Kurt Russell, National Treasure

A special edition of The Big Streaming Pile revisits some of the underloved entries in the filmography of Phil's hero.

Is there any '80s genre actor we take more for granted than Kurt Russell? Sure, we all love him the way John Carpenter taught us to love him, but here’s a man who successfully transitioned from a career as a child actor and fresh-faced Disney protagonist to become one of the most versatile stars of his generation. While guys like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger created (and later lampooned) their larger-than-life screen personae, Russell avoided similar one-note characterization, and to show our gratitude we kind of let him slip away while Sly and Arnie get to enjoy their third or fourth or tenth comebacks. That's not to imply some hand-wringing over the injustice; Mr. Russell's probably okay with all of it. After all, a canny selection of roles at the outset of his adult career (seriously, find me a harder onscreen about-face than the one that goes from Used Cars to Escape From New York) meant Russell was a perfect fit for a wider variety of roles than many of his peers. Aside from maybe Mel Gibson, no one but Russell could hop as effortlessly from grizzled badass to relatable everyman to genuine goofball without ever feeling anything less than authentic.

Maybe his refusal to be pigeonholed is precisely what kept him from wearing out his welcome during the years his colleagues were wringing their brands dry to ironic effect. With no single iconic image to parody, no genre throne to reclaim, Kurt Russell busied himself bobbing and weaving through the '90s, performing feats such as playing Captain Ron and Wyatt Earp within 12 months of each other - alas, to the relative apathy of genre fandom. Russell’s CV-as-perpetual-motion-machine produced mixed results, yielding some misses (Backdraft, 3000 Miles To Graceland) as well as hits (Stargate and the scrappy Tombstone,* which was derided during production as an also-ran, but went on to critically and commercially best the higher-profile Wyatt Earp). By the time he got to the 2000s, Russell seemed to be hitting an unlucky streak, turning in solid work in films that just weren’t connecting (Vanilla Sky, Death Proof). He slowed down, so much so that his resurfacing in the recent indie crime flick The Art Of The Steal is cause to stop and reflect on the charms of one of the most undervalued stars of the last 40 years.

It should surprise no one that Russell’s varied filmography is well-represented on streaming, where sometimes the reward of an amazing performance is enough to justify sitting through a less-than-excellent film. In past installments I’ve covered Kurt Russell’s excellent work in the underrated Breakdown, and lamented his return to the iconic role of Snake Plissken in Escape From LA. And while many of Russell's undisputed classics are available to stream for the dozen of you who don't yet own them on Blu, today let's revisit some of his films that, for one reason or another, maybe aren't in our collections.

EXECUTIVE DECISION - A film I wrongly dismissed in 1996 as looking like a generic '90s brodown (complete with Steven Seagal), I eventually discovered this on cable and it quickly became one of my favorite action thrillers of the decade. The difference? Kurt Russell, obviously. As mentioned above, he can play badass and he can play silly, but he really shines most when he’s playing human, and as a terrified, inexperienced analyst accompanying a rescue mission to take back a hijacked plane, Russell’s palpable fear works here the way it does in the following year’s Breakdown. He’s a completely relatable action star - no cute one-liners, no chest-beating bravado. He’s scared, so we’re scared, and it’s riveting.

SOLDIER - If you've never seen it before, Soldier will piss you off, because Solider should be awesome. Russell plays Sgt Todd 3465, a government-bred killing machine who is literally thrown away on a trash planet when a new breed of super soldier renders him obsolete. He soon finds himself the only thing standing between those shiny new models and the planned massacre of a camp of peaceful refugees. On paper it’s nothing groundbreaking, but it sounds like a serviceable western in space, all comforting narrative beats and familiar archetypes. Walter Hill could have directed the hell out of it. John Carpenter probably would have had some fun here. But instead, screenwriter David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner) had his script realized by Paul WS Anderson (billed here without the “WS”; maybe it stands for “Whiffed Soldier”). And the 1998 film is surely hobbled by a lot of lazy directorial shortcuts: fight scenes that are nicely framed and lit, but absolutely refuse to cut together; an obvious, military-flavored score (think Starship Troopers without a hint of satire); an egregious amount of post-production slow-motion added for dramatic effect, which clashes with the in-camera slo-mo all over the place. It'd be easy to blame it all on Anderson's phoned-in work, but watching this film today, I don't know that Kurt Russell is the guy to play your stoic, near-mute action hero. The film misfires on many fronts, but it's also clear from Solider that a lot of Russell’s star power is tied up in being able to deliver a line.

DARK BLUE - Here's another film that has no business not being excellent. It’s a mostly well-intentioned miss, a movie about the days leading up to the 1992 LA riots with things on its mind about violence and hatred, and how America uses and institutionalizes those things to keep order. Familiar territory for screenwriter David Ayer (working from a story by James Ellroy); less familiar territory for director Ron Shelton. Was that part of the problem? Maybe. Shelton, known primarily for comedies, takes material that feels like it should have been guided by the measured hand of a Sidney Lumet and undoes tension over and over with cutesy reaction shots, unearned character beats and, perhaps most damaging, a score that belongs in a Beverly Hills Cop knock-off. Scenes of corruption and murder should be chilling here, but feel as if they’re being played lightly. Dark Blue ends up being an ambitious film with too much plot on its plate (and not enough under the hood) to get its ideas across. Its fatal flaw is that it’s sort of compassionately examining the men we ask to be violent on our society’s behalf, and the Rodney King riots are, at least as presented here by Shelton, an ill-fitting backdrop for that conversation; it's maybe not the time and place (even in 2003) to be even a little sympathetic to police officers who are committing and covering up murder. What’s unquestionably excellent in the film is Russell. His screen presence alone telegraphs the likable, can-do spirit of the American lawman, and he uses that smiling front to smuggle in the selfish, toxic, ugly impulses lurking beneath the archetype of the frontier-taming white male. The miracle of the performance is that Russell manages to keep Eldon Perry human. Russell gets two or three show-stopping speeches in the film and they’re honestly electrifying, total Oscar clip material. Dark Blue would be easily dismissible if not for the fact that hiding inside it is one of the best performances of Kurt Russell’s career. (Also available on Amazon Prime.)

THE ART OF THE STEAL - I’m not going to pretend this movie is more than it is, but what it is is Russell’s first leading role in a long while, and to me that’s worth celebrating. More than that, it’s an insanely welcome return of Kurt Russell as buffoon. A bottom-feeding motorcycle daredevil/part time art thief, Russell’s Crunch Calhoun is just the right shade of dumbass to keep you rooting for him to win, but giggling when he doesn’t. For a hot minute I thought it was going to be like the You’re Next of heist movies - not groundbreaking or reinventing the wheel, but just a fun, snappy pass at the genre. It falls short of that comparison, but there's lots to like. The film has a Brink's Job, low-stakes vibe which keeps things from ever getting too dire - it’s, refreshingly, nearly violence-free - but the actors are a lot of fun, delivering laugh-out-loud, profane dialogue that also ignores a lot of the post-modern crime influences of the last 20 years. And don't let the poster posturing fool you - Russell is in full-on Rudy Russo/Jack Burton shithead mode for a lot of this, and it’s REALLY fun seeing him play silly again. You'll figure out the double-crosses and plot twists beforehand, but if you’re a fan of Mr. Russell, this is a breezy, 90-minute hangout with an old friend. 

*There's a story that Kurt Russell ghost directed Tombstone after the original director was fired (which raises a whole lot of other questions, e.g., why not hire his buddy, Western-phile John Carpenter?), but that's a story for another tab in your browser.