Written by: Jimmy Hitt, CC2K Staff Writer
I was thinking about Grindhouse recently — featuring Mr. Russell in a starring role — and it occurred to me that the man, the myth, the legend, Kurt Russell himself, has been in some of my favorite movies … ever. In the interest of exploring this awesome icon of brawn and bravado, I would like to take a moment to reflect on his greatest work*.
10. Soldier – Todd
Maybe I’m crazy, or maybe I’m on to something here, but this role struck me as an allegorical representation of the action hero itself. Kurt Russell, ever the action film stalwart, plays an aging super soldier named Todd (awful name), replaced by even more super soldiers—namely, guys on steroids and the dude from The Jungle Book. After his replacement and failure, Todd finds himself on the Island of Lost Toys, so to speak, where he must harness his chi and fight the same soldiers who once ousted him. If not for his superhero experience, Todd would surely fail once again against such insurmountable odds, but with the help of Gary Busey and some other bizarre shit, he saves the day and proves once again that if you have a gravelly voice and a sweet scowl, you don’t need big muscles or flashy jumpsuits.
9. Escape from New York/LA – Snake Plissken
If ever there was a movie or franchise that set Kurt Russell up to star in Grindhouse, it was these two. As Snake Plissken, Russell plays sort of a hybrid of his characters from Captain Ron & Tombstone, i.e. a hardass as usual, but one with plenty of humor to pass around.
Make no mistake; these are the definition of B movies. But Russell’s work here, much like a Bruce Campbell, raises the bar of what can work in the slophouse genre. His efforts turn what could easily have been shitty throwaways into cult classics, the likes of which directors and writers have been ripping off for 20+ years. Don’t believe me, take a look at Escape from New York then watch virtually any action movie released in the last ten years.
8. Dark Blue – Eldon Perry
This is the other awesome James Ellroy movie, with Russell in the Bud White-esque role first knocked out of the park by Russell Crowe. This time around the corrupt as hell cop part takes place just prior to and during the famous 1992 LA riots. Russell, in the veteran cop-on-the-brink role, takes rookie Scott Speedman under his wing a la Training Day, but begins to question his tactics over the course of the film. Once again, Russell turns in a multi-faceted performance, at times acting hardcore and later appearing vulnerable.
The movie itself was actually disowned by Ellroy, but he’s a notoriously fickle collaborator. I see the movie as resting comfortably between being perfect and being crap. Training Day it ain’t, but it has some great action/dialogue scenes and is worth checking out if for no other reason than to see Kurt Russell tear it up for an hour and a half.
7. Backdraft – Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey
Keeping in mind that this is a Ron Howard film, Russell still performs admirably as Bull, the older, wiser, crazier brother to Billy Baldwin’s standard douche**. He’s the firehouse badass in the most badass firehouse, which makes him some kind of super firefighter…with a temper…and a drinking problem. He eschews oxygen tanks in favor of old school, balls-to-the-wall techniques that prove both foolish and heroic AND he listens to Iron Butterfly songs on 8-track. In the end, we find out of course that Billy Baldwin has a set of testes after all, that Scott Glenn is the real killer, and that Bull is impervious to flames but not to 30 foot falls amidst exploding chemicals. As he says to his brother at the end, “The fire never got me,” which is less a pompous set of last words and more of an indication that Bull isn’t like his father…nevermind. Just watch the movie.
6. Breakdown – Jeffrey 'Jeff' Taylor
By now most people have seen this film, but might I remind everyone that upon its release, Breakdown disappeared from theaters in a fortnight. There’s a reason the film has stuck around, and it has little to do with the plot—traveling married couple gets f-ed over by local thieves/con artists. Yes, as you might have guessed, Kurt Russell makes this movie. As Jeff Taylor, Russell carves out the suburban yuppie better than most, especially in a pair of khakis and a button down. He’s believably distressed when the con artists kidnap his wife, but unlike most sad sacks from the suburbs, he actually decides to do something about the situation.
So, if he starts things off with his acting aplomb, he surely finishes things with his action proficiency. Breakdown is many things: thriller, drama, mystery. No matter what direction the film turns, the audience knows that Kurt Russell is an actor we can place our bets on, the kind of guy who might choke someone to death in one scene, or appear vulnerable in the next. Here he’s the everyman stuck in an intractable situation, so we root for him and are amazed at what he accomplishes.
5. Stargate – Col. Jonathan 'Jack' O'Neil
Venturing into massive geek territory—with James Spader providing that angle explicitly—Russell was the ultimate hardass charged with performing the ultimate feat of hardasserie, i.e. to destroy oneself for the good of mankind. Add in the death of his son prior to the principle storyline, and Russell’s work became a complex and altogether thrilling sci fi character study for the ages. I especially love the scene where he’s smoking a cigarette and he gives one to the Egyptian kid, who proceeds to cough and stomp it out like it’s the devil.
