acting because of his aphasia diagnosis and facing a communication challenge for the second time in his life. But his retirement means no more Die Hard movies, no more collaborations with M. Night Shyamalan, and no more chances for him to display his acting range. 

Willis developed a reputation as an action movie star during his nearly 40 years in front of the camera, but he was more than that. These six Willis movies prove he was more than just an action star and will define his career.

Bruce Willis attends the 2019 premiere of 'Motherless Brooklyn.'
Bruce Willis | Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

1. Willis catches a break as John McClane in ‘Die Hard’

OK, so the films in the Die Hard franchise are the epitome of action movies. But you can’t tell the story of Willis’ career without including it on the list. 

Willis was far from the first choice to play the part. Yet he convincingly played everyman police officer John McClane, who continually finds himself thrust into unlucky situations (especially in the first two movies). Even amid shootouts, explosions, and witty one-liners ubiquitous in action movies, Willis had moments where he displayed exasperation, tenderness, and vulnerability. 

McClane was a new breed of action star, and as a big-screen newcomer, Willis was perhaps the only actor who could pull it off. Maybe it’s just us, but we can’t imagine Sylvester Stallone, Nick Nolte, or Charles Bronson showing the same emotional depth required of the role.

2. Butch Coolidge in ‘Pulp Fiction’

The poster for Pulp Fiction lists several names ahead of ‘and Bruce Willis,’ but as low-level boxer Butch, he was integral in tying up John Travolta’s and Ving Rhames’ storylines. He didn’t get much screen time until midway through the movie, but the look on Willis’ face when his character awakes from a pre-fight dream telegraphs what’s coming next for Butch.

Sure, Butch brandishes several weapons in the movie (a machine gun and katana among them), but Willis provides plenty of character depth in his few minutes on screen.

3. Willis shines as Malcolm Crowe in ‘The Sixth Sense’

The 1990s saw Willis do his fair share of action movies (two Die Hard sequels, Striking Distance, The Jackal, and Armageddon among them), but he also branched out in other directions. The Sixth Sense, which tops the list of Willis’ top-grossing movies, was perhaps the pinnacle of his non-action movie roles. 

He turns in a controlled performance as child psychologist Malcolm Crowe, and he deserves credit for not trying to outshine young co-star Haley Joel Osment. Willis didn’t earn any major award nominations as Crowe, but The Sixth Sense was well-received and is a highlight in his acting career.

4. Jimmy Tudeski in ‘The Whole Nine Yards’

He had the action movie down pat. He had done some voice work in two Look Who’s Talking movies. A full-fledged comedy was one of the final unchecked boxes on Willis’ resume. The Whole Nine Yards showed Willis had the ability to pull off comedy, too.

Yes, he played a tough guy in retired hitman Jimmy Tudeski, but the role allowed Willis an opportunity to flash his comedy chops. And he succeeded with natural timing and solid deliveries of lines like, “Oz, do you know what kind of soil they have in this backyard? I’ve been here two days, and I’ve got little tomato plants.”

5. Captain Sharp in ‘Moonrise Kingdom’

Wes Anderson has a way of bringing the best out of actors in his movies, and Willis was no exception. He held his own among the ensemble cast that included Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton. 

Willis deftly delivers Anderson’s sometimes staccato dialogue while also capably conveying his character’s depth with a quick glance or sideways look. Sharp turns out to be something of a hero despite his moral faults, and Willis performs well in both capacities.

6. The little-known role that gave Willis his only major award nomination

Success on the major awards circuit (Academy Awards, BAFTAs, Golden Globes) eluded Willis for most of his career. The exception was his role as Emmett Smith in 1989’s little-seen In Country

Willis plays a Vietnam War veteran who is the uncle of the main character, who never knew the father she lost to the war. Starring in a family drama was quite the change of pace for Willis after Die Hard, but he shows emotional depth in the role, and it led to a Golden Globes nomination for best supporting actor in a motion picture. It was the first and only time Willis earned a nomination for a movie role.

In Country was generally well-received among critics (per Rotten Tomatoes) and was the first of many times Willis showed his acting range.

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