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Peak Decades: Kurt Russell

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As every decade has its own flavor, its own vibe, I thought it would be interesting to see when some prominent directors/actors were doing their best work. Sometimes its easy- while Francis Ford Coppola has been making movies since the late 60’s, it is clear that the 1970’s were his peak decade (and possibly the best run that any director will ever have-Godfather 1 and 2, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now). There can’t even be an argument there, right?

But what about other artists who have been working for a while?  Was there a particular decade in which they were doing their best work?

The criteria is as follows:

  1. The artist had to have been active in their field for at least three full decades.
  2. Artistic merit only, and by that I mean my opinion of artistic merit.  Not gonna worry about the decade they were most financially successful.  This will change which decade Nicolas Cage did his best work, for instance.
  3. While I will list everything the person has done in each decade, I will compare what I think are the best three.  There will probably be a few I haven’t seen, and will note those as well.
  4. I will only look at complete decades- no “Decades in Progress.”

Originally, I wanted to take a look at the career of Mel Gibson today, in light of the bad week, nay, year, nay decade he has been having. Upon looking at his movies (as an actor), though, it isn’t even close- the 1980s were far and away Mel’s best years. Try comparing The Road Warrior or The Year of Living Dangerously (both 80s) with Bird on a Wire (90s) or What Women Want (2000s); it just wasn’t close. So… no Mel Gibson today.

Instead, I want to look at Kurt Russell, as dependable an actor as exists. I have a theory about Kurt Russell, and that theory is that he has made more good movies, without ever making a Great (capital ‘G’) movie, than any other actor (although I think the late, great Patrick Swayze might have given him a run for his money).

Kurt was a child actor in the 1960s and 1970s, and he made a shitload of movies in those decades. I don’t want to even get into that part of his career, mainly because I haven’t seen most of them, and the ones I have seen (like The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes), I haven’t seen since they were on the Sunday Night Disney Movie when I was 7.

In 1979, Russell starred in Elvis, playing The King himself, and this miniseries is generally regarded as his entry into adult roles. More importantly, it was the first time that Russell and director John Carpenter worked together in an extremely fruitful career. Kurt Russell is to John Carpenter as Robert De Niro (or more recently Leonardo DiCaprio) is to Martin Scorsese.

So here we go, beginning with the 1980s.

The 1980s:

Acted in:  Used Cars, Escape from New York, The Fox and the Hound, The Thing, Silkwood, Swing Shift, The Mean Season, Big Trouble in Little China, The Best of Times, Overboard, Tequila Sunrise, Winter People, Tango and Cash

Haven’t Seen:  Silkwood, The Mean Season, Winter People

Best 3:  Escape from New York, The Thing, Overboard

Worst:  Tequila Sunrise

The “Carpenter/Russell” tag-team continued with one of the most important early HBO movies ever, Escape from New York. An early HBO movie is one of those movies that showed repeatedly on that channel during its early days, when seeing movies on your television was a novelty. I logged in many an hour watching the first adventure of Snake Plissken, on the shortlist of coolest characters ever. The concept- that the President’s plane crashes in a New York that is now a walled-off prison filled where the worst criminals run free- is so high-concept, absurd, and just plain awesome, that it blinded us to how cheesy the special effects were.  That is a good lesson- story trumps effects. Anyway, Kurt Russell killed in the role of Plissken, creating his own James Bond, Indiana Jones, or Man Without A Name.

Russell worked with Carpenter yet again in their remake of The Thing, which is, again, as high-concept and fantastic a premise as exists. Researchers at an Arctic facility discover that there is a shape-shifting alien amongst them, but no one knows who is still human and who is… other. Its scary not because of the monster (which was done completely CGI-free and thusly doesn’t seem dated), but because of the isolation that Carpenter captures and, well, Wilfred Brimley, who does unhinges better than you realize. For his part, Kurt Russell goes low-key, creating a believable everyman in the face of madness.  His character is cut from the same cloth as Tom Skerrit’s character from Alien and Ed Harris in The Abyss.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Overboard. I’m pretty sure it isn’t a great movie, but it is certainly good, and maybe a perfect example of a 1987 romantic comedy. I don’t really know what else to say about this, except that it is compulsively watchable.  It is also one of the most comforting movies around, too; if you can find this on TBS on a Sunday afternoon, you’ll soon find yourself balls-deep in delightful Goldie Hawn/Kurt Russell shenanigans. Actually, although Hawn plays an unbelievable bitch in the opening minutes of this, Kurt Russell’s actions afterwards are indefensible.  Despite this, both of them are so damn likeable that all is forgiven.

Tequila Sunrise, starring Russell and Mel Gibson (see?  I did fit him in!) as cop and criminal on the wrong side… uh, of the law, or something… I barely remember this. I do remember that for a movie starring Snake Plissken and Mad Max, this was tame and boring.