I’m not saying that Bruce Willis couldn’t have played the same role, but for a film like this—that asks a lot of its audience anyway—Kurt Russell provided necessary pathos while delivering the goods, ass-kicking-wise. Let it be noted, as well, that the film sparked a massively successful spin-off series with a major cult following. I can only assume that most of that success can be attributed to Stargate’s sweet sci fi meets history storyline, but success is still success.
4. Captain Ron – Captain Ron
Where to start with Captain Ron? This is easily one of the lost comedic gems of the 90’s, requiring Russell to flex his acting muscles while still maintaining a hint of his tough guy facade. I mean, Captain Ron is probably the worst captain of all time, like Jack Sparrow, but drunker and dumber. Yet he manages to navigate the good ship Captain Ron while simultaneously keeping the altogether shitty storyline intact. His alcoholism, missing eye, misogyny, and amiable Caribbean mumbo jumbo popped on screen every single time it seemed that Martin Short would sink the film completely.
But he didn’t just waltz on screen in a Jimmy Buffett outfit and read his lines. Russell inhabited Captain Ron, forsaking whatever action cred he might have already held, and the results are goddamned magic. Favorite line(s):
Captain Ron [telling how he lost his eye] Yeah, it happened when I went down off the coast of Australia.
Katherine: Your boat sank?
Captain Ron: No, no, no, no. Not my boat. My boss's boat. Yeah, we hit this reef. Huge son-of-a-bitch. Ran the whole coast.
Katherine: Wait. The Great Barrier Reef?
Captain Ron: You've heard of it, huh? Smart lady.
3. Miracle – Herb Brooks
As a massive hockey fan, I always had heard stories growing up about Herb Brooks and his legendarily awful practice sessions, especially when he skated his team half to death after a lackluster outing against Norway. So when the prospect of a Miracle on Ice-themed movie came along, I was first in line. Russell did not disappoint. In fact, he scared the shit out of me and reminded me of all my most miserable, son-of-a-bitch coaches. You know, the ones who think a drill isn’t over until someone pukes.
This was probably Russell’s best role in terms of what it required him to do as an actor, especially since, much like a coach can’t play in the games, the role of Herb Brooks didn’t give Russell any action scenes. It was just him, a kind of shitty wig, and the opportunity to verbally and physically abuse his players for an hour and a half. But would I have enjoyed the film quite as much if Russell’s character weren’t vindicated at the end through a very real victory? I guess we’ll never know. I still get teary eyed when Russell looks at the Soviet coach and exclaims, “He doesn’t know what to do!”
2. Tombstone – Wyatt Earp
Sure, Wyatt. I’ll bet you just want to deal cards in a town called fuckin’ Tombstone for chrissake. And I’ll bet you really love your dope addled wife and her pot shots at your new profession. That’s a damn sweet mustache, though.
The first 20 or so minutes of this nearly-perfect western are mere setup for the dozen action orgies that result. A lot of characters get iced here, and a lot prove their mettle, but as per usual, no one can fuck with Russell’s Wyatt Earp, who pistol whips dudes with their own guns, wades through bullet showers unscathed, seduces a traveling actress, and kills about 50 people in his spare time. The best part: he just wants to be left alone.
Tombstone came along at a time when Russell had already starred in some legit action-oriented movies and sort of half-proved that he could act, but definitely solidified his reputation as a top-notch tough guy. The film’s attempt at a sweeping epic failed, largely because epics don’t have 50 solid minutes of gunfights, but I still turn this one on when it’s playing on the movie channels, if not for any other reason than to see some old fashioned ass whoopin.
1. The Thing — R.J. MacReady
The Thing is perhaps the horror genre’s most perfectly realized flick. It combines elements of mystery, thriller, action, and creature effects with fantastic results. It’s a self-contained nightmare of suspicion, with the action all taking place in Antarctica. For those who haven’t had the privilege of witnessing this remarkable piece of filmmaking, I urge you to buy it immediately. That’s right. Buy it. It’s that damn good.
And the best part of the whole movie is Kurt Russell’s character, the aptly named RJ MacReady. Before the creature even appears, he’s suicidal, experiencing cabin fever, and drinking heavily. So when the title monster finally emerges, he’s both rolling with a death wish and enjoying himself at the same time.
See, the creature in question doesn’t really have a form to it, or a shape. It simply jumps from person to person or living thing to living thing. It can survive any manner of destruction and even inhabits its hosts without their knowledge. One weapon it tends not to enjoy, however, is fire, something our hero MacReady figures out pretty quickly. The greatest scene in the film, and one of the best scenes of all time, is when MacReady holds the entire cast hostage with a flamethrower and forces everyone to put their blood on a slide. He then pokes the slides with a flaming paperclip to see whose got The Thing inside of them already. It’s a classic take on the Mexican Standoff, and it established Kurt Russell as a premier action and thriller star unlike any other.
* Out of his movies I’ve seen, anyway. I’m sure I left something out, but there’s only ten spots in a top ten.
** Billy Baldwin bucks this stereotype in The Squid and the Whale. Rent it, own it, live it, love it, brotha!