This article originally ran in 2020 and has been updated to include Bruce Willis’ latest straight-to-VOD titles.
The movies are (mostly) back, but if you’re still wary about venturing into a movie theater, Bruce Willis is near-singlehandedly keeping the straight-to-streaming flowing with a steady release of generic actioners that are not doing his legacy any favors. But at least you don’t have to leave home to see them. The star has participated in a decades-long spate of mostly action and crime films that premiered on VOD. Since this ranking was originally published last fall, four more have come to light, the sci-fi actioners, Cosmic Sin and Breach, Murder in the Switchgrass and Out of Death. By the time you finish reading this, there may be a couple more. While the pandemic has forced many major studios to give their big titles, from The Suicide Squad to Reminiscence, simultaneous home releases, make no mistake: A wide theatrical run was never in the cards for Hard Kill, nor Survive the Night, Trauma Center, 10 Minutes Gone, or any of the 22 (and counting) VOD-bound B-movies Willis has made in earnest since 2011.
At this point, these films are almost their own genre. Ye shall know them by their generic titles and judicious use of Bruce, whose total screen time in each rarely surpasses 15 minutes. But Bruce puts asses on the couch, so he is prominently featured in the trailers and on the posters.
Reviews of these films tend to be scathing, snide, and snarky (and those are just the S’s) and have been the subject of think pieces (well, not so much think pieces as WTF pieces) that ponder variations on the theme: Why does one of the once biggest action stars in the world keep turning up in this dreck?
But why ask why? You like Bruce and you’ve got 90 minutes to kill. You can do worse than, say, Fire With Fire. Our ranking below determines which of these films delivers your Willis worth, and which are the most entertaining 75 minutes that Bruce isn’t onscreen. Enjoy them, if you dare.
22. Murder in the Switchgrass (2021)
Bruce is an inessential worker here. His less than eight minutes of screen time are devoted to generic straight lines (“This is gonna be bad”) and a couple of diner-set two-handers with Megan Fox that scream, “We only have Bruce for the day.” Fox, though, carries her scenes as a rogue FBI agent whose sex-trafficking investigation dovetails with the search for a serial killer. The lone and fleeting bright spot is Welker White, a Scorsese veteran (Goodfellas, The Irishman), in a bracing bit of character work as the mother of one of the missing girls. But the shameless opening crib from Blood Simple (drawling about predators and prey, the narrator says, “Humans are the only creatures on Earth given a choice. I don’t know who said that, but I’m pretty sure they never imagined a place like Pensacola”) is unforgiveable.
21. Air Strike (2018)
An alternate title for this World War II Chinese propaganda film is The Bombing. (Insert your own joke here.) Willis gets his John Wayne on as military adviser Colonel Jack Johnson, who whips Chinese aviators into fighting shape to take on the superior Japanese forces. At the 54-minute mark, Willis offers his squadron a pre-raid toast: “My father was a soldier as well. This is his watch. He said that if anything ever happened to him, he should give it to his son, and he did. This is his watch.” I know; Pulp Fiction, right? If Bruce Willis actually sneaked a Christopher Walken impression into a Chinese propaganda film, then he truly is, as one of the Chinese aviators anachronistically describes him, a badass.
20. Out of Death (2021)
No sooner does Jamie King venture into the woods to scatter her dead father’s ashes then she witnesses a crooked officer killing her partner in crime. Bruce, a 35-year veteran cop, has also come to this neck of the woods following the death of his wife for a little peace and quiet. Here, Bruce really doesn’t seem to give an actual fuck. His line readings are unsettlingly off, and his reported one-day availability required some resourceful use of stunt doubles (shots of his character running through the woods seen only from the waist down are a dead giveaway). How about that title, though?
19. Reprisal (2018)
Frank Grillo stars as a Cincinnati banker who enlists the help of his next-door neighbor, an ex-cop (Bruce), to take down the psychopath who is robbing his bank branches. Reportedly, Bruce’s scenes were filmed in one day. Whatever; something is wrong when Bruce Willis isn’t convincing as a cop. Johnathon Schaech, as the brutal bank robber, may be best known for That Thing You Do! Like Willis, appearing in these films is now that thing he does. He’s in five of them.
18. Hard Kill (2020)
If you’re a terrorist who insists on calling himself “the Pardoner,” but also has to explain the name to your confused adversaries, you might want to consider getting a new moniker. The Pardoner has gotten ahold of the vaguely named Project 725, which was developed by Bruce’s high-tech company. If the device should fall into the wrong hands, yada yada yada. Jesse Metcalfe is top-billed as a mercenary who has a history with “the terrorist revolutionary who has been raising hell all over the globe.” Willis’s Donovan Chalmers gets one emotional scene with his daughter, who — not sure why — handed over the device to the Pardoner and has been taken prisoner along with dad. But Bruce is not allowed any fly-in-the-ointment heroics. There are more generic and less distinguished movies on this list, but for that fact alone, it receives this low ranking on principle.
