It's easy to forget that Kurt Russell, who plays a grimy bounty hunter in Quentin Tarantino’s fanged chamber piece The Hateful Eight and has done decades of hard time in the action-movie genre, is a former Disney child star. But even though the first half of his career is filled with campy musicals (e.g., Original Family Band), high-concept teen comedies (e.g., The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes), and memorably quaint cameos (e.g., Jungle Boy on Gilligan's Island), it's the tough-guy roles that have defined his career. Here are our favorites:
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9. Soldier (1998)
In a future where the government breeds super-soldiers from test tubes, Sgt. Todd 3465 is the first-generation iPod that still works as well as your fancy new iPhone. Early in the spiritual Blade Runner spinoff, Russell’s stoic warrior tears out a new model’s eyes and earns himself a spot in a junkyard (planet). There, he becomes a hero... a very serious, muscle-laden hero. Soldier, brought to you by the guy behind Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil, only takes advantage of Russell’s physical machismo. That said, the man has physical machismo. He squints, broods, and throws down like a Man with No Name for the space-age generation. He will not be phased out.
This Western-by-way-of-Cannibal Holocaust offers the aging Russell a pure hero role. Because there’s nothing like troglodytes with a hunger for human flesh to vindicate the way of the gun. Touting a cannon of a six-shooter and a mustache to match, Russell’s no-bullshit sheriff leads a band of stand-up dudes into enemy territory. The sight of blood and guts and more blood and more guts and so much blood and so many guts doesn’t rattle him. He rides forward, determined, like a true badass.
7. Stargate (1994)
Roland Emmerich’s bizarre sword-and-sandals sci-fi epic is perhaps most notorious for spawning a host of television shows -- Stargate SG-1, Stargate Atlantis, and Stargate Universe, if you’re counting -- but those shows all lacked one essential ingredient: Kurt Russell as military-beret-sporting Colonel Jack O’Neil. With a flat top, fatigues, and a lot of macho swagger, Russell is brilliant in hardened commando mode, serving as the perfect counterpoint to James Spader’s befuddled, nerdy archeologist. It’s too bad the movie’s complex mythology makes about as much sense as Emmerich's equally inane 2012. Though, at least Russell gets one killer line before dispatching the film’s villain: “Give my regards to King Tut, asshole.”
The Weinstein Company/YouTube
6. The Hateful Eight (2015)
As the title suggests, Hateful Eight is a movie full of hateful dudes (plus one hateful lady). But while Quentin Tarantino’s gang of lowlives reveal themselves to be increasingly depraved over the course of his three-hour locked-room mystery, Kurt Russell’s bounty hunter John Ruth (aka The Hangman) easily has the most swagger and cool charisma of the bunch. A burly, bombastic man with thick whiskers, a steely glare, and a John Wayne-esque cadence, Ruth isn’t above clobbering and berating his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), but at least he’s a man with principles, committed to bringing his bounty to the gallows alive (as you may have heard from the trailer: "When The Hangman gets you -- you hang"). From the moment we see him, swaddled in fur like a Russian aristocrat, Ruth sets the tone of the film, and it's his towering presence that commands the room and propels the action forward as the bloodshed unfolds. We won’t spoil what happens, but suffice to say, he’s one badass bounty hunter.
20th Century Fox/YouTube
5. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Having already worked together on Elvis, Escape From New York, and The Thing, Russell and John Carpenter reunited for this easy-going action-comedy mash-up, which flopped upon its release in 1986 but has gone on to enjoy a long life as a cult classic. And, that’s partially because of Russell’s master class in dude-bro charm as truck driver Jack Burton. Adorned with a killer tank-top, a pair of high-waisted jeans, and a mischievous grin, Burton is perhaps more of a clumsy, endearing romantic swashbuckler than some of Russell’s more gruff, taciturn rebels, but who says witty banter can’t be badass too? Your character has to be pretty badass if The Rock wants to play you in a remake.
4. Death Proof (2007)
"Do I frighten you?” asks Stuntman Mike in Hateful Eight director Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. The short answer: yes. Very much. After a career of mostly playing scoundrels with hearts of gold and self-sacrificing loners, Kurt Russell shocked audiences with his turn in this perpetually underrated Vanishing Point riff, bringing all his oily charms to bear on this flirty, devilish psychopath who traps and kills women in his tricked-out stunt car. On paper it’s the type of showy villain role that a less-confident performer would overplay, but Russell lets every moment sizzle with sexual tension, dry humor, and cigarette smoke. Just don’t get in his car.
3. The Thing (1982)
It’s hard to be a badass in the freezing cold, and it’s even more challenging to be a badass when there’s the possibility that an alien organism could be living in your blood -- or in the blood of your coworkers. But somehow Russell’s R.J. MacReady, a bearded working-class anti-hero, makes it all look easy. Like many of Russell’s most iconic characters, MacReady is a loner who takes command of an out-of-control situation, stepping in not to showboat, manipulate, or boss people around, but to restore order in a cruel world of chest-bursting chaos. Plus, just look at that beard. How can you not trust that beard?
2. Tombstone (1993)
Gruffer than John Wayne and more barbarous than Clint Eastwood ever was, Russell redefined the Western leading man for the '90s. His take on Wyatt Earp, retired from his law-keeping duties when he arrives to the town of Tombstone, thinks before he acts. But when he acts... well, even his slaps leave goons with bloody noses. "You call down the thunder?" Earp bellows at one particularly menacing outlaw, "Well, now you got it." In each moment of Tombstone, Russell makes good on that promise.
Avco Embassy Pictures/YouTube
1. Escape from New York (1981)
There are no good guys in John Carpenter’s dystopian rescue movie, and if there were, Russell’s Snake Plissken wouldn’t be one of them. Sure, he offers to save the president of the United States, who crash landed in the futuristic Manhattan mega-prison, from battalions of free-range criminals. Yes, he goes mano a mano with the surliest of the bunch. And yes, his hang-gliding skills are off the charts. But Snake isn’t nice. He’s not fighting for 'Merica. He’s an eyepatch-wearing, gut-toting rebel who looks out for himself as the world drowns in a cesspool of its own making. He sounds like a hero, an even more ruthless Han Solo, because Russell is a pro. Plissken’s first solution to the hostage crisis: "Get a new president!"
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