Five Must-See Kurt Russell Performances By Jeff Mitchell

Five must-see Kurt Russell performances


“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” arrives in theatres on March 5, and our five heroes – Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, and Groot (actually, Baby Groot) return to ride through the cosmos and attempt to save the galaxy again while offering heaps of action, humor and alien-human-plant-raccoon camaraderie.  New characters appear as well, but none more pivotal than the one played by longtime, Hollywood action star, Kurt Russell.  Russell shines in Marvel Studios’ latest effort, but the man has been blazing across big screens for decades, appearing in over 50 featured films since the 1960s.  In celebration of his new role in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, let’s look back at a portion of his illustrious film career.  There are so many highlights to choose from, but instead of including every one of his films, here are five must-see Kurt Russell performances.      


“Bone Tomahawk (2015), Sheriff Hunt – Russell’s most famous performance in a western is Wyatt Earp in 1993’s “Tombstone”, but his best work within the genre is in writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s “Bone Tomahawk”.  In this picture, Sheriff Hunt (Russell) leads a group of three other men – played by Richard Jenkins, Matthew Fox and Patrick Wilson - on a long, treacherous journey from their town of Bright Hope to a frightening community of cannibalistic cave dwellers.  About 75 percent of the film embraces the pureness of the American western with saloon drinks, cowboy talk (i.e., “If you don’t say who you are, I’ll shoot you dead.”) and the open range, but the last 30 minutes delve into gruesome horror that will be etched in this movie critic’s brain for eternity.  Don’t say that you were not warned!  On the other hand, Russell’s machismo persona nicely gels with the other three leads, as their verbal jousting and friendly banter during their trek will absolutely bring a smile to anyone who loves westerns.  A hidden gem.


“Escape from New York” (1981), Snake Plissken – The year 1997 was a relatively peaceful time in America, but not in writer/director John Carpenter’s dystopian action picture.  In “Escape from New York”, 1997 New York City is no tranquil walk in the park.  In fact, the federal government walls off Manhattan Island and declares it a prison for the most ruthless criminals, and somehow the U.S. President (Donald Pleasence) finds himself trapped inside.  Enter Snake Plissken (Russell), the ultimate tough guy with a black tank top, eye patch and a snake tattoo breathing on his stomach.  This former military specialist with two purple hearts cuts a deal to rescue the president within 24 hours in a race against time inside an infinitely violent concrete jungle.  Everyone he meets seems to think that he was already killed but do not test this assumed dead man.  Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Harry Dean Stanton, and Isaac Hayes join in the “Mad Max”-like carnage in this classic action film.


“Miracle” (2004), Herb Brooks – “I’m not looking for the best players, Craig.  I’m looking for the right ones.”  - USA Hockey Head Coach Herb Brooks (Russell)


Coach Brooks has only seven months to construct and train a hockey team to play in the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, and with a very short window to put a championship team on the ice, he tells his assistant coach, Craig Patrick (Noah Emmerich) that needs the right players.  Brooks recruits 21-year-old hockey “kids”, who attempt to do the improbable: win a gold medal for the United States.  Director Gavin O’Connor and Russell recreate a terrific, behind-the-scenes look at Brooks’ out of the box thinking and methods which inspired 20 young hockey players and an entire nation.  While the players - sometimes begrudgingly - follow Coach Brooks’ words, we gaze and listen to every moment that Russell appears on screen in one of the most satisfying sports movies in recent decades.  


“Do you believe in miracles?” 


Well, after seeing this movie, we all should.


“The Thing” (1982), R.J. MacReady – Director John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is best known for its wild special effects and extreme gore, but his movie is much, much more than buckets of blood and innards thrown on the screen.  It is an intense and frightening story within the cramped confines of a lonely science institute on the world’s most desolate continent.  You see, a malevolent alien enters the compound with the ability to kill and mimic any living creature and hides in plain sight, disguised as one of the men in the isolated premises. 


Any of the men could be the creature, as the no-nonsense pilot, R.J. MacReady (Russell), rightly exclaims, “Nobody trusts anybody now.”


Russell delivers an unforgettable performance as MacReady, and while under extreme duress and terror, this character keeps his cool in order to survive an impossible situation. He is the type of guy who you want quarterbacking your football team, a person with plenty of street smarts and a burly toughness to lead men, even when they don’t want to be led.


“Used Cars” (1980), Rudy Russo – Admittedly, writer/director Robert Zemeckis’ comedy has not particularly aged well over the last 37 years.  The shock value of its raunchy punchlines feel dated, and the “Smokey and the Bandit” (1977) bit in the third act is a bit tired.  Still, when Rudy Russo (Russell), an especially talented, scheming car salesman, tells a perspective female car buyer that her hair matches the color of the tires, one becomes amazed with his power of persuasion.  During Rudy’s journey to raise enough money to leave the car business to become – of all things – a state senator, “Used Cars” flashes some memorable faces from the past, like Al “Grandpa” Lewis, Michael McKean and David L. Lander.   The movie was shot in the Valley too and showcases some filmed footage of the ASU Sun Devils!  Really? 


As Rudy would say, “Trust me!”


Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.  Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.