The Best Movie Ever: Kurt Russell

The Best Kurt Russell Movie Ever


Everyone loves Kurt Russell, and as well they should. The child star turned broad comedian turned serious action star turned just about everything else has had a long, storied and always impressive career in front of the camera. He’s charismatic but self-effacing, serious but funny, handsome but approachable. He’s one of our favorite movie stars here at CraveOnline.

With Kurt Russell co-starring in this week’s release of Furious 7, we got to thinking: What’s The Best Kurt Russell Movie Ever? We asked our three film critics – William Bibbiani, Witney Seibold and Brian Formo – to present their picks and defend those choices. Normally they can’t agree on a damned thing, but this week they all come to the consensus that Kurt Russell did his best work with just one particular filmmaker. But they still can’t agree on which movie it was.

Come back next week for an all-new, highly debatable installment of The Best Movie Ever, right here at CraveOnline!


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Witney Seibold’s Pick: Escape from New York (1981)

Escape from New York Kurt Russell

Over the years, I have learned that not only does no one dislike Kurt Russell, but some men hold him as the ultimate avatar of all masculinity. Affable, handsome, talented, funny, and tough all at once, Russell is perhaps the most approachable and relatable of all movie stars. He was an adorable child actor for Disney back in the day, can be seen kicking Elvis in the shin, and would go on to play Elvis in two movies (Elvis and Forrest Gump) as well as an Elvis impersonator in 3000 Miles to Graceland. He’s not so much an action star that is funny, so much as he is a comedic actor who just happens to be burly and resilient and capable of doing action movies.

Although he has appeared in “classy” movies (he was in Mike Nichols’ Silkwood, Tombstone, and Ron Howard’s Backdraft), I feel that Russell’s most iconic work comes from his collaborations with celebrated genre director John Carpenter. The two of them were both blue-collar, no-nonsense working stiffs, who knew an entertaining premise and a fantastic way to film it when they saw it. As such, for his best film, I select the 1981 Carpenter sci-fi film Escape from New York as Russell’s best. Russell creates an indelible character in the pulp anithero Snake Plissken, a Clint Eastwood-type with eternal 5 o’clock shadow, an eyepatch, and a snarl. Snake Plissken is something of a boilerplate badass on the page, but thanks to Carpenter’s deft genre direction and Russell’s innate personality, Plissken becomes a fantasy badass on par with Indiana Jones. Snake Plissken could easily have been lifted straight out of a Sergio Leone film, for all his broad cowboy-ish appeal.

When Russell reprised the role in 1996 for Escape from L.A., he even became a quick-draw artist. I think Russell (and Carpenter) were so savvy to the western form, that they breathed a wonderful strange life into a series of post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies that hadn’t been done as well before or since.


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Brian Formo’s Pick: The Thing (1982)

The Thing Kurt Russell

John Wayne became an icon whose very presence came to represent American masculinity, individuality, and—with his years spent toiling as an extra prior to being given leading man status—the American Dream itself. But the Duke always used the hallows of the past—in 19th century westerns—to plant his American man flag. His masculinity was a “they don’t make ’em like they used to” stance, and an individual dismay at encroaching civilizations.

Kurt Russell is the John Wayne of Reagan-era America. Russell has the tossable 80s hair, but both men possessed a square jaw, a bite, a temper, and a strict code, and both had their auteur John’s (Ford for Wayne, and Carpenter for Russell). But, unlike Wayne, Russell didn’t go to the past to reinforce the masculine needs of the time, he took it on in the present and in the future. As such, Russell had to deal with a packed, commercial, post-western landscape of expanded commerce (Used Cars, Big Trouble in Little China, Overboard, Silkwood, Backdraft, Tango & Cash) or a demolished landscape where outlaw law has taken over (Escape from New York, Escape from L.A.).

The one Reagan-era film where Russell was in isolation, at the end of the world (Antarctica), happens to be the best Kurt Russell film: The Thing. And the vast nothingness—and all male science outpost—allow Russell to fully engage with the Wayne mythos in a very 80s way: he wasn’t squaring off with indigenous tribes, he was squaring off with a spider-like alien creature that could tear into human bodies and inhabit their form. 
Carpenter’s film sees the ensuing hunt for the alien as a battle against a sucking force that removes the individualism that a community needs to survive. Russell (and fellow Carpenter regular badass Keith David) watches as the flabbier and schlumpier of the crew become possessed and chewed apart. It’s those men (including Wilfred Brimley!) whose body’s comparative inaction has allowed a cozier (and warmer) space for alien infestation; they’re ripe to be taken over. 
Anti-conformity and manly men (look at the men who survive; and the manly drink they share) metaphors aside, The Thing is first and foremost really fucking scary. Limbs are ripped apart, nerves and muscles dissolve, goo spurts and sprays; it’s a barrage of grotesqueries. And the chiseled physical nature of Russell, topped off with that gloriously layered hair shows a lack of passiveness in allowing this thing happen to him. Russell is a man who takes action, fights back, and can recognize those individual qualities in another man. 


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William Bibbiani’s Pick: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Big Trouble in Little China Kurt Russell

East was already meeting West on a semi-regular basis by the mid-1980s, but it was John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China that decided, once and for all, that East was better in practically every single way. Kurt Russell plays Jack Burton, the kind of tough-talkin’ musclebound caucasian that any other movie (especially in the ’80s) would have made out to be the hero. But although he takes center stage in Big Trouble in Little China, he’s technically the dumb sidekick. He’s useless in every fight, every single plot point has to be explained to him because he’s out of his element, and he doesn’t even get the girl at the end.

For Kurt Russell, it’s an ideal role. Although he can play it straight in films like Escape from New York and Tombstone, he’s just too much of a comedian to do it consistently. Jack Burton gets to act like a tough guy, because he thinks he’s a tough guy, but Russell is clearly in on the joke. He knows Burton is a lovable loser who just happens to have impeccable luck and really good reflexes. We love him for his haplessness, and we can’t help but get wrapped up in his completely baseless bravado. He’s the king of the dorks, but he’s a serf in this epic tale of immortal Chinese wizards, ritualistic sacrifices and kung fu street fights. 

Unlike even the best of the rest of the Kurt Russell movies (Executive Decision and Death Proof are also worthy), it’s impossible to imagine any other actor pulling off a buffoon like Jack Burton. He’s a plausible action hero and an absolute fool, and he’s the protagonist of the best Kurt Russell movie ever.