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.
9. Bone Tomahawk
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.
8. The Deadly Tower
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.
7. The Hateful Eight
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.
6. Escape from New York
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.
4. Big Trouble in Little China
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.
3. Dark Blue
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.
2. The Thing
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.
1. Death Proof
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.