Make the Case lists choices chronologically, rather than in any order of quality. Picks reflect film acting roles only. If the actor in question also directed the movie, that’s purely a coincidence, and it plays no part in the film’s inclusion.
As you consider this list of the five best Kurt Russell movies, consider this: Kurt Russell might be the most successful child actor of all time. At least, if longevity counts for anything.
Beginning with an uncredited role in the 1963 Elvis Presley film It Happened at the World’s Fair, Russell has been working steadily as an actor for over fifty years. He made the transition from teen star to an adult actor with a surprising range. Ultimately, most of Russell’s best roles involve playing flawed, determined men. This was true in the 80s, when he became a successful leading man in action or drama. It is certainly true now, with Russell giving outstanding recent performances in movies like The Hateful Eight, Bone Tomahawk, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, playing characters along those lines.
One of the most interesting things about Kurt Russell is the fact that his confidence and heart-on-the-sleeve humanity give him a number of useful tools as an actor. He was as credible as Snake Plissken in Escape from New York (1981) as he was playing Drew Stephens in Silkwood (1983). We tend to associate Russell most keenly with working class guys who are smarter than their demeanor and clothes might suggest. At the same time, Russell’s intensity and seemingly boundless energy have allowed him to also succeed at portraying cruel intellectuals, walking victims of toxic masculinity, and mentors with a dogged sense of principle and dignity.
Many of the best Kurt Russell films involve John Carpenter as a director. To be sure, it was very difficult to make a list which didn’t more or less consist of the whole of that largely wonderful collaboration. However, looking beyond the work Russell has famously done with Carpenter, giving us iconic antiheroes and powerful horror film protagonists from one movie to the next, there are a number of great film roles to consider. Russell has appeared in more than a few shitty movies. Those are impossible to ignore, but by and large, his half-century career has been a fascinating one for anyone who has kept up.
At 66 years of age, Russell might just be entering the next, and perhaps most interesting, phase of his career. The performances since his return from semi-retirement have been largely brilliant thus far. They remind us of an actor who has been hitting that mark more often than not for longer than most of the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 have been alive. Whatever he does next, it’s going to be worth our attention.
And maybe one of these days, we’ll find out why Walt Disney wrote his name on a little piece of paper, moments before he died.
1. Used Cars (1980)
Supposedly, Russell wanted to shed the clean-cut Disney kid image he had built up as a child and teen actor. An early effort from Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, Used Cars was a good step in the direction Russell wanted to take his career in. It’s too bad, then, that the film wasn’t popular with audiences or critics in its time. Eventually, like many of Kurt Russell’s best movies, Used Cars became something of a cult hit.
It’s not the deepest story, but it has lost very little of its dark, cynical humor through the years. Used Cars features a delightfully sleazy Russell pulling out all the stops to save the used car lot where he exists as something of a local legend. The movie is hilarious because the people in this film will stop at nothing to accomplish things, Russell’s Rudy Russo most of all. The movie is dark because behind the increasingly cartoon stakes, Gale and Zemeckis paint a pretty unhappy, realistic depiction of humanity.
The movie gets very silly very quickly, but Russell’s likable scoundrel keeps things oddly grounded. It doesn’t hurt that the film also features great supporting performances from names like Joe Flaherty and Jack Warden.
2. Escape From New York (1981)
In 1979, John Carpenter and Kurt Russell collaborated for the first time on a TV biopic of Elvis Presley. The film is a little hard to find, but it’s highly recommended for both Russell’s performance as Elvis, and for Carpenter’s direction. It started a partnership between the two that would give us four additional films. Three of them are very, very good. Is 1981’s Escape From New York the best of the bunch?
Some would say so. I don’t know if I would go that far. Still, there is no question that through Carpenter, Russell had a director who could help him to do darker, more interesting things as an actor. The heart and soul of their collaboration began here. The end result is an enormously satisfying, suspenseful action-thriller, pitting Russell’s iconic tough-guy Snake Plissken against the entire island of Manhattan, which has been transformed into a prison wasteland, in a timed mission to rescue the President. Escape From New York has a dream cast with Russell, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef, Ernest Borgnine, and several others. Snake is the centerpiece, and Russell creates an appealing, ageless anti-hero through a script by Carpenter and Nick Castle.
The inevitable remake will fail to capture the atmosphere, offbeat humor, and distinctive, if not a little shallow, characterizations. The remake will also fail to recreate the magic Russell brought to one of the most influential reluctant good guys of late 20th century fiction.
