The Good, the Bad & the Badass: Kurt Russell
Last week, we took a look at the career of the late Bob Hoskins, an actor many of us grew up with through his celebrated turn in WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT. This week's actor is another icon of the era, and a guy who's just as much of a badass now as he way decades ago.
Obviously I had to do a “Good, Bad, Badass” piece of Kurt Russell sooner or later. When I hit Sundance this year, I actually wound up sitting near him at a screening I was at for COLD IN JULY (review here) which featured his son Wyatt as one of the antagonists. Russell was sitting just a few meters away from me and while I wish I could tell you that I approached him, the truth is I wimped out. I was too intimidated as the guy's effect on my movie-going adolescence was gargantuan and I didn't want to disrespect him by bugging him when he was obviously there to cheer on his son (although some other journos that interviewed him a few days later for his doc – THE BATTERED BASTARDS OF BASEBALL – said he was a class act and likely would have been super approachable).
Probably the first Kurt Russell movie I remember seeing was OVERBOARD, where he starred opposite his wife Goldie Hawn. Even though it was far from one of his more memorable films, as a kid I thought he looked like the coolest guy in the world, with his iconic mullet and no BS attitude. A few years later I discovered his incredible run of movies with John Carpenter, and by the time TOMBSTONE hit theaters in 1993, I was a massive fan.
Over the years Russell's done fine work in a variety of genres, from straight-up action like TANGO & CASH, to comedy with movies like CAPTAIN RON (another childhood favorite), thrillers like UNLAWFUL ENTRY, BREAKDOWN and EXECUTIVE DECISION, dramas like MIRACLE, and so on. He's totally consistent (even if the movie isn't up to snuff – like SOLDIER), and despite now being in his early sixties, Russell is still one of the coolest guys around and could probably even step back into one of his iconic roles like Snake Plissken again without losing a beat.
Like a few other guys I've written about here, I just can't narrow this category down to a single performance. I'm torn between my two favorite Russell-Carpenter collaborations, so like in many other past columns, I'm going to cheat and list them both. First up is THE THING. Arguably one of the best remakes of all time (I'd say it's a much better film than the original THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD – although horror purists may object), THE THING is a masterpiece of pure terror and icky, hideous effects (courtesy of Rob Bottin), and Russell's performance is one of the film's essential ingredients. In 1982, Russell was just coming-off ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, where he once and for all shook-off the formerly family-friendly image he had from his days as a Disney teen heartthrob in the seventies, and established him as one of the he-men of eighties action. Like Plissken, MacReady is a total counter-culture figure (with a badass beard replacing Plissken's eye-patch), banished to Antarctic, where he ekes out a living as the helicopter pilot to the maintenance staff at a research station. His first scene is a gem, where he's introduced pouring a glass of whisky into a computer after it beats him in chess. Unlike Plissken, MacReady is never quite as much in control as you'd expect from an action guy, with Carpenter going to great lengths to show him as just a scared, regular fella who nonetheless takes control when everyone around him loses their shit. Russell doesn’t play him as a clean-cut hero. He makes mistakes (even killing an innocent guy), shows fear and is unable to save his colleagues. Carpenter even dares to cast a shadow over his final victory by suggesting that the surviving Childs (or even MacReady himself) is possessed by The Thing before the credits roll. It's great, nuanced performance in a brilliant movie.
By contrast, Russell and Carpenter just seem to be focused on having fun in their next collaboration, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA. By this time, Russell was a bankable action star, but he totally takes this piss out of himself as the macho Jack Burton – complete with a John Wayne-style swagger (Russell is a master mimic – having also given a great performance as Elvis Presley in Carpenter's TV movie, ELVIS). What's hilarious about the film is how utterly unprepared Burton is for the world of Chinese magic and martial arts he finds himself sucked into, with him turning into a kind of action-hero variation on Inspector Clouseau, as he desperately tries to pass himself off as a man of action only to consistently fail in his attempts to be heroic. Carpenter even goes so far as to sideline Russell for most of the final show-down, with him pinned beneath a giant dead guard, while his “sidekick” (Dennis Dun) has a huge, heroic, kung-fu sword fight with one of the main baddies. The fact that Russell allowed (and in fact fought for) Carpenter to subvert his image like this is pretty impressive. To this day, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA is one of my all-time favourite movies, and the one I'll always associate Russell with.
As much as I loved Russell as Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, I think making ESCAPE FROM L.A was a huge mistake. It's not that Russell isn't good, but the premise is super-weak, with it little more than a rehash of the first film, only moved from the east coast to the west. Carpenter himself doesn't seem to be that enthused, and the movie is a pretty draggy affair, only redeemed by a few funny cameos (like Bruce Campbell as the deformed surgeon-general of Beverly Hills and Steve Buscemi as “Map-to-the-stars” Eddie), and a decent action sequence or two. I wasn’t crazy about it in 1996, and I'm not crazy about it now. That said, I'd love for them to do another Plissken film, provided it has a solid script.
There are tons of Kurt Russell movies that could be called underrated. Some of his more recent work certainly falls into that category, especially the James Elroy-scripted DARK BLUE, that had the misfortune of coming out in the wake of a bunch of other renegade cop movies, making the film feel a little old-hat by the time it hit theatres. Even more underrated is TANGO & CASH. A team-up with Sylvester Stallone, the movie had a troubled production history, with loads of firings and re-shoots, but the movie itself is actually tons of fun. Sly and Russell have terrific chemistry and to me, this is one of the great buddy-cop movies, and one of the few when each half of the duo feels as important as the other. Also, Russell's hair rocks in this – although he doesn't look so great in drag (I doubt Sly would have agreed to do that!).
For me, Russell's best film as an actor is probably TOMBSTONE, which figures as he apparently ghost-directed it. An early scene where he walks into a bar and slaps the shit out of a young Billy Bob Thornton – uttering the famous line “are you gonna do something or just sit there and bleed,” is a classic, and Russell at his best.
After a few quiet years, Russell's got lots of stuff in the pipeline. He recently participated in the live read for Quentin Tarantino's THE HATEFUL EIGHT, so hopefully – if the film gets made – Tarantino will have a part in it for his old DEATH PROOF star.
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|Extra Tidbit:||John Carpenter and Kurt Russell also do the best commentary tracks.|