Barry's Ode to Kurt Russell
by Barry Wurst
April 5, 2007
Why is Kurt Russell so beloved by filmgoers, old and young, and why is he still around in the fickle business of Hollywood film acting some 44 years after his film debut? Simple. A.) He was a major child star who later took on a number of highly unexpected roles that proved his range and gained him fanfare worldwide from those who always knew him and those who just discovered him. B.) He is such a natural performer with an unforced approach that he is believable in almost every role he's ever taken on. Sure, there were a few mistakes on the way (we'll get to that in a minute), but his versatility is undeniable, as he's able to portray characters who are outright cartoons or starkly real, with a conviction and alarming dexterity that has gotten better and better over the years.
Russell is (by evidence of interviews and appearances) an unpretentious, extremely down-to-earth actor (in an industry full of Zeppelin-sized egos) and his choice of projects has proven to grow more and more interesting with time. Truly this a man who began as a Disney child star, then a Disney teen actor, only to break typecasting and work with John Carpenter and become his unlikely leading man, then a legitimate dramatic actor of considerable heft, then a character actor capable of inhabiting both the offbeat and the heartfelt. His body of work is celebrated and rightfully so. Let's dive in.
Most Famous Roles:
Snake Plissken - Escape from New York / Escape from L.A.
Russell's cult hero, a parody of Clint Eastwood but also a cold blooded, narcissistic anti-hero with a profound edge of anti-establishment zeal, is a keeper. Like it or not, this could be the role he will always be best known for. This risky part (which, truth be told, could have proved a career killer for him) jump-started his career in the 80's and his canny, funny and goofily compelling turn as Plissken comes across beautifully in two very different takes on a neo-apocalypse.
Jack Burton - Big Trouble in Little China
Another winning collaboration with John Carpenter, this one displayed Russell's deft, go-for-broke gift for physical comedy, with a dim-bulb character that could be described as an anti-hero, only because he's so bad at being heroic (yet manages to save the day by accident!). The movie itself is fun and was ahead of its time (aka, a flop in theaters, a cult sensation on cable and video).
Wyatt Earp - Tombstone
Even with a Christmas Day opening, no one (certainly not the studio that released it) thought that this would make over $50 million and be considered one of the best westerns of the latter 20th century. In fact, even with the Best Picture Oscar given to Unforgiven, most western aficionados prefer this one. Val Kilmer's scene stealing Doc Holliday got the most attention, but Russell's straight forward, deeply felt portrayal of the no-nonsense Earp is terrific. In fact, the far more lavish, considerably longer Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner, was not only inferior but Russell's take on the role had Costner's beat. Why? Costner seemed to know he was the star of the show. Russell's Earp is a sad witness to a violent time in which even the heroes have bloodstained hands.
Stuntman Mike - Grindhouse
This performance, one of Russell's best, will catch fire quickly and could lead to award consideration later in the year (well, maybe - the Academy rarely remembers a movie that came out before November!). Mike, as embodied by a nothing-to-prove-at-this-point-in-his-career-but-still-working-hard-and-often
Russell, is funny, chilling and made real. Russell's approach - he plays him without shame and, like Christian Bale in American Psycho, allows audiences to come to their own conclusions about this sick but strangely likeable psychopathic murderer. The look of the character alone (the clothes, the scar, the car) all but guarantee a cult following.
Russell may well be best known for the above roles (and he was great in all these), but they aren't representing his best work as an actor. Before I get to that, let's look at the roles that didn't connect and why.
Russell's performance is fine but his buttoned-down leader is the least interesting in the film. James Spader gets to have all the fun and there's no meat to Col. Jack O'Neil (a role better fleshed out in the successful television series offspring). The film itself is enjoyable and was a surprise hit in 1994.
A dud of a comedy that, nonetheless, was a box office hit and has a following (like a lot of Russell's films). Russell's Ron, a buff, tan, eye patch-wearing, modern day pirate who annoys Martin Short for the majority of the movie, looks like Snake Plissken escaped to the Bahamas for a year. If you imagine the film is about Snake and is really titled John Carpenter's Escape From This Crappy Movie, then it becomes almost watchable. Otherwise, beware (fans may argue that Russell and Short's charm and chemistry save the film - I don't agree).
Russell's $15 million dollar paycheck for this was the biggest he has yet received for a film. Too bad it's for this clunky, under-realized action movie. Maybe Russell was paid a million dollars per word of dialogue he spoke. Truly, his almost dialogue-free character (which he works hard to flesh out) seems like a part better suited for Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sci-fi geeks love to point out that writer David Webb Peoples also wrote Blade Runner, which gets a verbal mention here. That's about the only thing worth mentioning about this one.
3,000 Miles to Graceland
Not the first time Russell has impersonated Elvis (he's one of the best actors around who does this in film) and his ending credits rendition of Presely's "Oh Whatta Night" is the best, most enjoyable part of the movie. Even with a great cast (everyone from Christian Slater to Kevin Costner to Courtney Cox-Arquette) and the high-concept plot, this mean-spirited, truly unpleasant, endless and mammothly stupid blow-em-upper does everyone involved a disservice. See it for the closing credits scene- skip the rest.
Now, for his top ten, an example of Russell at his best.
More than just another sports movie, Russell's embodiment of Herb Brook's is a fantastic piece of acting, an award caliber performance that was overlooked. Lots of passion in his work here. Alex has called this film one of his favorites - it's easy to see why, as the film and Russell's turn are standouts.
