BMD Picks: Our Favorite Kurt Russell Roles

Our generation's Duke Wayne celebrated a birthday this month, and the BMD crew looks back on their favorite moments from Russellmania.

Kurt Russell turned sixty-seven this month. If you've grown up with his movies, that idea seems crazy. Russell has long been an icon of American masculinity, combining an old school movie star charm with a commitment to craft that's unmatched. Look up any story about a filmmaker working with Russell, and you'll find tales of a consummate professional - from crafting idiosyncratic characters for John Carpenter, to playing his own corpse for Quentin Tarantino - he's always an artist known for going the extra mile to deliver a thrill for audiences the world over. 

To celebrate this icon's birthday, a few of the BMD gang got together to choose their favorite Russell roles. The results may suprise you... 

*****

Captain Ron [1992] (d. Thom Eberhardt, w. John Dwyer & Thom Eberhardt) 

There are many ways to measure the greatness of Kurt Russell. One of my favorites is to see how much he elevates whatever film he chooses to be in. Captain Ron offers a perfect example.

I don’t want to say Captain Ron would be worthless without Russell, but it certainly wouldn’t be as fun. What is otherwise a painfully typical early ‘90s comedy gets an undeniable shot of charisma every moment Russell’s Captain is onscreen. There are few things in this world as dependable as Kurt Russell in full-on goofball mode; he’s one of the best actors ever at playing surprisingly capable idiots. Captain Ron offers a concentrated dose of that magic. It’s silly, slight, and I could probably watch it on repeat if I had to, and that’s 100% because of Russell’s hilarious performance. - Evan Saathoff

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 [2017] (d. & w. James Gunn)

I hesitated to choose Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 as a pick of Kurt Russell's legacy and prowess, mostly because it's a pick so recent that it hasn't had much of an opportunity to age in appreciation as much as other entries on this list. However, Russell's turn as Ego the Living Planet deserves mention if only because it is so finely tuned into that notion of legacy that the character wouldn't have worked nearly so well without Russell in the role. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is about a lot of things, but the crux of Peter's and Ego's story is in the potency of surrogate father figures in the absence of a biological parent. Peter as a child immortalized his father by thinking of him as David Hasselhoff, but it's not hard to think of Kurt Russell occupying that same mental space for many a child of the eighties.

Particularly for young boys, Russell's career in the 1980s was emblemized by his badass roles in films like Escape From New York or The Thing, projecting a masculine ideal that felt relatable because he wasn't a musclebound superman like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone. He was awesome precisely because he could be your dad, so merely by showing up in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Russell was enacting wish fulfillment for a particular strain of eighties kid. But in that role, Russell masterfully interweaves his appeal as a badass father figure and god - which to a child of a certain age are virtually one and the same - with an underlying malice that cuts the legs out from under the fantasy. Russell subverts his star persona for the purpose of exposing how unhealthy clinging to that fantasy is, and the horrific shift from loving support to malicious sociopathy is a vicious whiplash no less potent for its calmness. James Gunn's ode to abused and neglected adult children would not have been the same without Kurt Russell filling this role of parental idolatry and reality. - Leigh Monson

Big Trouble In Little China [1986] (d. John Carpenter, w. Gary Goldman, David D. Weinstein & W.D. Richter)

I first saw Big Trouble in Little China when it came to HBO, and I remember watching the climactic action scenes all the time (I rarely managed to catch the film as it was starting; to this day the first half hour or so feels almost foreign to me compared to the rest). Being only seven years old, I didn't know who John Carpenter was yet, but I recognized Kurt Russell from a couple of other cable favorites (The Best of Times and Overboard come to mind), and thought it was funny when he got knocked out for a big part of the battle, but also "awesome" when he threw that knife into Lo Pan's forehead. To a kid, it was just a fun movie starring an actor I recognized, of no more significance than any of the other films I would watch at that age and either outgrew or forgot about entirely.

But as I got older and developed a greater appreciation of both Carpenter and Russell, I realized it was a truly special entry in the history of their collaborations - it's the one where they're having the most fun. Carpenter was clearly having a ball stepping outside of his comfort zone (and reunited - albeit for the last time - with Dean Cundey), delivering some of his best action set pieces and one of his most memorable scores (plus the Coupe de Villes theme song!). But the real key to the film's success is that he was able to rely on the trust Russell had in him as a partner. Because the greatest thing about the movie is that the "hero" Jack Burton is actually a sidekick who doesn't realize it. 