3. Tombstone (1993)
From the early 1980s, to roundabout the year in which Tombstone was released, Russell moved back and forth between critical acclaim/box office success, and films that would have sunk a lesser career. Overboard, Tequila Sunrise, Tango and Cash, and Backdraft were all significant hits for Russell, although the quality of the films themselves vary. Carpenter collaborations The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China would have to wait a while to find their audiences.
The less said about 1992’s Captain Ron, which can only be appreciated by a very special breed of weirdo (like me), the better.
Then there is something like Tombstone, which was a massive financial hit for everyone concerned. It also gave Russell the opportunity to work with the other aspects of the film, although he wouldn’t receive credit for these things until years later. All of that aside, and forgetting for a moment the grand performances from actors like Sam Elliot, Val Kilmer, Dana Delany, or the recently-departed Powers Boothe, Tombstone features a performance of Wyatt Earp from Russell that stands with anything we ever saw from established genre icons like John Wayne.
Historical inaccuracies aside, Tombstone depicts a romantic vision, nonetheless dangerous vision of the west that you will likely enjoy, even if you aren’t a big fan of westerns to begin with. Tombstone found an audience with a lot of people along those lines. A lot of that can be attributed to Russell’s stern Earp, which provides an essential contrast to the unpredictable, unforgettable Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.
4. Miracle (2004)
The 90’s beyond Tombstone were not great for Kurt Russell as a whole. Hits became infrequent, and the misses were often a disheartening waste of his talents and presence. Not even a sequel to Escape from New York could shake Russell’s career doldrums.
Things didn’t get much better in the first decade of the 2000s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to that rule. Vanilla Sky is a good example. Even a shaky, problematic police brutality movie called Dark Blue at least provided an indication that Russell could remain a compelling actor through middle age and beyond. Of all the work he did the 2000s, leading up to more or less disappearing from the landscape from 2007 to 2013, Miracle might just be the best. It’s an easy story for winning over audiences, depicting the U.S. men’s hockey team’s stunning upset over the more favored Soviet team in the 1980 Winter Olympics. It is still seen as something of a patriotic fever dream, or something that people who didn’t watch hockey before or after that game still talk about.
However, Miracle is also a well-made film. Even with a foregone conclusion to reveal, and even with people who err on the side of cynicism with anything that feels like an America-the-beautiful circlejerk, the movie is still incredibly likable. It’s like Rocky IV, except without Sylvester Stallone, and it actually happened. It’s an inspirational story that inspires with ease.
Kurt Russell as coach Herb Brooks gives the film two things. First, it gives us one of the best performances of his career. Secondly, Miracle gives us not only an audience surrogate in Russell’s determined Brooks, but also a character who very clearly has hopes, dreams, fears, fallacies, and everything else you might want to see an actor reveal through their work. Had Russell actually retired after this, even skipping out on his fantastic, terrifying Stuntman Mike in the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez collaboration Grindhouse, this wouldn’t have been the worst way to bow out. It is a career high for Russell on every level.
5. Bone Tomahawk (2015)
Russell has kept fairly busy since ending his long break with a starring role in the perfectly serviceable Art of the Steal. He’s logged pleasing appearances in franchise giants like Fast and the Furious and Guardians of the Galaxy. He also contributed one of the best elements to Quentin Tarantino’s polarizing, largely brilliant The Hateful Eight. He’s even popped up to be a lot more interesting than Mark Wahlberg in Deepwater Horizon.
Bone Tomahawk is a weird entry in the films Kurt Russell has done from 2013 to now. In fact, you can make a pretty strong argument that Bone Tomahawk is a pretty weird movie period. It is exactly the kind of offbeat blend of genres that Russell sought out in his 20s several decades ago. The fact that he is clearly still looking for roles that are against the grain of what people expect from his is encouraging, especially with an older actor who has very little to prove to us at this juncture.
Bone Tomahawk proves he still has a great deal to offer. A strange blend of horror and the western genre, the film forces Russell into one of the most complex, haunting characters of his career. Sheriff Franklin Hunt in Bone Tomahawk is a wounded, weary figure of the law. He is tired. He is ill-equipped for the tasks of this film’s narrative. He pays dearly for this, only to find an opportunity at redemption later on. It sounds like I’m laying out the whole thing for you. Don’t worry, I’m not. Russell’s performance is laden with surprises, beyond simply offering a logical extension of the flawed heroes he played in the 80s and 90s.