Kurt Russell has done a lot of things well: He’s made us laugh and cry. He’s made us feel terrified and made us want to pump our fists in triumph. He’s made us understand the allure of manliness and also how ridiculous it can be – and yes, sometimes he’s even made us wince.
But maybe more than anything else, he’s shown us the possibilities that are available when an actor consciously decides not to be complacent. Refusing to be typecast, Russell has instead seemed to insist that every role he takes is as different as possible from the last one. And it’s not just that he’s appeared in movies in every conceivable genre. He also has the endearing habit of choosing films that mix genres, smash them, and make us question why we’re so eager to apply the genre label in the first place.
Unfortunately, despite all the extraordinary roles he’s played and wonderful movies he’s appeared in, Russell has never been nominated for an Academy Award. In order to start to rectify this tragic oversight, here’s a celebration of 20 of Russel’s biggest, baddest and zaniest films, stretching from comedic to serious, from madcap to high quality, and from simply weird absolutely genre-busting.
It’s not a ranked list, because who can choose? Instead, it’s a list of the kinds of awards Russell and his films should have been given over the years, an attempt to honor the man and his work.
The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1970)
Best Movie in Which Russell Plays a Man With Godlike Computer Powers
Russell was a child actor, appearing in everything from Gilligan’s Island to The Fugitive to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He was so accomplished in those roles that when Walt Disney died in 1966, one of the most mysterious things left behind in his office was a piece of paper with “Kurt Russell” written on it. Soon after that, Disney Studios signed the 15-year-old Russell to a 10-year contract and made him a star. His first big hit was The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes in 1970, in which Russell plays a college kid who absorbs the mental abilities of a computer during a lightning storm, then uses them to win quiz shows and defeat notorious gambling rings. It’s weird, family-friendly, and fun because it predates The Matrix – another film about human superpowers from a computer – by 30 years.
Used Cars (1980)
Best Cynical Car-Salesman Screwball Comedy Role
How does a young actor with a reputation for being a bland, wholesome Disney creation stake out some new ground in Hollywood? Russell did it with Used Cars, Robert Zemeckis‘ bawdy tale of Arizona car salesman named Rudy Russo with big dreams and no qualms about doing anything at all to achieve them. Featuring an insurance-scam murder, a dog faking its own death, strippers, circus animals, and the lively question of what actually constitutes a mile of automobiles, Used Cars presented audiences with a Kurt Russell they’d never seen before: conniving, low class, and willing to put his vaunted charisma in service of strictly amoral ends. While it didn’t do well at the box office, Used Cars has since gained in stature, becoming a cult favorite of many Russell fans.
Escape From New York (1981)
Best One-Eyed Character in a Dystopian Prison Break Film
In the first of his many collaborations with director John Carpenter, Russell plays Snake Plissken, a one-eyed ex-special forces officer turned criminal who has to rescue the president of the United States from the island of Manhattan, which has been turned into a single, giant prison. Sound bonkers? Wait until you get to the part where Plissken has to fight a deathmatch against a giant dude named “Slag,” or the part where the president kills the Duke of New York with a machine gun. Another giant leap in a new direction, Escape From New York found Russell moving away from comedy and fluff for the first time. Instead, he discovered the ability to play the most anti of anti-heroes, a man who doesn’t give a bleep about bleep.
The Thing (1982)
Best Movie In Which Kurt Russell Battles a Shape-Shifting Alien in the Antarctic
Finding that he had some chemistry with Carpenter, Russell agreed to appear in another film with him, resulting in a second off-kilter masterpiece. A remake of the 1951 sci-fi thriller The Thing From Another World, this one finds Russell playing a small-plane pilot named MacReady. He finds himself stuck in an Antarctic research station along with a bunch of scientists and mechanics, while an alien that can perfectly imitate any life form tries to kill them all. Is one of his friends the alien? Is MacReady himself the alien? By the end, it’s not so clear. The Thing is a classic of ’80s horror and proved once again that Russell – like the alien in the film – can effortlessly adapt to any environment and any role. Need him to be funny? He can certainly do that. Need him to figure out how to assassinate a sprawling alien monstrosity with some dynamite? He can do that, too.
