Dark Blue is the overlooked performance of Kurt Russsel’s career, and also the best. It’s also a film that brilliantly examines corruption, lies, brutality and abuse of power through a thoughtful narrative lens and via a powerfully moving story . So why then was it received with an unceremonious cold shoulder? Life is full of mysteries. I was too young to see it when it came out, or pay attention to the buzz surrounding it’s release, but I fell in love with it when I was older, and it remains one of my two favourite LA cop films, alongside Training Day. Kurt Russell throws himself headlong into one of the fiercest and most complex character arcs he has ever been in as Eldon Perry, an LAPD detective who comes from a long lineage of law enforcement. Eldon is a corrupt cop, but the important thing to realize about them is that they never consider themselves to be the bad guys which they are eventually labeled as. To him he’s on a righteous crusade, led by Captain Jack Van Meter (a purely evil Brendan Gleeson), a quest to clear the streets using any means necessary in his power. Eldon is blind to to the broken operative he has let himself become, questioned only by his wife (Lolita Davidvitch) and son, who are both thoroughly scared of him. The film takes place during the time of the Rodney King beating, with tensions on the rise following the acquittal of four LAPD officers. Ving Rhames is resilient as Holland, the one honcho in the department who isn’t rotten or on his way there, a knight for the force and a desperate loyalist trying to smoke out the corruption. Perry is assigned a rookie partner (Scott Speedman) and begins to show him the ropes, which include his patented brand of excessive force and intimidation. As crime ratchets up and a storm brews, Perry realizes that his blind trust in Van Meter and his agenda has been gravely misplaced, and could lead to his end. It’s a dream of an arc for any actor to take on, and Russell is seems is the perfect guy for the job. He fashions Perry into a reprehensible antihero whose actions have consequences, but not before a good long look in the mirror and the option to change the tides and find some redemption, before it’s far too late. It’s not so common anymore for crime films to cut through the fat of intrigue and action, reaching the gristle of human choices, morality and the grey areas that permeate every institution know to man, especially law enforcement. Working from a David Ayer screenplay based on a story by James Ellroy (hence the refreshing complexity), director Ron Shelton and everyone else onboard pull their weight heftily to bring this difficult, challenging, sure fire winner of a crime drama to life. Overlooked stuff.
Leading up to one of the year’s most anticipated films Marvel’s Guardian’s of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which by and large promises another great performance from Kurt Russell, let’s take a look back at the ten best performances from one of cinema’s last standing movie stars.
Author’s note: There are so many performances of his to choose from and after spending more time than I probably should have narrowed down the list, here’s what I came up with.
In Jonathan Mostow’s 1997 thriller, Russell finds himself in a familiar Hitchcockian trope, the everyman put in an extraordinary situation. He’s not a cowboy or a guy trained in special forces, he is simply a regular man who’s wife gets snatched by a truck driver and is completely on his own finding her.
The gruesome horror western hybrid was anchored by Russell in a seminal turn as a lawman of the old west. Sporting a tamer version of his glorious facial hair that was the hallmark to his character in The Hateful Eight, here Russell plays the very stoic and calculated Sheriff Franklin Hunt who embarks with a small posse on a suicide mission into the heart of darkness. Sure, we’ve seen a character like this on screen before but what makes this performance so unique is that the familiar genre character is pushed beyond his limits with facing the primal humanoid tribe that has kidnapped a townsman’s wife.
In Russell’s first major post-Disney role he took on the true story of Charles Whitman, who after killing his wife and mother buys a bounty of rifles and goes to the top of the tower at the University of Texas in Austin and begins to shoot random people. The film, but more importantly Russell’s performance, tackles the issue of mental illness decades before there was any emphasis put on treating it by our society.
In Russell’s second collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, he is featured as a dopey, under-educated hangman with outlandish facial hair and a larger than life personality. In the film, Russell purposefully does the best John Wayne impression that we have ever seen on screen, and gives us a character who we’re not quite sure if he is supposed to be likable or not. Regardless of the nobility of John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth, Russell is an absolute joy to watch as he hams his way through Tarantino’s colorful dialogue and twisty narrative.
The collaboration between filmmaker John Carpenter and Kurt Russell is one of the best actor/director pairings in cinema history. It ranks up there with John Ford and John Wayne, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro/Harvey Keitel, and any other pairing that you can think of. In 1981 the two of them made the greatest b movie ever with Escape from New York, a film that birthed one of our favorite antiheroes of all time, Snake Plissken. Kurt Russell smoothly navigates a post-apocalyptic New York City with his dry humor, gravely voice, and arctic camo pants. Truly a performance and character for the ages.
In the early 90s, there were two Wyatt Earp films in production. The smart money was on Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp starring Kevin Costner, Gene Hackman, and Dennis Quaid in a life spanning epic that underperformed at the box office. Parallel to that film, Tombstone quietly finished production with Kurt Russell in an uncredited role taking directorial duties over for original director George P. Cosmatos. In this film, Russell gives one of his staple performances as the retired lawman forced to pick up his six-shooter and gold star to stop Powers Boothe and his evil gang of red-sashed cowboys.
In 1986 Carpenter and Russell reunited for a film that was a critical and commercial bomb, but over time the picture has reached an unbelievable cult following that is constantly championed by its fans. Present day, the film is universally loved with an abundant amount of quotable dialogue. Here, Russell gives a charming yet intentionally clumsy performance as the “everyman” put in an unheard of situation. Donning an amazing mullet and driving his big rig, the Porkchop Express, Russell gives one of his most iconic performances in an already crowded filmography.
In 2002 director Ron Shelton, writer James Elroy and screenwriter David Ayer brought to the screen Kurt Russell’s most undervalued performance as a corrupt and racist cop navigating through his professional and personal life as it self-destructs while the entire country is waiting for a verdict on the Rodney King beating. Russell’s turn as Detective Eldon Perry is hands-down one of his best performances as he embodies a character who is cool on the outside but is being torn apart on the inside over his morality and emotional pain. Russell has never been one to make a political statement in the press or through his films, but Dark Blue tackles an important aspect of our society well before it was brought to national attention.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of the best science fiction films ever made. It’s isolation, iciness, and the impending doom of a score by Ennio Morricone lays an incredible foundation of terror. Russell is forced to deal with an extreme threat, a space monster that can shape-shift and remain unnoticed as it slowly picks off each member of the small research outpost in Antarctica. Russell adds a ton of dimension to the apathetic helicopter pilot who lives by himself up in his outpost drinking J&B and playing chess on his computer.
While Death Proof remains Quentin Tarantino’s “worst film” (and if this is your worst film, you’re doing pretty terrific as a filmmaker), there is still a lot to love and admire about it. Particularly Russell’s villainous turn as Stuntman Mike. In this film, Russell is as evil as it gets yet he plays on his career’s worth of cinematic charm and affability so we not only accept Stuntman Mike, but we can’t wait to see what he does next. This film marks Russell’s first pairing with Quentin Tarantino along with a career resurgence that reminded us that after all this time that Kurt Russell is a cinematic treasure.