The 1990s:

Acted in:  Backdraft, Unlawful Entry, Captain Ron, Tombstone, Stargate, Executive Decision, Escape from LA,  Breakdown, Soldier

Haven’t Seen:  Stargate, Soldier

Best 3:  Backdraft, Tombstone, Breakdown

Worst:  Escape from LA


I just saw Backdraft again recently, and I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t hold up as well as I remember. But that isn’t Kurt Russell’s fault, who does what he does best here- which is to bring a whole lot of conviction to a sort of badly-written role. No, the problem in its entirety is William Baldwin, who at this point in his career was unable to handle the acting load he was given. It unfortunate, because he is pretty much the main character (despite Kurt Russell’s top-billing). That said, Backdraft is still pretty good, with some great special effects while also working as a constant reminder of how much it would suck to burn to death. Russell, as the “take-no-prisoners, refuses to wear an oxygen mask, alpha dog” firefighter is great in this- it is really easy to underestimate how hard it is to bring believability to something like this, especially when the worst of the Baldwin clan is your co-star.

I haven’t seen My Darling Clementine, so Tombstone remains for me the definitive OK Corral movie. I remember when this came out, it was competing against a much more high-profile and prestigious Wyatt Earp movie, Wyatt Earp (with Kevin Costner). No one was expecting much out of an Earp story that was directed by they guy who made Rambo and starring what seemed like second-stringers (remember, Costner was held in pretty high regard there for a while). Well, Tombstone couldn’t have been more bad-ass, and more importantly (as it is with much of the Kurt Russell catalog), extremely watchable. Russell made a fantastic Wyatt Earp, but Val Kilmer stole the show as Doc Holliday.  Both grew great moustaches, though, worthy of mentioning in the same breath as Sam Elliott or even Wilfred Brimley.

Breakdown works as a waking nightmare, but a really entertaining one. Things just go so badly for Russell’s character in this one- first, his car breaks down in the desert, then his wife is kidnapped, but he can’t convince anyone that foul play has occurred. I love movies about seemed paranoia that is absolutely grounded in reality. This is one of those movies- ask anyone who has seen it, and they will probably say something like, “You know what?  That WAS a good movie!” As though they were surprised. I get that- it doesn’t look like much, but it is ten times better than you would expect.

After Escape from New York, fans wanted more of Snake Plissken. Unfortunately, they got more. Its difficult to figure out what went wrong with Escape from LA, but there was something… off about the whole affair. The tone was wrong (campy instead of dark) and the plot was repetitive rather than inventive.  There is a scene in this where Plissken has to shoot baskets to save his own life. I guess Russell was still pretty good in it, and I wouldn’t be opposed to them trying to get it right a third time out.

The 2000s:

Acted in:  3000 Miles to Graceland, Vanilla Sky, Dark Blue, Miracle, Sky High, Dreamer, Poseiden, Death Proof

Haven’t Seen:  3000 Miles to Graceland, Dreamer

Best 3: Dark Blue, Miracle, Sky High

Worst:  None- I liked Poseiden just fine, but I have heard that 3000 Miles to Graceland is awful.  That would probably be the worst from the decade, but it remains unseen by me.

Dark Blue is probably the most underrated entry on my “Best of Kurt Russell” list. Set just before and during the early 1990s LA riots, it gave us Kurt Russell as a crooked cop that would give Vic Mackey from The Shield pause. In fact, much of the kudos that Training Day received should be directed toward Dark Blue. Russell pulls of the unrepentant bastard with ease, which is impressive as it is the first time he had played such a morally reprehensible character (although he would go even darker for Tarantino a few years later in Death Proof).

Not much to say about Miracle expect that I am biased toward the Inspirational Sports Movie genre. This one, about the 1980 USA Olympic hockey victory over the Soviet Union, is one of the better ones. Russell put on a few pounds and got his hair cut into a 70s bowl/sideburn combo as coach Herb Brooks. Again, Russell did justice to a fairly prickly guy- Brooks apparently did not suffer fools gladly, and showed his disgust when it was warranted (which was frequently).

Another in the underrated category is Sky High, which is way better than it had any right to be. It touched on the concept that The Incredibles perfected, only a few years earlier. Russell stars as a famous superhero who sends his weakling son to Sky High, the high school where superheroes go to learn their wares. That is a great concept- a superhero high school, and the movie does it justice. Again, Russell is top-billed here, but the kid who plays his son is the true main character.  Russell has a lot of fun with his pompous superhero character, playing off his own All-American lantern-jawed looks. Yeah, The Incredibles is a better version of this, but that doesn’t mean Sky High should be ignored.

I guess it comes down to the 1980s vs. the 1990s in terms of Kurt Russell’s Peak Decade. I have to give it to the 1980s, though, mainly because of how fruitful the collaborations between Russell and John Carpenter were at the time. Any decade that gave us Snake Plissken has to top a decade in which that very character was nearly ruined.

Kurt Russell’s Peak Decade:  The 1980s

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3 responses »

  1. What about the Grindhouse movie? I didn’t like them but he was good in that.

    Reply
  2. Pingback: The Best of Times | backstagefour

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