In the age of tentpole blockbusters and massive studio franchises, we have plenty of capable leading men who can step in as larger than life characters who can fight off the bad guys and get the girl (or guy depending on the movie). But how often do you hear about a star having chameleon-like abilities to perform in any genre or how they can slip into a character that is hiding something behind their handsome face or their crazy physicality? It’s becoming a scarce talent, and most movies made today don’t require that kind of ability. But today we’re looking back on an actor that had not only the talent to perform in any role he wanted but did so regularly throughout his career.
Kurt Russell’s filmography is surprisingly diverse, and he helped bring to life some memorable characters that are talked about long after these movies debuted in theatres. Today we’re going back and looking at some of his most iconic performances going in chronological order.
9. Escape From New York – Snake Plissken (1981)
When we talk about “iconic” roles for Kurt Russell, Snake Plissken is his most revered character. In what would become a regular pairing, John Carpenter directs Escape From New York where ex-military and legendary outlaw Snake infiltrates New York (which has become a maximum-security prison) to recover the President of the United States and a tape that will keep an ongoing peace summit on track. Carpenter does a great job creating this post-apocalyptic version of New York, the entire movie is grimy and makes you contemplate what kind of world events led us to this hellish timeline. Plissken’s look as a character is also iconic, Russell shows up in the movie with a smirk, an eyepatch, and a badass leather coat. He owns the room just with his appearance, and he’s a force to be reckoned with in this universe. Escape’s pace is surprisingly methodical for an action movie, but Kurt also shines when he gets a chance to show his action star abilities. Escape From New York provides a glimpse of what Russell and Carpenter could accomplish together, and while it may seem a little mundane compared to huge studio pictures made now, it lives on as a cult favorite even today.
8. The Thing – MacReady (1982)
The Thing represents Carpenter and Russell’s most horror-centric team up, and it’s their greatest combined work. Despite being decades old, watching The Thing for the first time fills you with the dread and the uneasiness that the characters are going through. Carpenter does a masterful job of showing the isolation of the location and how paranoia and distrust are just as quickly destroying the researchers as the alien is. Add into this some truly gnarly makeup and creature design for The Thing and a capable cast and you’ve got a big winner. Russell is very low-key but he’s fantastic. He’s heroic, but he still carries himself like a man who’s trying to wrap his head around an impossible situation. He’s commanding, sympathetic, and with how bleak the movie gets, you’re genuinely worried about whether MacReady is going to make it. He also helps you feel the weight and the loss in the end when the dust settles. Russell helps solidify what turned out to be an underappreciated horror/sci-fi classic.
7. Big Trouble in Little China – Jack Burton (1986)
Of all his collaborations with John Carpenter, Big Trouble is the most surreal and definitely the weirdest. Considering how serious Carpenter’s work usually is, getting him to direct an outright comedy was an interesting choice. Little China is a trip; it moves at a quick enough clip to distract you from how downright ridiculous the plot gets. But it isn’t concerned with losing the audience, and while it does get a little dark in some moments, it never stops poking fun at the circumstances or how the movie is playing out. Russell is more than game for this kind of adventure, he hits all the right notes, and he isn’t afraid to parody his action hero status. Jack gets in the way more often than he makes the right move and Russell has chemistry to burn with Cattrall, Dun, and Wong. He doesn’t fit the description as a truck driver, but if you’re like me, I was having too much fun to have a small detail like that ruin it. Some of the material doesn’t age well, and Lo Pan comes off as unintentionally funny with such an over-the-top portrayal by Hong, but it’s a nice change of pace from the dour work Russell, and Carpenter usually do together, and it serves as another showcase for how versatile Kurt Russell is.
6. Overboard – Dean Proffitt (1987)
Switching things up from Russell’s more action-centric films, 1987’s Overboard sees him teaming up with Goldie Hawn (his real-life paramour) and future rom-com legend director Garry Marshall. A carpenter takes advantage of a wealthy socialite with amnesia and cons her into staying in his rundown home and raising his terrible kids. The plotting of the movie is more than slightly problematic when looking at it through a modern-day lens, whether Hawn’s character deserves some form of comeuppance for her actions or not, Pritchett’s treatment of her would make him a horror movie villain if this were made today. On top of this, Marshall’s direction is pretty workmanlike, the cinematography, pacing, and flow of the film are nothing to write home about. But if anything works in the film, Russell does a solid and fun job of portraying the man-child without venturing into what would be a Will Ferrell protagonist years later. He’s got the movie star looks and persona, but he can still pass for a working-class type, and his pretty believable chemistry with Hawn keeps the movie “afloat.” He’s funny when the film’s material isn’t weighing him down, and he helps keep you from checking out early. Both Russell and Hawn save Overboard from itself, and despite the dated handling of certain situations, it proves how having talented performers can carry otherwise forgettable material.
