Kurt Russell’s Best Movies

To celebrate his birthday, we pick the ten best Kurt Russell movies. From Escape from New York to Bone Tomahawk, all the classics are here.

March 17, 1951 was a great day in history, because that the day Kurt Russell entered the world. And while he would go on to become one of the biggest icons of the eighties and nineties, many folks don’t know that Russell started as a child star for Disney, even acting opposite his future life partner Goldie Hawn in The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968). From the sixties into the seventies, he starred in Disney flicks like The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), but as the studio’s movies started to flop and Russell got older, a change of pace was needed. Arguably, Russell’s career took off when he began working with director John Carpenter, with the first movie being 1979’s TV movie Elvis, but what are Kurt Russell’s best movies? To celebrate his 73rd birthday, let’s dig into them here.

Captain Ron

Honorable Mention: Captain Ron (1992)

A few weeks ago, I name-checked Captain Ron in an article I was writing about the history of Touchstone Pictures, and folks went nuts in the comments, mentioning how it was a movie they grew up watching. Indeed, it shows Russell’s flair for comedy, with his one-eyed boat captain kind of a fun take-off on Snake Plissken. The great Martin Short ably supports him.

Escape from New York, remake

Escape From New York (1981)

This was the movie that made Kurt Russell an icon. As the one-eyed Snake Plissken, Russell was brilliantly cast against type in John Carpenter’s dystopian action flick. This is a pretty iconic film if you can get over the hilarious depiction of New York circa 1997 being a hellish maximum security prison city. Carpenter’s musical score is perfect here. That said, I don’t care for the sequel, Escape from L.A.

The Thing (1982)

John Carpenter’s The Thing is my choice for the greatest remake ever. A massive flop in 1982, it’s now considered one of the greatest horror flicks of all time. The effects by Rob Bottin are great, and Russell is iconic as the heavily bearded MacReady. The score by Ennio Morricone (and let’s face it – John Carpenter) ain’t bad either.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton is one of the most iconic action heroes of all time, which is hilarious when you realize that he actually doesn’t do a heck of a lot in the movie. All the heroics come via his “sidekick,” Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi. Carpenter’s score is excellent, the fight choreography is a million times better than anything else happening in American movies at the time, and Kim Cattrall is gorgeous as the love interest. Plus, there’s the great James Hong as Lo Pan!

Tango & Cash (1989)

This was the movie that made Russell a legitimate action star. It has Russell’s mullet at its most featured, and his chemistry with Sylvester Stallone is on point. Plus, there’s a young Teri Hatcher as his love interest. It’s not art, but it’s damn fun.

Unlawful Entry (1992)

This is a favorite of ours here at JoBlo. It’s a top-shelf thriller, with Russell cast against type as a yuppie who becomes stalked by a cop obsessed with his wife, played by Madeleine Stowe. As good as Russell is, though, the late Ray Liotta walks away with this one.

Tombstone (1993)

Everyone assumed Russell’s Wyatt Earp passion project would flop, as it came out just a few months before Kevin Costner’s epic take on the legendary lawman. This one is way better, although once again, Russell has the movie stolen from him by Val Kilmer, who’s cast to perfection as Doc Holliday. Russell has always said he ghost-directed this one.

best kurt russell movies

Stargate (1994)

This probably should have jumpstarted a movie franchise centred around Kurt Russell as the tortured Colonel Jack O’Neil. Sadly, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin got busy with Independence Day. This one has an iconic score by David Arnold and a fantastic one-liner by Russell: “Give my regards to King Tut a**hole.”

Executive Decision (1996)

The fact that Steven Seagal plays the second banana to Kurt Russell in this slick terrorist flick says it all. Russell’s star was on the rise in 1996, and this is a slick thriller that lets him play an everyman hero who, when the chips are down, can rise to the occasion.

best kurt russell movies

Breakdown (1997)

Russell is back in thriller mode, with him a hapless motorist whose wife (Kathleen Quinlan) is abducted by a charismatic truck driver, played by the late, great J.T. Walsh. This thriller was so tense it directly led to director Jonathan Mostow being given the reins to Terminator: Rise of the Machines.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

This late-career classic from Russell pairs him with S. Craig Zahler, one of the best new directors, who, as far as I’m concerned, has been inactive too long. With horror movie-level violence, a great supporting turn by Richard Jenkins and tons of atmosphere, this one is a real gem.

Other great Kurt Russell flicks include the underrated cop movie Dark Blue (2002), Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991, although it’s William Baldwin’s movie) and, of course, his work with Quentin Tarantino in Death Proof (2007), The Hateful Eight (2015) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). However, in those, he’s strictly part of an ensemble, so I left them off the list.

What do you think are Kurt Russell’s best movies? Would you have included Used Cars (1980) or Tequila Sunrise (1988) on the list? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.