You want to talk about old school? Kurt Russell started his acting career at age 10, as a child actor in the Elvis Presley flick It Happened at the World’s Fair, then was promptly awarded a 10-year contract signed by Walt Disney himself. By the time Russell grew up, he’d been through all the training of a studio contract player in old Hollywood. What makes him unique, though, is he’s also a child of the 1960s and bucked the system a little. He made some maverick career decisions to break away from that squeaky clean Disney image. After playing Elvis in John Carpenter’s ABC movie-of-the-week, Russell played a series of tough guys for Carpenter, plus a sarcastic con man in Robert Zemeckis’s Used Cars.
That kick-started a career that never rose to the peak that some expected. Most of Russell’s 1980s movies were box-office flops, the ludicrous but profitable Tango and Cash notwithstanding. He’s done more than his fair share of lousy and generic movies. But Russell doesn’t seem to care that much. What does he have to worry about? He’s living on a 72-acre ranch outside of Aspen with Goldie Hawn and his son Wyatt, and he gets a phone call every now and then to do an interesting project or role. He gives an electrifying, charismatic, and relaxed performance as the serial killer Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse film, Death Proof. Sitting at the bar running through the list of TV shows he’s done, Stuntman Mike realizes nobody’s heard of him, and that he’s a relic from days gone by. But Tarantino, ever the student of movies, recognizes his iconic status from those cult classics of yesteryear. We recognize it, too, and that’s why it works when Stuntman Mike breaks the fourth wall, looks straight into Tarantino’s camera and offers a boyish smile. He’s playing the devil, for sure, but he’s a charming devil, and we enjoy being alone for the ride.
1. Escape From New York: In this lean and mean 1980s cult classic, Kurt Russell was able to successfully break away from being perceived as a Disney child actor (unlike, say, Rick Schroeder, who, no matter how many police detectives and federal agents he plays, is forever doomed to be “the kid from Silver Spoons”). Sporting a black eye patch, brown leather jacket and long hair, and speaking each line in a Clint Eastwood whisper, his Snake Plissken is the first in what Quentin Tarantino referred to as Russell’s “rogue’s gallery” of badass anti-heroes. This amoral mercenary is ordered to rescue the president, who has been kidnapped by the denizens of a futuristic New York City (the “future” of this film is 1997) that has become a walled-in maximum security prison. His response to this call of duty is nothing if not topical: “I don’t give a fuck about your war—or your president.”
Director John Carpenter specifically chose Russell over other tough guy actors (specifically, Charles Bronson and Tommy Lee Jones) because they had a good experience working together before on a TV-movie, Elvis, and as a young director he was intimidated by working with bigger name actors who might take this low-budget picture away from him. In Russell, Carpenter not only found a strong alter-ego for the Howard Hawks brand of cynical machismo he admires so much, but also a guy that could bring surprising touches of humor to the role. Snake, for all his badass charisma, acts like a petulant kid (“I don’t like needles”) when he has to take his shots before the mission.
There’s the infamous scene where Snake wanders around a burned-out skyscraper and passes right by a woman getting raped, not batting an eyelash. We should hate him for not being a noble figure bringing righteousness to this decaying ghetto. But Russell has a certain quality that must have carried over from his Disney days: a kind of likeability that makes Snake more than just a Rambo-style fighting machine. He’s not made of muscle, but has the average build of a baseball player that never went pro. Underneath the stubble is a boyish face, so even when Snake is behaving at his worst—he’s ready to machine gun his companions Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine and Harry Dean Stanton at one point if he doesn’t get the information he needs—somehow we stay with him. During a cynical time in American history (post-Watergate), he expressed a kind of amoral disgust; that it’s better to go your own way than the highway. Or, as the Kurt Russell protagonist shouts at the climax of The Thing, “Yeah? Fuck you, too!”
Maybe it’s because as cold blooded as Snake is, the guy still has a code of ethics. When Maggie (Barbeau) makes her last stand against the evil Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes), she holds out her hand for Snake to give her his gun. She’ll hold the bastard off…maybe even kill him…while Snake gets the president to safety. It’s a silent exchange between Barbeau and Russell, and as he hands her the gun he has a small glint of admiration in his eyes. The reason Kurt Russell is so good at playing this kind of comic book hero is that he makes you recognize that he’s a real human being, with feelings and thoughts. That rouses one to cheer for him as he dives into the action; that’s what defines a true movie star.
2. The Thing: “I just want to go up to my shack and get drunk,” says Russell (as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady) a few minutes before all hell breaks loose in John Carpenter’s classic monster movie. MacReady is one of twelve men stationed in an Antarctic research station that is infected by a creature that can perfectly imitate any life form. As paranoia sets in, the chain of command breaks down and MacReady takes charge of finding out who’s human.
From the first time we see him sitting in his cabin with a huge bottle of whiskey, Russell’s long-haired, shaggy-bearded hero is the very definition of American individualism and self-reliance. (The only other screen persona he might get along well with is Robert De Niro’s melancholy thief in Michael Mann’s Heat, who consoled himself by saying, “I am alone. I am not lonely.”) As the other men congregate in the recreation room, MacReady sits by himself playing computer chess; when the system beats him, his response to the “cheating bitch” is to pour his whiskey into the computer, short-circuiting it. He’s so doggedly sure of himself that sometimes it’s comical; after the team investigates a decimated Norwegian camp, Mac’s insistence on referring to them as “those crazy Swedes” becomes a running joke. But when the going gets tough, MacReady’s stubbornness proves his saving grace. By the end of the movie, when the Thing has driven MacReady and his remaining crew to a suicide mission in the lethal snow, he’ll be damned if he doesn’t take the monster down with him. If Snake Plissken is an amoral bastard who’ll only do the job if his back is against the wall, MacReady is the reluctant hero.