Best Honest-to-God Straight-Ahead Drama
A biopic directed by the legendary Mike Nichols, Silkwood tells the story of the life, activism, and suspicious death of Karen Silkwood (played by Meryl Streep), a whistle-blower who revealed hazardous labor conditions at the plutonium production plant where she worked and was probably killed as a result. Nichols was a director who knew and loved good acting, and his choice of Russell to play Silkwood’s boyfriend Drew represents perhaps the first moment in Russell’s career when the dramatic side of his abilities was fully realized. Silkwood was nominated for five Oscars and five Golden Globes – including a Golden Globe nomination for Russell for Best Supporting Actor, his only major film nomination. It also served as a major stepping stone in the actor’s career.
The Mean Season (1985)
Best Part as an Amoral Reporter in a Slow Burn Serial Killer Movie
But has Russell ever been in a thriller about a serial killer, you ask? Of course, he has. The Mean Season finds Russell starring as a reporter who finds himself being drawn into the machinations of a lunatic nicknamed “The Numbers Killer” (played to the hilt by legendary character actor Richard Jordan). A meditation on fame, news-making, and journalistic ethics, the story centers on what happens when a killer gets jealous because of all the attention lavished on the reporter breaking the story, instead of on the killer himself. The Mean Season again finds Russell moving into a completely new genre – the thriller – and shows how easily he can transform his everyman charisma into a cover for broken-down, underhanded desperation.
Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Best Absurdist Kung Fu Comedy Spectacle
In another collaboration with John Carpenter, Russell explored yet another genre-bending story. Here, he plays Jack Burton, a truck driver and kind-of badass, who gets pulled into an attempt by an evil ancient Chinese sorcerer to regain his mojo by kidnapping a pair of green-eyed women. Does it feature a Kung Fu war in San Francisco’s Chinatown? Check. Hairy orange monsters? Check. Magicians who shoot laser beams from their eyes? Check. A six-demon bag? Check. An appearance by Al Leong, one of the greatest portrayers of henchmen ever to live? Check. The utterance of one of Russell’s greatest lines of all time? Absolutely: “When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, looks you crooked in the eye, and asks you if you paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol’ Jack Burton always says at a time like that: ‘Have you paid your dues, Jack? Yes sir, the check is in the mail.‘” Who could ask for anything more?
Best Performance as a Single Dad / Surly Carpenter in a Romantic Comedy
It is absolutely not true that real-life couples have great on-screen chemistry, otherwise, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and Gigli would have been a lot better. But the chemistry between Russell and longtime life-partner Goldie Hawn is one of the things that makes Overboard such a lovable romantic comedy. She’s an ultra-wealthy society woman named Joanna; he’s a broke carpenter named Dean who she cheated out of some pay. When she suffers a concussion and her husband abandons her in the hospital so he can party with younger women, Dean manages to convince her that she’s his wife, in order to get some payback for his lost money. Hijinks ensue, Russell is at his most scruffy and lovable, and they end up falling for each other in the end. Nothing but pure, comedic entertainment.
Tango and Cash (1989)
Best Sylvester Stallone Team-Up / Lethal Weapon Knock-Off in Which the Two Male Leads Do a Naked Shower Scene Together
Looking for something ridiculous? Over the top? Cringe-worthy? But still quotable and kind of a lot of fun? Look no further than Tango and Cash. A brazen attempt to jump on the ’80s buddy-cop bandwagon, it directly anticipates contemporary fare like the Fast & Furious franchise in ignoring all pretense at plot coherence, creating villains and deadly traps that are simply too deadly ever to be escaped … until they are, and employing dialogue that’s either intentionally or unintentionally funny, who knows? Russell and Stallone play cops who hate each other until they’re forced to be buddies. The shower scene is hot, Jack Palance slow-whispers his way into the cheesy bad guy Hall of Fame, and the LAPD apparently has a super high-tech assault vehicle that they loan out to renegade cops. Who knew?
