Kurt Russell: 10 essential films

From Escape from New York to Bone Tomahawk: 10 choice cuts from the action-packed 55-year career of Kurt Russell.

17 March 2017

By Neil Mitchell

Escape from New York (1981)

It’s remarkable to think that the gruffly charismatic and much loved Kurt Russell has now been gracing screens big and small for 55 years and counting. Ever since his first, uncredited, role as ‘Kevin’ in the American sitcom Dennis the Menace in 1962 at the age of 11, the talented, hard-working actor has never been short of memorable roles, whether he’s playing notable real-life figures, loveable rogues, wisecracking action heroes or complex anti-heroes.

Best known for taking the lead roles in a string of 1980s action movies directed by John Carpenter, Russell’s recent performances in Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007) and The Hateful Eight (2015) have exposed a new generation of moviegoers to the actor’s considerable screen presence. With Russell’s casting as Ego in the forthcoming Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, this trend is set to continue.

The Deadly Tower (1975)

Director: Jerry Jameson

The Deadly Tower (1975)

In a rare instance of Russell playing a truly despicable character, the then 24-year old actor was cast in the lead role of Jerry Jameson’s 1975 TV movie The Deadly Tower. This retelling of the fateful events of 1 August 1966, when former marine Charles Whitman murdered his mother and wife before shooting dead 14 more people from atop the tower at the University of Texas in Austin, is a taut and unsettling experience. The young Russell is quietly chilling as the infamous and psychologically damaged mass shooter.

Elvis (1979)

Director: John Carpenter

Elvis (1979)

Russell’s final small-screen role saw him play the lead in John Carpenter’s well regarded TV biopic of Elvis Presley just a couple of years after the King had died. It focuses on the life of the cultural icon up until the beginning of the 1970s. Russell’s performance as Elvis saw him nominated for an Emmy in the outstanding lead actor in a miniseries or a movie category. Elvis marked the beginning of the Russell/Carpenter partnership that saw the actor and director work together on four subsequent films.

Escape from New York (1981)

Director: John Carpenter

Escape from New York (1981)

If the average movie lover were asked to name one character played by Kurt Russell, there’s a very good chance the answer would be Snake Plissken. The second collaboration between the actor and John Carpenter led to the creation of one of cinema’s truly iconic fictional characters in the shape of the tough-guy soldier turned criminal who is corralled into a ludicrously dangerous mission to rescue the American president. With his straggly hair, stubble, vest and eyepatch, Plissken’s striking physical appearance matched his cynical, audience pleasing, authority-hating persona.

The Thing (1982)

Director: John Carpenter

The Thing (1982)

Released to lukewarm reviews and below par box office returns, Russell and Carpenter’s third collaborative project, based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, has rightly gone on to be reappraised and recognised as a classic sci-fi horror movie. As R.J. MacReady, Russell is on fine form as the gruff, no-nonsense helicopter pilot at an Antarctic research station whose inhabitants are under attack from the titular, extraterrestrial life form. Bleak, visceral and claustrophobic, The Thing is a career highpoint for both its lead actor and director.

Silkwood (1983)

Director: Mike Nichols

Silkwood (1983)

Having established himself as a big-screen action movie star in Carpenter’s films, Russell turned in a very different performance as Drew Stephens, the boyfriend of nuclear whistle-blower and union activist Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) in Mike Nichols’ powerful biographical drama. Alongside Streep and co-star Cher, Russell fully inhabited the life of Stephens, an ordinary middle American caught up in extraordinary, sinister circumstances. All three of the film’s lead actors would earn award nominations, with Russell being nominated as best supporting actor at the 41st Golden Globes.

Overboard (1987)

Director: Garry Marshall

Overboard (1987)

Despite its critically mixed reception on release, Garry Marshall’s romantic comedy Overboard has become something of a cult favourite with audiences. A lot of the goodwill shown to the film comes from the pairing of Russell and Goldie Hawn, who had married in 1983, in the lead roles. The real-life Hollywood couple display a genuine spark and natural repartee as Russell’s blue-collar carpenter Dean Proffitt and Hawn’s bored, spoiled heiress Joanna Stayton gradually fall in love via the most convoluted of scenarios. 

Tombstone (1993)

Director: George P. Cosmatos

Tombstone (1993)

It takes an actor of some self-assuredness to accept the lead role in a film whose eye-catching cast included the impressive talents of Bill Paxton, Sam Elliott and Val Kilmer to name but a few, and Russell was that actor in George P. Cosmatos’s Tombstone. Though Kilmer’s effete portrayal of Doc Holliday stole many scenes, Russell’s confident take on famed lawman Wyatt Earp gave this sprawling tale its emotional centre. Personal ambitions, romantic fulfilment and familial loyalty drive Earp, and Russell was the solid presence the supporting cast revolved around.

Breakdown (1997)

Director: Jonathan Mostow

Breakdown (1997)

Lean, mean and Hitchcockian of concept, Jonathan Mostow’s fast-paced mystery thriller Breakdown saw Russell cast in the lead role of Jeff Taylor. A happily married, middle-class suburbanite, Taylor finds himself caught up in a terrifying situation and driven to extreme measures after his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) is abducted by J.T. Walsh’s poker-faced trucker Warren ‘Red’ Barr during a cross-country road trip. Russell runs a gripping, palpable range of heightened emotions from incredulous to desperate and from fearful to explosively angry as Taylor sets out to rescue his missing wife.

Miracle (2004)

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Miracle (2004)

In Gavin O’Connor’s biographical sports drama Miracle, Russell was given the opportunity to really flex his acting muscles as Herb Brooks, the former ice hockey player turned coach who led the US team to a hugely unexpected victory against the mighty Soviet team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. Though the film skirts with well-worn sports movie clichés, Russell’s committed performance as Brooks captures the guile and inspirational quality of the coach who masterminded the upset. Both possessed of passion and drive, Russell was the perfect choice to play Brooks.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Director: S. Craig Zahler

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

One of two westerns starring Russell to be released in 2015 – the other being Quentin Tarantino’s much higher profile The Hateful Eight – S. Craig Zahler’s directorial debut Bone Tomahawk mixed gritty period realism and outré horror elements in an eye-catching, bone-crunching tale of abduction, murder and cannibalism. In the lead role of Sheriff Franklin Hunt, Russell is suitably tough and grizzled as the small-town lawman up against the most uncivilised of foes. Slow-burning and visceral, Bone Tomahawk brought the best out of the now veteran actor.

BFI Player logo

See something different

Free for 14 days, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free