Twelve of Our Favorite Kurt Russell Performances in Honor of His Birthday

By  · Published on March 17th, 2013

Happy birthday to Kurt Russell!

We would have sent him a card or an Elvis Presley bobble-head, but we seem to have lost his address. So instead we’ve decided to honor the day and the man by highlighting twelve of his greatest performances and films. Why twelve? Why the hell not.

Russell is one of those actors whose presence in a film immediately elevates its level of awesome. This is fact. Also true is the unfortunate reality that he isn’t in nearly enough movies these days. His early career found him working within the Walt Disney machine, but he broke out in the early eighties to become a star across a wide variety of films. He excelled in romantic comedies, action films and the occasional straight-up dramatic role, but the last several years have seen a slow down in his output. Sure it’s depressing for those of us who consider ourselves fans, but there’s a hopeful light at the end of this particular tunnel… Russell is currently attached to star in a dark western called Bone Tomahawk alongside Timothy Olyphant, Richard Jenkins and Peter Sarsgaard. There’s nothing not awesome about that sentence.

Keep reading for a look at twelve of our favorite Kurt Russell performances and films. They’re not ranked, although The Thing would obviously be #1 if they were, but feel free to chime in below with your favorites from his career.

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)

Dexter Riley is one of cinema’s great, unsung franchise heroes, and Russell plays him as a capable and charming kid unavoidably drawn to trouble. (This supports my theory that Riley grew up and changed his name to Snake Plissken.) Walt Disney followed the film’s success with two sequels (Now You See Him Now You Don’t and The Strongest Man In the World), and all three show Russell’s legendary grin and charisma in full force fighting against the evil Cesar Romero.

Used Cars (1980)

Russell’s first real adult-themed film role came in 1975’s TV movie The Deadly Tower about real-life sniper Charles Whitman, but it was Robert Zemeckis’ raucous, R-rated comedy that had audiences wondering what happened to their sweet little Disney star. His Rudy Russo is the epitome of an irresponsible and untrustworthy car salesmen, but Russell’s energetic and playful performance alongside the film’s dirty jokes, adult antics and ridiculous car action make it a winner.

Escape From New York (1981)

Two years after playing Elvis Presley for director John Carpenter the two men collaborated again on this darkly comic sci-fi action film set in the far off future of… 1997. Some of the effects work was suspect even then, but the movie transcends its budget with real wit, an enviable roster of supporting players (including Donald Pleasence, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Van Cleef, Tom Atkins, etc) and one of cinema’s most intriguing anti-hero characters.

The Thing (1982)

Goddamn you E.T the Extraterrestrial. Just imagine what could have been if Carpenter’s dark, sci-fi/horror masterpiece didn’t get released two weeks after Steven Spielberg’s cuddly take on the “alien visitor” film. Okay, audiences would have most likely still shunned the bleak, paranoia-fueled film, but it’s fun to speculate. Russell is brilliant here as an everyday joe forced into a fight for humanity itself, and he makes his terror and concerns plainly visible even with that burly beard.

Big Trouble In Little China (1986)

Russell’s final collaboration with Carpenter (I’ve wiped Escape From L.A. from my my mind) is not only an exciting and truly funny homage to Hong Kong cinema, but it’s quite possibly Russell’s most enjoyable performance. He plays trucker Jack Burton with a go-for-broke mentality that charms the pants off everyone including Kim Cattrall (which, admittedly, isn’t that difficult). He’s simply hilarious and hilariously simple in equal parts, and I would support Kickstarting a long-overdue sequel.

Tequila Sunrise (1988)

We won’t pretend Robert Towne’s film is great, but it’s a solidly stylish ’80s thriller that mixes action and romance with a story about shifting loyalties. It makes this list, though, for Russell’s performance as the unfortunate third wheel in the Mel Gibson/Michelle Pfeiffer sandwich. The film’s focus and audience’s attention are mostly on that pairing leaving Russell’s character out in the cold, but rather than make him a purely unlikeable distraction Russell finds the man’s heart and humanity.

Captain Ron (1992)

Again, not what you would call a comedy classic, but good god is Russell having fun. It’s probably not the only thing contagious about his title character either. Martin Short plays straight man to Russell’s over-the-top and highly irresponsible boat captain, and while the story follows a generic path of outside bringing the family closer together the whole thing is just good, stupid fun for the rest of us.

Tombstone (1993)

As is typical of Hollywood (see this year’s dueling ‘White House under attack’ films) two movies about legendary lawman Wyatt Earp opened within six months of each other. George P. Cosmatos’ action-heavy hit beat Lawrence Kasdan’s more epic biography to the punch, and while both films are solid this is by far the more entertaining. Russell and Val Kilmer both kill it and feel at home in the western genre.

Vanilla Sky (2001)

I won’t go off on a rant about how near brilliant Cameron Crowe’s remake of Open Your Eyes really is, but just know that it’s a fantastic movie with a spectacularly great ending. But even if you’re wrong in your opinion of the film we should be able to agree that Russell brings a real presence and awareness to his supporting role. His performance up on the rooftop in the third act is filled with a rush of emotions mixing pathos and comedy into just a few minutes of screen time.

Dark Blue (2002)

David Ayer’s attraction to the dark underbelly of L.A.’s police force is well documented, but while his screenplays for Training Day and End of Watch garnered the most attention this violent and morally flexible thriller remains a solid film. Russell plays the corrupt detective who sees no qualms in his tough tactics and methods of investigation. He’s a bad guy doing bad things for the right reasons, and he becomes the rare protagonist who leaves us confused as to whether we should cheer or condemn him.

Miracle (2004)

I’ll be honest. I haven’t seen this movie, but I knew Neil Miller would dock my pay if I somehow left it off this list. I think it’s based on a true story about the time terrorists attacked the U.S. Men’s Basketball ‘Dream Team’ during the Olympics and it was a miracle that everyone but William “The Refrigerator” Perry survived. I don’t know. I don’t follow sports. But I’m sure Russell is fantastic in it.

Deathproof (2007)

Quentin Tarantino’s half of the Grindhouse experiment with Robert Rodriguez is the lesser half, but it’s far from the turd many people consider it to be. The first act is the highpoint, but spectacular car action and Russell’s twisted turn as a homicidal, misogynistic and insecure stunt driver make the film highly entertaining and re-watchable. He’s both a villain and a giant pussy, sometimes within mere minutes of each other, and that’s something many movie ‘tough guys’ wouldn’t even consider.

What’s your favorite Kurt Russell film or performance?

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.