Best Movie in Which Kurt Russell Battles Fire
OK, Russell has blown up aliens and defeated serial killers, fought with magical kung fu practitioners and helped reveal corporate malfeasance, but has he ever gone to war with the elemental forces of nature? Hell yes, he has. “It breathes, it eats, and it hates,” says Robert De Niro‘s character Donald “Shadow” Rimgale in director Ron Howard‘s action/family drama/mystery extravaganza. Since Rimgale is talking about fire itself, which is the movie’s main antagonist, it makes sense that the protagonists of the film – including Russell’s character Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey – are firefighters. The plot may or may not be sappy, and in reality, fire may not have the anthropomorphic qualities the movie wants it to, but that’s not the point. Instead, it’s that Russell and the rest engage in some great action sequences and that by 1991, he was graduating to a new kind of role: an older brother who was well-seasoned by life, and ready to whip your ass with a little hard-won wisdom if you deserve it. It’s the kind of character that serves Russell well, and the kind he’d get a lot out of over the coming years.
Best Western (Not the Hotel Chain)
This movie will be your huckleberry, indeed. In the entirety of Kurt Russell’s career, there may be no movie with more quotable lines or more appearances on weekend cable television programming. Russell plays Wyatt Earp, Val Kilmer plays Doc Holliday, and the rest of the cast is wonderful, as well. Everyone has a mustache, and there are gunfights, and then more gunfights, and then a dramatic performance by a thespian and a scene in which Kilmer plays Chopin on the piano, and then some more gunfights. This is Russell at his steely-eyed mid-career best. When a man tries to threaten him by opening his jacket to reveal a pistol in his belt, Russell grabs it and clobbers the man over his head. When he gets tired of hiding behind a log while a bunch of cowardly henchmen shoots at him, he just walks out into the open and mows them down with his pistol. Do you want all that Russell badass charm stuffed into one of the best modern westerns? You got it.
Best Sci-Fi / Sword and Sandals Mashup Flick
In a different world, there are lots of sci-fi movies about a portal that transports you across the universe to a desert planet populated by ancient Egyptians who worship a god that is really an alien which feeds on the energy of human beings to extend its own life. But in our world, there’s only one. (Well, there’s also a TV series spinoff universe.) Russell plays a tough Special-Ops commander who accompanies the wimpy scientists as they journey through the portal and then helps them and the ancient Egyptians kill the alien god. It’s the kind of role he would soon perfect: a long way from the rebels and outcasts he often portrayed at the beginning of his career, Russell was now showing that he could embody the inflexible force of authority as well.
Best Movie In Which Kurt Russell’s Wife Gets Kidnapped on the Interstate
Throughout his career, Russell has had a knack for showing up in films that you forget he made but which turn out to be really entertaining on re-watch. Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown is one of these. Returning to his everyman roots, Russell plays a regular guy named Jeff driving across the country with his wife. When their car breaks down and she disappears without a trace, he finds himself locked in a life or death struggle with a menacing fellow (one of those terrifying guys who apparently just drive around the U.S. interstate system looking for ordinary people to prey on) who wants the entire contents of Jeff’s bank account in exchange for his wife. Fast-paced and suspenseful, Breakdown shows Russell at his most vulnerable: he’s not an expert at shooting people or beating them up, just a guy who has to figure out how the hell he’s going to rescue the love of his life.
Dark Blue (2002)
Best Neo-Noir / Bad Cop / L.A. Riots Movie
Provocatively set during the L.A. riots of 1992, Dark Blue features Russell as a completely corrupt cop named Eldon Perry. He’s willing to do anything to further his brand of justice, including breaking the law himself. The movie counterpoints this behavior against the city’s reaction to the Rodney King verdict, in order to raise questions about the nature of policing in America. There is no charm in Russell’s character, none of the impish playfulness that he often brings to his darker portrayals. This is, instead, an unscrupulous man slowly forced to come to terms with his own nature.
Best Movie That Plays on Russell’s Own Background
We have, until this point, neglected to mention that Russell was a talented athlete – he played professional baseball at the Double-A level – who came from a family of them: his father was also a pro ballplayer, and his nephew is Matt Franco, who played for the Chicago Cubs, New York Mets and Atlanta Braves. With this background, it makes sense that Russell should have been cast in some sports movies, and maybe the best of these is Miracle, which tells the story of the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team. Russell plays coach Herb Brooks as both inspirational and a hard taskmaster. It’s yet another new kind of role for him, one in which Russell has to use his cleverness and charisma to inspire other men on to their heroic deeds.