17. Vice (2015)
Bruce lords over something called Vice, “a utopian paradise where you can have or do anything you want” with no laws, rules, or consequences. So, it’s Westworld run out of an exclusive, elite resort populated by female “artificials” who look and act like humans and are said to “have real emotions.” A grubby-looking Thomas Jane stars as a cop who thinks Vice is desensitizing patrons so they will commit crimes in the real world. Ambyr Childers co-stars as a malfunctioning bot who becomes self-aware and goes off the grid, giving Jane the impetus to bring down the well-connected Bruce, much of whose screen time is spent checking out Vice’s monitors to make sure patrons aren’t being slaughtered.
16. Extraction (2015)
This one starts off promisingly with a strong Bruce scene in which his undercover CIA agent turns the tables on his interrogators. Then he all but disappears until the end of the movie while his son (Kellan Lutz), also in the company, goes rogue when dad is kidnapped and held for ransom. The MacGuffin is something called the Condor, “the ultimate hack,” which the bad guys want, or have, or something. As Bruce says in Marauders — another of these movies, but better — I’d ask if I gave a fuck.
15. First Kill (2017)
Hayden Christensen, in a movie far, far away from the Star Wars universe, stars as a dad who takes his bullied young son back to his hometown for the boy’s first hunting trip. Bruce co-stars as the local police chief, a friend of his late father, who died in a tragic accident. If you smell a rat, then little of what transpires will surprise you.
14. Survive the Night (2020)
Two brothers with a Hell or High Water dynamic take a disgraced doctor and his family hostage and force him to operate on one of the bros who’s been shot in a stickup gone wrong. Bruce plays the doc’s dad, a retired cop. “You used to be the big dog in town,” the more unhinged brother taunts him, in one of the film’s most memorable lines. Another word about the Emmett/Furla Oasis Films stock company behind so many of these films: Tyler Jon Olson, the wounded brother, is in ten of these; Lydia Hull, the doc’s wife, is in six. After you get a few of these movies under your belt, it becomes fun to spot them as though they’re beloved character actors.
13. Cosmic Sin (2021)
In the year 2524 (which doesn’t have the ring of the 1969 one-hit wonder), we may not be alone in the universe. Bruce stars as disgraced former general James Ford (as in, “Get me James Ford”), who is recruited to wipe out a race of zombie-like aliens. High-minded ideas (“You want peace, get rid of war”) are brought to Earth with standard issue video game-like action and macho badassery. Filmed in nine days in advance of the Covid shutdown, this rushed production finds some resourceful ways to mask Bruce’s limited availability. His character is often seen from the back, or his face is obscured by foreground characters, the international signs of a stunt double. There are too-on-the-nose nods toward Bruce’s new status as the On-Demand King. “Once upon a time you were a big bad motherfucker,” he is taunted early on, just before he bashes the guy to show he’s still got it.
12. Acts of Violence (2018)
Sex traffickers pick the wrong woman to kidnap when her future brother-in-law (Cole Hauser), a psyche-scarred veteran, enlists his two brothers to help him track her down. Bruce is relegated to the sidelines as the standard-issue weary cop with a bottle of Jim Beam in his top desk drawer. Long frustrated in his by-the-book attempts to bring down the trafficking kingpin, he lets the brothers have their vigilante way. The ending lets Bruce loose to administer his own brand of justice, but it’s too little, too late to redeem the movie.
11. The Set Up (2011)
It’s an Italian Job situation when one of three heisters (Ryan Phillippe!) decides to kill his two partners in crime and take $5 million in diamonds for himself. 50 Cent (!!) stars as Sonny, who survives the betrayal and is hell-bent on revenge. The diamonds belong to mob boss Bruce, “the most ruthless, cold motherfucker you’ll ever meet.” Bruce gets a good line or two (“Every fucking thing I say is right”), but a hit man played by Shaun Toub steals the show: “You took something from us … and I’m the guy they picked to get it back.”
10. Trauma Center (2019)
Nicky Whelan stars as Madison, whom Bruce — you guessed it, a cop — installs in an incredibly understaffed hospital’s isolation ward after she witnesses a murder. The resourceful Madison has our rooting interest, but Bruce is conveniently missing in action. Moonlighting fans may get a nostalgic tingle when, at one point, he refers to her as “Maddie.” Steve Guttenberg cameos as her physician, because why not?
9. Assassination of a High School President (2009)
“Forget it, Funke. It’s high school.” A put-upon high-school sophomore and aspiring journalist tries to parlay a hot story about stolen SATs into Northwestern admittance. This is the most well-regarded film on the list, but despite a social-media campaign, the original distributor’s bankruptcy killed any chances for a theatrical release. As a high-school-set noir, Brick was first and far better, but Bruce is clearly energized trying to recapture some of his Sundance indie cred as the unhinged Desert Storm vet turned principal, who at one point reprimands a tardy student: “Do I come down to the strip club where you work and knock the dick out of your mouth?”
