He’s much better known for action flicks and comedies, but in my book the ever-smirking Bruce Willis excels most at sci-fi. His low key, Everyman quality has a way of grounding outlandish stories, be they about time traveling hit men or kids who see dead people. So here’s a tip of the cap to a guy who knows his way around an apocalyptic wasteland.
TWELVE MONKEYS (1995)
Willis is perfect as a conflicted, ill-prepared man from the future who is sent back in time to gather information about a bio-terror event that will decimate the planet. “Twelve Monkeys” is gritty and weird, and Willis just goes with the flow. His character’s confusion mirrors the jumble of images and twists in the film itself. Plus, we get to see Brad Pitt doing his screwy eyeball thing. Great sci-fi.
THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
Here we get the quiet Willis, which I find even more effective. In “The Sixth Sense,” he plays a therapist who specializes in childhood trauma. He encounters a young man who insists he SEES DEAD PEOPLE, so naturally he drops everything to help the kid. Of course, it turns out he’s got an even bigger problem, but that’s not for me to divulge. What I will say is that Bruce listens to the boy and treats him with such respect that it absolutely draws in the audience – that, and the ghosts.
“Looper” was one of my favorite movies last year, and Willis is a major reason. His aging hit man is by turns weary, wistful, sarcastic and filled with rage. It’s a mature performance, particularly in scenes where he encounters his younger self. The script is very smart and the dialogue is peppy in a film noir sort of way, if film noir included references to telekinesis.
THE KID (2000)
Of course, Bruce had some previous experience meeting a younger version of himself. In the family comedy, “The Kid,” he spends some quality time with the chubby kid he used to be. The result is genuinely warm and funny, because Willis is so natural with young Spencer Breslin.
Little seen when it came out a few years back, “Surrogates” gives us both the makeup-and-wig Willis and the bald and craggy Willis. He plays a cop in a future society where people can implant their consciousness into a better looking, android version of themselves. It’s like a really good “Twilight Zone” episode, but with actual production values.
DEATH BECOMES HER (1992)
This was a special effects extravaganza at the time, with Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn as a pair of ladies willing to sell their souls for eternal youth. Willis is the nebbish caught in the middle of the triangle. It’s hardly his best work, but in the final third of the movie he injects a tiny bit of humanity into his performance.
THE FIFTH ELEMENT (1997)
While I’m not a huge fan of “The Fifth Element,” I applaud its wayyyy out there sensibility. Everything from the costumes to the plot are wild and crazy. Willis is doing his take on Han Solo, in a way, or simply applying some “Die Hard” swagger to the intergalactic chaos. Look for a blond Bruce and a stunningly odd Gary Oldman.
I liked “Armageddon.” Please don’t judge me. It’s just a big, fun popcorn flick about nutty tough guys and an asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Willis takes on something of a John Wayne vibe from “The Hellfighters,” and gets great support from a cast that includes Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson and Billy Bob Thornton. He also gets a full-throttle, schmaltzy hero scene right before the end. Male weepie sci-fi at its finest.
PLANET TERROR (2007)
Not familiar with “Planet Terror”? You may know it better as one of the parody movies from “Grindhouse,” which featured two movies and fake movie trailers written by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Willis is a supporting player here, in a gory spectacle full of guns and zombies.
“Unbreakable” is my favorite Willis sci-fi film. He plays a quietly unhappy, family man who gradually realizes he has extraordinary gifts. Willis has so many wonderful moments of stillness in this movie. You feel his struggle and understand his decency – it’s amazing. Better yet, it’s one of those sci-fi movies where the ordinary, daily life scenes are just as engaging as the superhuman scenes.
So that’s my case. What do you think?