The Fifth Element: How Bruce Willis Made A Sci-fi Epic Into A Classic

One of his best.

By Matthew Creith | Published

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American actor Bruce Willis has provided audiences with comical and adventurous performances throughout his storied career. Battling it out on television opposite Cybill Shepherd in Moonlighting, Willis moved into more film projects after his stunning portrayal of rugged police officer John McClane in Die Hard. Since then, he has traversed critically acclaimed dramas and headlined blockbuster movies to become one of the most sought-after actors of his generation. His recent health issues have sidelined the actor to an early retirement, but his legacy in film will live on. One of his epic adventures, The Fifth Element, is a movie worth looking back on, as fans appreciate the work that Bruce Willis has brought to the screen.

Debuting in theaters in 1997, The Fifth Element starred Bruce Willis as Korben Dallas, a cab driver who finds himself at the center of a conspiracy to locate a legendary cosmic weapon. The science fiction movie is set in a vibrant and picturesque future, where Willis’ character must join forces with his taxi passenger Leeloo (Milla Jovovich). The pair are hellbent on doing what they can to collect all four mystical stones to defend Earth from an attack by a hostile cosmic entity. Rounding out the ensemble cast of The Fifth Element is Gary Oldman as Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, Ian Holm as Vito Cornelius, Luke Perry as Billy Masterson, and a young Chris Tucker as Ruby Rhod.

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Bruce Willis and Milla Jovovich in The Fifth Element (1997)

When The Fifth Element was released, it was a financial success, but it was perceived as a mild return for a Bruce Willis flick of that era. The movie went on to gross over $263 million against a budget of $90 million, despite the international appeal of having French writer and director Luc Besson at the helm. Besson had found acclaim with two of his previous films, La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional, and hoped his foray into the science fiction genre would be as fruitful of an endeavor. On the other hand, Willis had just come off the successful run of Die Hard with a Vengeance, which had the same budget as The Fifth Element, but ultimately grossed about $100 million more, according to Box Office Mojo.

The lack of critical acclaim at the time for The Fifth Element was also a bit of a setback for Bruce Willis. He was put through the wringer with his early 1990s work in The Bonfire of the Vanities and Hudson Hawk. When he starred in 1995’s 12 Monkeys, Willis rebounded a bit and was looking for another movie to fit the science fiction angle. While Willis himself escaped some of the bad press that can often come with a film like The Fifth Element, his co-stars Milla Jovovich and Chris Tucker both earned Razzie Award nominations for their work on the film. However, time seems to be kind to the movie, as Rotten Tomatoes currently ranks The Fifth Element a 71% on its Tomatometer, based on 68 critics’ reviews, as well as an Audience Score of 86% from over 250,000 ratings. Similarly, Metacritic ranks the film with a Metascore of 52, which shows that some critics felt The Fifth Element deserved mixed reviews. However, the same site reflects a User Score of 8.7, which typically denotes universal acclaim from users.

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Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element (1997)

Since The Fifth Element debuted, Bruce Willis has gone on to star in big-budgeted pictures like Armageddon with Ben Affleck and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense. In recent years, the Pulp Fiction star has made appearances in films by Wes Anderson and joined The Expendables franchise alongside friend Sylvester Stallone. However, much of his momentum onscreen has seen a downturn due to recent health issues that have prevented Willis from continuing his acting career. CNN reported earlier this year that Bruce Willis has aphasia, which affects his brain’s cognitive abilities to understand or express speech. Even though it appears that Willis may not be stepping in front of the camera anymore, audiences are lucky to have his films and television shows to continue his legacy of fantastic performances. At the time of this writing, The Fifth Element is available to stream on Tubi and can be rented or purchased on Prime Video.