Sky High (2005)
Best Dad Role in Which the Dad Is Also the Strongest Man in the World
By the early part of this century, Russell was old enough and familiar to younger audiences to start being cast as a dad. Sky High signals a return to the kind of things he’d been making for Disney 30 years before, except that now he’s not the teenage star but a legend lending his talents to a mostly younger cast. The film’s a high school superhero coming-of-age tale about a boy trying to live up to his father’s exploits. Russell plays the father – Steve Stronghold, aka the Commander – and gives the kind of performance you’d expect from him at this point: funny, larger than life and supremely aware of the joys he can bring to his youthful audience.
Death Proof (2007)
Best Stuntman Killer in a Female-Driven Revenge-sploitation Flick
So, basically, what we’ve been telling you is that Russell got all soft and touchy-feely at the end of his career, right? Wrong. Take a look at Quentin Tarantino‘s Death Proof if you have any doubts. There’s this guy, see, and he’s a maniacal killer named Mike McKay who used to be a stunt driver in Hollywood, but now he just drives around in a ’69 Dodge Charger killing young women … except that this time he’s run into some women who might be more than a match for him. Russell plays stone-cold psychotic: His McKay is a bad guy who gets kicked out of killing and rigs his cars so that no matter how bad the crashes are, he can’t get killed. As pulpy as anything he ever did with John Carpenter, but with Tarantino’s I’m-so-cool-it-hurts-me-sometimes touch, it’s a reminder that even in his late 50s, Russell could still bring as much menace to his roles as anyone needs.
Furious 7 (2015)
Best ‘Oh, Yeah, He Can Do a Cameo With the Best of Them’ Moment
Somewhere in the tangled jungle of the Fast & Furious franchise, they seem to have decided that throwing in a few more characters couldn’t possibly overstuff the movies, as it’s impossible to overstuff something that’s already overstuffed. Russell joins Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Jordana Brewster, Djimon Hounsou, Jason Statham, Tony Jaa, Ronda Rousey, Elsa Pataky and a few more in a flick that’s impossible to describe other than by saying that cars can do magic if you drive them just right and family is important. Named “Mr. Nobody,” Russell’s character is a government agent who wants one of those gadgets that are always popping up in these kinds of movies, so that he can do some mysterious and vital stuff, none of your business. It’s loud, spectacular, lots of fun – if this is your kind of thing. Every one of these movies, with their quick-witted, hang-loose, tough-guy characters, is based on a template created in part by Kurt Russell himself. So, who else but the master should step onto a stage and take a bow? (His character returned in The Fate of the Furious (2017) and again in F9 (2021), and there’s no indication that he’ll stop appearing any time soon.)
Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Best Sheriff in a Gonzo Cannibal Western Flick AKA What the Hell is This Movie?
As should be clear, the last few years have frequently seen Russell return to the gonzo glory days of his early roles. The plot of Bone Tomahawk involves Russell’s good ol’ boy Western Sheriff, Franklin Hurt, discovering that a tribe of stone-age cannibal savages lives near his town. Much to his dismay, they capture him and nearly eat him before he is able to escape and kill them all. The proper adjectives to describe this film are hard to come by. It is ambitious, gleefully and radically violent, funny in spots, and in some sense seems desirous of punishing the viewer. Is it good or bad? Nobody knows. But without a doubt, it proves that the hell-raiser in Kurt Russell remains undaunted by the years. Something new and bonkers? Sign him up.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Best Appearance as a Narrator Telling a Grand Hollywood Story
There’s something fitting about ending this list with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist story in which the Manson Family gets what they deserve. Set in 1969, it’s a fairytale about an actor grinding away in the not-always glamorous Hollywood life who manages to save Sharon Tate from being killed and in doing so sees a rejuvenation of his own dreams of fame. Russell only has a small part – the stunt coordinator on the TV show The Green Hornet – but he also narrates the film. The role sums up a lot about who he’s been and why we love him. He’s never been the biggest star in the land, but he has a familiar, comforting presence that by this point seems to infuse a great deal of Tinseltown itself. And, just like a stunt coordinator, he can still be found where the action is, letting it all hang out and having a hell of a time doing it.
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