Surrounded by first rate character actors (among them Richard Masur as reclusive dog handler Clark, Wilford Brimley as the increasingly paranoid scientist Blair, and Keith David as the volatile mechanic Childs), Russell is able to not only hold his own but become the center of every scene, many of them involving a half-dozen actors following his lead. Russell’s entire persona is blue-collar: a reliably dependable craftsman. MacReady’s like your grouchy old uncle. You need him to fix the car, and even though he knows he’s the only man that can do the job, he’d rather get drunk.
3. Big Trouble in Little China: The third in the triptych of great B-movie Kurt Russell characters is blowhard truck driver Jack Burton, who muddles his way into an epic kung fu battle between the powers of good and evil. The sly joke is that his “sidekick” Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is the one who has all the fighting skills, gets the girl in the end, and in general is always right, while Burton never shuts up, seizing all the credit and generally making an idiot out of himself when big trouble strikes. In a scene representative of the picture’s visual wit and wall-to-wall action, Jack shouts a war cry (“Yaaaaaaah!”), fires a warning shot in the air, gets hit in the head by falling piece of ceiling, and remains unconscious for the next reel.
Doing a full-on John Wayne impersonation throughout (director John Carpenter was especially inspired by the Duke single-handedly winning the war in Vietnam in The Green Berets) Russell doesn’t take himself or the movie too seriously. It’s one giant funhouse ride painted in broad neon colors, as subtle as Russell’s gelled-up hairdo. The low-rent analog special effects and enjoyably hokey synthesizer score only add to the pleasure of seeing a movie relic from 1986, but what makes the movie is Jack Burton’s self-aware macho goofball dialogue. “Okay, I get the picture: White Tigers, Lords of Death, guys in funny suits throwing plastic explosives while poison arrows fall from the sky and the pillars of heaven shake, huh? ...And that’s just for starters, right? Fine!” Russell is completely game for being the butt of jokes and continually undermining his character’s so-called heroism. During the climactic battle scene where Jack thinks he’s invincible, he’s still got a giant lipstick smudge from kissing the damsel in distress. For payback, he promptly and unceremoniously dumps her before riding off into the night yammering on about his brave exploits into his CB radio. God bless Jack Burton, and God bless Russell for being man enough to play him.
4. Breakdown: When asked why he hadn’t become a major movie star in the same league as Kevin Costner and Mel Gibson, Russell responded that maybe it was because he was more interested in story than character. While his work for John Carpenter certainly had character to spare, Russell has a more substantial career in roles where he provides a backbone for the action. Like Jeff Bridges, he’s able to give substantial performances that blend into the material. He’s so good at it that he’s damned with praise for being so “dependable”—which is another way for saying that his work as the even-tempered boyfriend in Silkwood and the stoic, slow burning Wyatt Earp in Tombstone is so naturalistic that you forget he’s acting.
This talent served him well in small, efficient studio pictures such as Breakdown, which finds Russell playing the Dennis Weaver role in Duel with a bit of Alfred Hitchcock’s “nobody believes me” pressure brought to bear on the hero when his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) goes missing. Dressed throughout in bland khakis and blue collared t-shirt, Russell plays a middle-class Everyman: Joe Q. Yuppie. When sadistic villain Red (J.T. Walsh, another “Mr. Reliable” character actor in top form) starts trying to crush our hero under his 18-wheeler, Russell kicks into gear. I suspect most suburban thirtysomething guys, when they’re putting up their storm windows or playing an intense game of stickball with the kids, would like to imagine their heroism coming out under pressure, and it’s easier to imagine being Kurt Russell in Breakdown than being Mel Gibson or Kevin Costner in anything. Russell is just average enough to be human, but inside he’s still got something of the former kid who could have gone pro baseball. It’s that residual toughness and protectiveness inside of Russell’s performance that we know is simply waiting for the chance to express itself—and boy, does it ever.
5. Miracle: His face creased with middle age, former Disney child star Kurt Russell returns to the studio that started his career, this time playing hockey coach Herb Brooks, who led the underdog U.S.A. to victory in the 1980 Olympics against the seemingly unstoppable U.S.S.R. What prevents the movie from being a run-of-the-mill assembly of sports clichés is Russell’s committed performance, pushing the team of young upstarts to glory by shouting, bullying, and inspiring them with tough talk and slogans. It’s basically leadership camp on ice, with Russell as the head motivational speaker, and boy, if he doesn’t look like the King of the Squares; with a pasted-down curvy hairdo and some really obnoxious looking checkered sports coats and creased trousers, Russell’s grumpy coach is certainly lacking in the style department. Luckily, we spend most of our time looking at his intensely focused eyes. There’s a note of no-bullshit sincerity in the tone of his voice when he starts speechifying about how the boys have to earn their victory. Brooks has no time for quitters.
Miracle isn’t an especially good sports movie. It’s painfully average and predictable, going through the training rituals and the games that don’t work out so well and the inevitable ascension to victory after the coach tells his boys to go for it. But in this film, more than perhaps any other (besides his Disney work as a kid), Russell bears comparison to the jobbing, rugged actors of old Hollywood. They didn’t have much say in the movies they appeared in, but they showed up, learned their lines and did the job; maybe the result seemed effortless because the actors knew were going to move on to the next film once they’d finished this one. Russell has had a similar career, moving from cult movies to broad comedies (Overboard, Captain Ron), respectable projects (Tequila Sunrise) and plain old stinkers (Soldier). With Miracle, it’s not just about a craftsman delivering a performance in a movie; it’s a movie about the craftsman himself. You can’t discuss this movie without considering Russell’s central performance. His strong work ethic merges with the character’s work ethic—the engine that drives the Miracle.
Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.