8. 10 Minutes Gone (2019)
A meticulously planned heist goes wrong and Michael Chiklis has to figure out who killed his brother, made off with the loot, and why he can’t account for ten minutes following an ambush that left him unconscious. This is the quintessential Bruce VOD film: His scenes mostly take place in one room, and in several, it’s just him talking into a phone. Lydia Hull gets her showiest role yet as Bruce’s icy, Terminator-like enforcer. She deftly pulls off what every B-movie villain strives for: a slo-mo explosion walk-away.
7. The Prince (2014)
In the golden age of direct to video, enterprising producers would take a popular theatrical film and rush a similarly titled knockoff onto VHS to fool a less than cinema-savvy public. This Taken ripoff would have probably been called Took. Jason Patric stars as a former shadowy underworld figure whose certain set of skills once included blowing up a car that contained the wife and daughter of Bruce, a local crime boss. So when Jason goes looking for his missing and messed-up daughter, Bruce is determined to find her first. About an hour in, John Cusack shows up as a Jason ally. It makes for a nice break from asking, “What’s Bruce Willis doing in this?” to inquire, “What’s John Cusack doing in this?”
6. Marauders (2016)
A needlessly complicated bank-heist thriller (suffice to say, “something is dirty”) is redeemed by a stronger-than-usual cast for these films, including a solid Christopher Meloni as an FBI agent investigating the robbery of $3 million from bank mogul Bruce, Dave Bautista as his sidekick, and Adrian Grenier as a new member of the team. Schaech gets his most dramatic role in these films as a compromised cop with a cancer-stricken wife. One of Bruce’s most oddball moments is his curious monologue focused on the spider crawling up his skyscraper window in the rain.
5. Breach (2021)
The year is 2242 and a plague has wiped out much of the planet. Survivors board a shuttle for New Earth. While 300,000 take a cyro-nap, Willis and his custodial crew go about their chores until a parasite goes about infecting crew members leading to a zombie siege. Higher production values and a seemingly more engaged Willis make this Alien/The Thing retread a cut above as far as Alien/The Thing retreads go. Willis shows signs of his signature swagger and smirk as when he offers the new guy advice about how to handle a take-off: “Get the fuck out of my seat.” But later, in one of the film’s quieter moments, he remarks, “I’m good at failing up,” which is way too self-referential for comfort.
4. Catch .44 (2011)
Three gun-toting ladies (Malin Akerman, Nikki Reed, and Deborah Ann Woll) head for a diner on behalf of drug boss Bruce, and things go south pretty quick. This is a fairly decent “fauxrantino,” with the requisite time jumps, hyperaware dialogue exchanges, and surf guitar on the soundtrack. This came early in Bruce’s VOD career, and he appears fully invested in his glad-handing, pecan-loving kingpin who may or may not have set the trio up. And when he has an actor the caliber of Forest Whitaker to play against, he rises to the occasion. Cult character-actor aficionados may stream this solely for Brad Dourif’s cameo as an ill-fated sheriff.
3. Fire With Fire (2012)
Come for Bruce, stay for Josh Duhamel as a fireman forced into witness protection when he runs afoul of white-supremacist leader Vincent D’Onofrio. There is one scene that’s pure, vintage Bruce: He’s a cop confronting D’Onofrio, who previously had Bruce’s partner killed. D’Onofrio wants Bruce to lay off and makes all kinds of threats. An unblinking Bruce stares him down, leans in and whispers, “You’re not going to kill anybody else,” and walks out, but not before disposing of one of his goons. In this kind of movie, where expectations are diminished, it plays like De Niro and Pacino’s coffee-shop scene in Heat.
2. Precious Cargo (2016)
This one delivers as a guilty pleasure. Mark-Paul Gosselaar has a Ryan Reynolds–ian lovable-rogue thing going for him here, and a Mr. & Mrs. Smith chemistry with Claire Forlani as a former lover who recruits him to steal a cargo of rare gems on behalf of crime boss Bruce. The novelty of Bruce playing against type as a villain has long since worn thin, but he does seem to be enjoying himself, putting his old wiseass spin on the whole affair.
1. Once Upon a Time in Venice (2017)
Bruce Willis appears to be having a blast in his first comic-action role since Red 2 seven years ago. Bruce is the titular California city’s “only licensed detective.” The film ambles amiably for 40 minutes before the story proper kicks in: A drug dealer (an on-the-cusp-of-stardom Jason Momoa) takes Bruce’s beloved dog, forcing him to jump through increasingly absurd and dangerous hoops to get him back. John Goodman is his sad-sack best friend, a surf-shop owner in the throes of a divorce. Critics might call it a thankless role, but viewers are apt to thank the movie gods for Goodman’s welcome presence, especially in comparison to a maddeningly annoying Thomas Middleditch as Bruce’s awkward and bumbling protégé. If you only have the time or inclination to rent one straight-to-VOD Willis title, this should be your pick.