5. Backdraft – Stephen McCaffrey/Dennis McCaffrey (1991)
We have so many classic cop movies, but movies about firefighters don’t seem to get the same critical love or attention. Russell is technically in a supporting role here, but I would classify him as a co-lead in the movie Backdraft. The critical reception to Backdraft was positive, its mostly lauded for the action scenes. The explosions and the stunts with the fire held up exceptionally well for a movie that was produced almost 30 years ago. Billy Baldwin and Russell are at the center, and Russell has the bravado and energy to bring you in even when the content becomes a little cliché or a little too earnest. He’s the standout in the cast, and his intensity and commitment are evident (if you read up on the movie, he did a lot of practical training and slept in a firehouse to help get into character). He’s right in the thick of most of the action, but even in the quieter moments, he portrays Stephen as a man reliant on his own success, a man that can’t hide his guilty conscience, and he has a hard time keeping it together. The movie has a ton of talent in front of and behind the camera (Backdraft is directed by Ron Howard), and while the end product may not add up to the sum of its parts, it does have some impressive pieces, and Russell helps make it a successful film.
4. Tombstone – Wyatt Earp (1993)
Westerns are a romantic genre of film despite there not always being a strong romantic dynamic between our hero and some fair lady. It’s easy to get swept up and transported back into the old west if a movie can capture it accurately, and Tombstone is no exception. With a fantastic cast led by Russell, it’s a triumphant movie that balances some violent action with some pretty precious romantic scenes between Russell and Delaney. There’s an excellent effort in ramping up the tension and creating some deep conflict between the characters. Talking about the cast, this is the rare entry on this list where Russell is not the most outstanding performer. Val Kilmer steals this movie as the drunken, equally sick Doc Holliday, but Russell holds his own as the fabled lawman Wyatt Earp. He does excellent work with Elliot, Paxton, Boothe and even Billy Bob Thorton in a small role. He has the required demeanor to sell such a stoic and focused character, and you ride the highs and lows of Tombstone with Wyatt. Tombstone is a great modern-day Western, and if Kilmer is to be believed, Russell directed most of Tombstone from the shadows after original director Kevin Jarre was fired from the project.
3. Escape From L.A. – Snake Plissken (1996)
The public really dug Snake as a character, and apparently, so did Russell. He fought for years for the chance to return as the one-eyed mercenary, and finally, the sequel to Escape From New York went into production. John Carpenter returned to direct, and while there’s more than a couple of changes, we get a movie that feels very much like the original. Russell is listed as a co-writer for the production, but he also returns as Snake, and he’s just as serious and intense as he was in the previous movie. He fits this character, and he knows how to sell the mystery around the ex-military commando to the audience. It’s also fun to watch him bounce off of extreme characters like Buscemi’s Eddie or Fonda’s Pipeline. There are enough diversions from the first to justify another movie, but it still feels like a bit of a rehash. The villains are more charismatic and the action scenes are better filmed but it almost follows the same beats in the story and somehow the special effects look just as dated despite 15 years between movies. Russell may be the man to bring this character to life, but considering the diminishing returns, its probably for the best we only got a couple of adventures with Snake.
2. Death Proof – Stuntman Mike (2007)
Quentin Tarantino and Kurt Russell make for a natural pairing with Tarantino’s quirky dialogue and violent action. They teamed up for Tarantino’s half of the Grindhouse double feature, where Russell plays Stuntman Mike, a serial killer who uses his car as his weapon as it renders him “death proof.” Tarantino picked it as his worst film, and despite the cult following it has, he may have a point. Death Proof isn’t terrible, but it feels like Tarantino disappearing into his own world and having little regard for the audience. The dialogue is wildly over-written, with Death Proof taking place over a short period of time, we don’t get to know the characters enough to care, and the pacing is glacial slow. The best things the movie has going for it are the world it constructs, Tarantino specializes in building a world with great costuming, set dressing, cinematography, and even editing. But the cast is also well put together and again Russell is the standout as the villain. He’s cool but very menacing, Russell plays him as a man hiding his truly dark nature, and he’s very creepy from the moment he’s introduced. Russell also gets the turn the character goes through, and he becomes more repulsive and pathetic when the tables are turned on Mike. But it is a good pairing of director and star, and the two of them would be more successful in their second teaming up The Hateful Eight.
1. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – Ego (2017)
I’d be remiss if I didn’t include Russell’s turn as Ego in Marvel’s most underrated addition to their massive cinematic universe. If you need any further convincing that Kurt didn’t have the range to deliver the whole emotional payload, Vol. 2 should put those concerns to bed. In a gigantic series of blockbusters that lack memorable or sympathetic villains, Ego is a character that, through Russell’s performance, delivers some emotionality and real character growth for Chris Pratt’s likable rogue Peter Quill. Russell knows how to ride the wavelength these movies operate on, he’s charming, funny and real in any given moment and his character turn is devastating. He not only does it capably, but it also seems effortless to him, and he fits perfectly into whatever situation Gunn and his crew throw him into. What’s impressive is that while his character is so suitably sculpted by the creative team, he succeeds where so many others have not. There are so many Marvel movies featuring A-List antagonists, and they can’t help but be upstaged by their heroes. Russell is every bit up to the task acting against stars like Chris Pratt or up and comers like Pom Klementieff, yet he never takes over the film or tries to dominate the other players. Russell is a major contributor to Vol. 2 succeedings when it could have just been a retread, and it’s a later stage performance from him that holds up well against his previous work.