In the same year that his future co-star Sly Stallone was appearing as another of his indestructible one-man army heroes in Cobra, our man Kurt was fully committing to a role that had him idiotically knocking himself out, failing at nearly every plan he puts together, and even spending a chunk of the movie with lipstick smeared on his face, while his co-stars did pretty much all of the world-saving work. Naturally, this didn't register with me as a kid, but as an adult I realize how great it is that he was able to drop any sense of ego (heh, Ego) and happily play a role any of his peers would almost certainly demand be rewritten to look more competent and heroic. You think Sly or Harrison Ford would have taken such joy in playing Jack Burton, idiot sidekick? No, they'd ask him to be more of a normal hero, and the studio would have agreed, and the movie would be another generic action comedy from the '80s. 

That's why Kurt Russell is one of those actors you never hear any horror stories about - he's the consummate professional and puts the movie above any of his own needs (he even played his own corpse in Hateful Eight, rather than let a dummy fill in), caring not one iota that he might look a bit foolish if that's what the role calls for. He's also impossible to dislike (see Overboard for proof - the character is basically a sociopath, but as played by Kurt Russell it's almost endearing), so as a result, his characters are always memorable and distinct. That's why 30+ years later you're still bound to run into at least one Jack Burton at a Halloween party every year - not bad for a "bomb" movie. - Brian Collins

Overboard [1987] (w. Leslie Dixon, d. Garry Marshall)

The fun-loving chemistry between real-life couple Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn is the main reason this '80s wrong-com still manages to bring the laughs. Hawn is so over-the-top and flawless as the cruel and insufferable Joanna Stayton that it feels okay to laugh at the mean-spirited predicament she finds herself in. You love to hate the entitled heiress by the time she falls overboard, develops amnesia, and is picked up from the psychiatric ward by dreamy Dean Proffitt (Russell) - the "sweaty carpenter" with nefarious plans to employ her as his house slave as payback for remodeling services rendered on her yacht. Russell's incomparable charm allows him to get away unscathed with what is basically kidnapping and gaslighting this woman. Convincing her that she's his wife and the mother of his monstrous brood of unruly children should make her, and us, despise him. Yet, he remains a consummate gentleman until, well, until she inevitably falls for him. As you know, even a cold-hearted shrew like Joanna can't resist the magnetism of Kurt Russell, so she adjusts and finds love and happiness with him and her new family. 

Overboard is one of those comedies that you'd laugh without thinking twice about in the '80s, but now thinking about it too hard will only make you angry. Still, there are a lot of laughs to be had in this Garry Marshall joint. While Hawn gets all the best lines, Russell's more than just easy on the eyes. His comedic timing and delivery are as effortless as his smoldering good looks. And there's unquestionable talent behind those baby blues, because he somehow manages to make you like and root for a man who lies and tricks a woman for kicks. It may make you question your ethics, but I'll be damned if Overboard won't make you laugh. Goldie and Kurt are absolute comedic fire on screen together. - Emily Sears

Escape From New York [1981] (d. John Carpenter, w. Nick Castle & John Carpenter) 

“American, lieutenant, special forces unit Black Light. Two Purple Hearts: Leningrad and Siberia. Youngest man to be decorated by the President.”

Like you were getting out of this article without hearing about Snake Plissken. Come on now.

Plissken is the ultimate Russell role - a wily, gunslinging antihero from the Westerns Carpenter grew up adoring, wounded and betrayed by the government he'd put his trust and service into. As deadly as Snake's perceived to be ("I thought you were dead," so many say with dismay), he’s practically helpless thanks to the explosive devices injected into his neck. Russell creates the great American warrior, ruined and transformed into a black-hearted legend by the very societal systems he swore to protect at one point  Kurt's now-famous "Duke Wayne" act (accented here with a raspy hiss he injects into every line) is nothing more than just that: a smoke screen to scare the shit out of all he encounters. Because in his heart, Snake is just as scared and fighting for life as the rest of the denziens who inhabit the maximum security prison that's become the island of New York. Like a shark, constantly swimming for fear of death once it stops moving, Snake Plissken is simply moving forward at all times, needing to complete his mission, just so he can walk back into the darkness. With an icy, one-eyed stare, Kurt Russell created an icon of masculinity that never forgot to remind us that anyone can be touched if they let their guard down for just a second too long. - Jacob Knight

Comments