In 2022, movie fans were heartbroken to hear that the legendary action star Bruce Willis was stepping away from acting due to his diagnosis with aphasia. Willis’ friends and collaborators within the industry were quick to voice their support, with writer/director M. Night Shyamalan recently stating that he is “forever grateful” for their experiences working together. It is tough for movie fans to reconcile with the fact that Willis isn’t working on any new projects, as his last film Assassin is slated for release early this year. Willis is certainly one of the most beloved action movie stars of all-time; Die Hard was a film that defined the genre, and many action heroes since have taken inspiration from Willis’ performance as John McClane. However, Willis was also a much more versatile performer than he was given credit for, and showed his range in films like The Sixth Sense and Pulp Fiction.
Unfortunately, the quality of Willis’ work began to steadily decline over the last two decades. While his performances were rarely the issue, the projects he was involved with simply weren’t as strong as those during the beginning of his career. Many of Willis’ recent films were distributed directly to video-on-demand services and barely received a theatrical release; some of his fans might not have even realized that he had new films coming out every year. However, there are still many gems from his recent filmography that show why Willis is still a legend. Here are the 10 best Bruce Willis movies of the 21st century, ranked.
10 Ocean’s Twelve
One of the reasons that Willis has remained so popular among movie fans for so many different generations is his sense of humor. Outside of appearing in multiple hilarious comedic parts throughout his career, Willis has never been shy about making fun of himself. In Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Twelve, Willis appears as a heightened version of himself acting alongside Julia Roberts in the meta universe of the Ocean’s movies; Roberts is playing a version of her Ocean’s character, Tess, who is amusingly pretending to be the actual Julia Roberts.
Although Unbreakable seemingly left the door open for another installment, fans of the film that wanted to see the story of Willis’ character David Dunn continue didn’t get the chance until his surprise cameo appearance at the end of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2017 film Split. Glass unites the two films into a complex narrative about the role of superheroes in modern society. In one of his more mature performances, Willis shows how a lifetime of serving others in secret has taken a toll on David.
8 Live Free or Die Hard
Die Hard fans had more than enough reason to be skeptical about a fourth film in the saga. Live Free Or Die Hard was released more than a decade after the franchise had seemingly closed on a perfect note in 1995’s Die Hard With A Vengeance, a film that many found to be a satisfying conclusion to John McClane’s character arc; it was also the first Die Hard film to be rated PG-13. However, Live Free Or Die Hard managed to revamp the series for the digital age by pitting McClane against a ruthless group of cyber-terrorists. It’s also one of the funnier installments in the series thanks to the comedic banter between Willis and Justin Long, who co-stars as the hacker Matt Farrell.
7 Lucky Number Slevin
Lucky Number Slevin is a film that simply requires multiple viewings to appreciate fully, as the constant plot twists and shocking revelations force the viewer to remember earlier scenes in a different light. There are many all-time great actors that pop up as eccentric characters within the dense crime narrative, including Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley, but Willis’ performance as the elusive criminal known as “Mr. Goodkat” is one of the most intriguing.
6 Motherless Brooklyn
While Willis’ role in the Edward Norton-directed crime saga Motherless Brooklyn is a relatively small one, it proves how emotional he can be in a limited amount of time. Willis co-stars as Frank, a kind-hearted detective whose death inspires Norton’s character Lionel to look deeper into a corruption scandal at the heart of New York’s infrastructural development. Sadly, the film underperformed at the box office, and not many of Willis’ fans got to check out one of his most emotional performances.
Willis had a small role in The Expendables franchise, a series of films that tried to bring back an older generation of action stars for a new adventure, but simply did not work as a cheeky sendup. However, he also appeared in the superior Red films; based on the Wildstorm Productions comic book series of the same name, Red follows the retired CIA assassins Frank Moses (Willis), Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), Marvin Boggs (John Malkocich), and Victoria Winslow (Helen Mirren) when they realize they’ve all been betrayed. Despite initial talk about a third film in the series, plans for Red 3 were effectively dropped in favor of moving forward with a television adaptation.
4 Sin City
Even within the dense crime narrative of Robert Rodriguez’s hyper-stylized noir thriller Sin City, Willis’ performance as the ruthless detective John Hartigan stands out as one of the best characters in the story. Despite his downbeat demeanor, Willis shows the empathy that Hartigan has when he saves the young Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) and returns to protect her years later.
3 Moonrise Kingdom
Willis stepped outside his comfort zone to work in the idiosyncratic comic world of Wes Anderson with Moonrise Kingdom. Surprisingly, Willis fit right in with the quirky ensemble and gave one of his most emotionally earnest performances in years. He co-stars as the police Captain Sharp, who upon discovering the quest by the adolescent lovers Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Lucy Hayward), decides to kindly adopt the young orphaned boy as his own.
Although Willis is commonly thought of as an action star first and foremost, he has an equally important history within the science fiction genre thanks to his roles in films such as 12 Monkeys, Armageddon, and The Fifth Element. Willis returned to sci-fi for one of the darkest roles of his career as the assassin Joe in Rian Johnson’s brilliant time travel thriller Looper. As Joe travels in the past to track down the man that killed his wife, he’s hunted by a younger version of himself, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a remarkable performance.
Although Willis and Shyamalan first worked together on 1999’s The Sixth Sense, their next collaboration created an interesting franchise that wouldn’t reach its conclusion until nearly two decades later. Unbreakable was a film that was ahead of its time; Shyamalan deconstructed what the life of a super-powered individual would be like in reality, and how their abilities would become a desperately sought after commodity. Willis carries a silent strength to his emotional performance as David Dunn.