The film itself is uneven and the tone wavers now and then. As for Russell, he's phenomenal, playing a dirty cop with an unapologetic lack of morality. The film looked like an action movie from the trailer and the film was dumped in a January release, when an Oscar campaign for Russell's forceful, thrilling turn could've really connected with audiences. Again, the film is problematic, but Russell has rarely been better.
The Everyman is a staple role for thrillers, yet not everyone can pull it off. Even Johnny Depp, so perfect in offbeat roles, couldn't connect with audiences as a normal guy in Nick of Time. Here, in a great, down-and-dirty ode to Duel, Russell makes his character's anguish and obsessive drive chillingly real and his scenes with the late, great J.T. Walsh are as electrifying as the action scenes. Most feel the last scene is a bit much. It is. The rest of this is edge of your seat perfection and Russell's work matches it scene-for-scene.
Even if you are familiar with and enjoyed Russell's work in zany Disney comedies, his performance in this underrated Robert Zemeckis film is still a surprise. Russell throws himself into the lead role with shameless panache and his work in this forgotten gem is witty and enjoyably sleazy.
The film isn't as much fun as the other Russell/Carpenter collaborations, but still one of Carpenter's most terrifying and important films. Both a first-rate remake and an unsettling sci-fi exercise in paranoia equal to the first Alien, Russell is surrounded by an excellent ensemble and provides the film's center. His character is sympathetic but, as you have an uneasy feeling about who anyone in the movie really is, you may not completely trust him. That's the beauty of this wrenching film.
Mike Nichols directed, Meryl Streep starred and the film is still timely and revealing. Russell is superb as the husband of a worker at a plutonium plant who intends to reveal all the unethical practices that go on there. The most attention went to Cher, who is excellent in her big, breakout role, as well as Streep, who, as usual, makes the lead character very real. Yet, Russell's work is as good and was his first big step in the direction of dramatic leading man.
This wacko, uneven but occasionally brilliant remake of Open Your Eyes has a fine cast doing excellent work, though Russell's turn is a stand-out. The part he plays could have been a cardboard, thankless, doctor role - instead, he makes the man heartfelt and his last scene, in which he ponders the nature of his own existence, is haunting in what it implies.
Another Everyman role, except Russell's first-rate, entirely believable performance compliments Ray Liotta's tour de force as a corrupt cop who terrorizes an unsuspecting family. You feel Russell's distrust of Liotta's character and share his uneasiness as the guy makes a move for his wife. The film, a hit and still a crowd pleaser, is a pulp thriller, but the cast (including the wonderful Madeline Stowe) make it riveting and queasily real.
One last word on Russell's "Stuntman Mike" - few actors can make an all-out psychopath so charming and vulnerable as well as scary and despicable. Mike is not an unstoppable boogeyman but a twisted bully and Russell fearlessly taps into the man's sick drive and weak interior.
One of Russell's best comedies and his best collaboration with his off-screen mate, Goldie Hawn. The film is cute and somewhat formulaic but the performances and a funny script sell the premise. Russell's character is both a sleaze ball and entirely likeable and he and Hawn have some wonderful scenes together.
For the die-hard Russell fans, here's a few more.
The screenplay is silly and illogical but Ron Howard's spectacular firefighter melodrama still holds up nicely, mostly due to the amazing special effects and an excellent cast. Russell puts in a forceful, even powerful performance that overcomes the B-movie story.
The Best of Times
This forgotten sports comedy, about middle aged guys who want another shot at the Big Game they lost in high school, is made enjoyable by Russell and Robin Williams in the leads. Not a must-see, but for Russell completists, this one is fun and better than The Replacements and a lot of other lesser sports-centered farces.
A great, goofy delight. Better than most effects driven family comedies, Russell is all-out wonderful as The Commander. The secret to his work is this: he never winks at the camera and doesn't seem at all out of place in a superhero uniform. He has some priceless moments in this sleeper.
Tango & Cash
Dumb fun all the way, Russell filled in for Mel Gibson (who backed out) and has an easy-going chemistry with Stallone (who he remains friends with to this day). The movie is incredibly stupid and a by-the-book buddy cop shoot-’em-upper, mostly known for the duel butt shots of the leads and an infamous scene with Russell in drag (which is actually gut-bustingly funny). Yet, the macho patter between the two is often a riot and they make this worth seeing for the curious.
Despite the implausibilities and unoriginality of the concept, this is still a gripping, exciting thriller and Russell's enjoyable lead turn as a white collar hero is matched by an entertaining star vehicle. The large ensemble cast is impressive and most know this as Steven Seagal's best film (those who dislike him LOVE this one) but Russell's reliably solid work grounds this fun exercise in pressurized thrills.
Russell is one of the best things about this needless, ridiculously lavish remake. His on-screen heroics and a good performance by Richard Dreyfuss are one of the few reasons to sit through this (the original is far superior).
The Mean Season
An atmospheric thriller, with Russell and Mariel Hemingway giving top-notch performances. The film is no classic but is pretty good nonetheless.
The John Carpenter team-up with Russell most have never seen. After first being broadcast, this was the top-rated TV movie of all time and Russell, spot-on perfect as The King, is a knockout.
This period drama gets overly dramatic in the last stretch but the great work by Russell and Kelly McGillis (who are great together) make this worth a look and the film is well made and compelling.
Dad, Can I Borrow the Car?
Okay, I had to mention at least one Russell/Disney film. Most prefer The Fox and the Hound or The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes but this corny, zany, how-to charmer, which Russell narrates, is still my favorite and still gets big laughs.