Kurt Russell is one of the most talented, most versatile actors of our era. He convincingly portrays everything from good-hearted buffoons to hardened lawmen with equal aplomb. Russell’s early career had him cast as the all-American nice boy in such Disney fare as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) and The Strongest Man In The World (1975), but he is one of the few child actors who succeeded in making the transition to adult roles. The last twenty years have showcased Russell in a number of films where his range as an actor has placed him in a league above that of action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal. Interspersed with comedies like Captain Ron (1992) and Overboard (1987), and psychological dramas like Breakdown (1997) and the recently released Dark Blue (2003), Russell has starred in an array of action films that have endeared him to science fiction fans. Lucky for us, most of them are available on DVD.
“I heard you were dead.”
Escape From New York (1981) is one of the best examples of the late twentieth century’s visionary dystopian films (a genre which includes such SF masterpieces as Blade Runner, Road Warrior, and The Terminator). In 1997, the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. When Air Force One is hijacked and crashed on the island in an act of protest, the United States Police Force recruits former war hero Snake Plissken to infiltrate the island and rescue the President.
Russell is spot-on as the intense and cynical Plissken. He is quick with a quip, deadly cool under pressure, and at least as violent as the world that he lives in. Many films have featured an ex-military antihero since Russell’s grizzled gunslinger, but none have matched the sheer cool of Snake Plissken.
“Why don’t we just wait here a while… see what happens.”
Unlike the darkly humorous Escape From New York, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a completely serious film: the story of an Antarctic scientific outpost which encounters a shape-changing extraterrestrial. While The Thing is a classic horror film—on par with classics like Alien and The Fly—and the groundbreaking special effects have aged remarkably well, the main themes of the film are isolation and paranoia.
The tension in The Thing doesn’t come from clumsy jolts or the menace of a stalking madman. What makes The Thing so frightening is the unknown: who is human? Who can we trust? Is the man next to me a man, or a monster? If I were the monster… would I know?
The Thing features Russell as helicopter pilot MacReady, a man who likes chess, whisky, and solitude. MacReady is a loner among loners, even more reclusive than the other men who have come to the end of the world to find peace. Russell is at his best as the reticent MacReady: he is the everyman, the person we would like to think we would be if placed in an impossible situation. He does not have Snake Plissken’s grace under fire or wise-cracking cynicism, but he does the best he can to keep things from falling apart as it becomes clear that the extraterrestrial poses a threat not only to the men at the research station, but to all of humanity. He is a likeable, believable character, and the fact that Russell makes it look so easy is a testament to his skill as an actor.
“There are many mysteries, many unanswerable questions, even in a life as short as yours.”
Equally likeable but far less believable is the fabulous Jack Burton, the adventurous truck driver who runs afoul of the Chinese underworld in Big Trouble In Little China (1986). Jack Burton is fearless and unashamedly brash no matter what he’s facing. An ancient Chinese sorcerer? Bring him on! Vicious slack-jawed trolls? No problem! High-jumping, lightning-throwing martial artists? Make it three!
When the fiancée of a friend is kidnapped by Chinese gangsters, Jack Burton vows to help rescue her (and rescue his truck, the Pork Chop Express). Little does he suspect that it’s all part of an ancient sorcerer’s plan to regain a material body. But does that slow him down? Hell, no. Give him a machine pistol, a magic potion, and a six-demon bag, and he’s ready to rock and roll. Besides, he never drives faster than he can see.
Big Trouble In Little China is as slapstick as The Thing is serious, which is probably the only thing that keeps it from being painfully bad. Just when the story is in danger of going over the top, the director John Carpenter raises the top! And Russell is with it every step of the way. Truly a great film, and an excellent example of Russell’s comedic skills.
“I’m going to kill them all, sir.”
Soldier (1998) is one of Russell’s least-appreciated roles, and possibly the last action role that Russell intends to play. A soldier trained from birth to be the perfect killing machine, Todd 3465 is eventually replaced by a more advanced model, and discarded. He is dumped upon a garbage planet and left for dead, but he revives and manages to befriend (just barely) a settlement of refugees who crashed on the world several years earlier. How does a man who has known only war fit into a community once his role as a warrior is taken away?
As the stoic Todd 3465, Russell has relatively little dialog, making it difficult to develop the character. Almost everything we know about Todd is conveyed through his actions, his facial expressions, and sometimes just his eyes. Despite this limitation, Russell manages to create a complex character with whom we not only sympathize, but also empathize. Russell’s portrayal of Todd 3465 is subtly nuanced, and far surpasses similar efforts by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films or Jean-Claude Van Damme in his Universal Soldier films. Few actors can so convincingly evoke the humanity of a man who is as machine-like as the military could make him, and precious few actors of such skill deign to make action films. More’s the pity.