A wise man — or, more precisely, a wiseass trucker named Jack Burton — once opined that “it’s all in the reflexes.” Few actors have had better ones than Kurt Russell, who makes a welcome return to theaters this weekend in The Art of the Steal. Having been largely MIA since starring in Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 Death Proof, Russell remerges at an opportune time, since there’s still no heir to his wisecracking, heart-throbbing, smirk-smirking throne.
Russell is perhaps the most undervalued leading man of his generation, so seemingly effortless at action, comedy, and drama that it’s been easy to take for granted the wide range of roles he’s aced, and the distinctive cool he’s brought to the screen. From his early days as a TV star and Disney contract player to his later triumphs as anti-hero and self-deprecating clown, Russell’s oeuvre is marked by a diversity all too rare in this era of heavily manicured He-Men. Equally comfortable taking a pratfall, throwing a punch, or warming up a woman, he’s the epitome of self-assured, unpretentious manliness, and a star who, as a look back at his canon confirms, is defined by his unforced versatility.
Here are a few of our favorite Kurts:
The Boy with the Million-Dollar Charm
Russell’s career began in earnest in 1963 when he appeared, uncredited, opposite Elvis in It Happened at the World’s Fair. It was a minor part in in a minor film, but the young actor sassed the King himself and, in the process, proved the potency of his sunny, round-faced smile. That same year, he nabbed his first lead turn in ABC’s The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, kicking off a six-year run of small-screen gigs that were energized by his innocent and boyish charm, the traits that ultimately nabbed him a 10-year deal with Disney.
Of all those family-friendly Mouse House outings, the most memorable remains 1969’s The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, in which Russell stars as a dim-bulb college student who gets zapped and, presto!, gains computer-grade mental abilities. It’s a cheesy, dated fantasy fit only for kids, and yet Russell’s performance is surprisingly resourceful, tapping into his everyman sweetness, bumbling humor, and sturdy self-assurance. That boyish charisma carried him through two more sequels, though Russell would exude even greater poise in 1979’s made-for-TV Elvis, his maiden collaboration with director John Carpenter, a project that gave him his first genuine chance to marry unflappable composure with an undercurrent of dangerous sexuality and, as in his show-stopping performance of “Burning Love,” which helped nab him an Emmy nomination, a sly cockiness and intensity that’s at once alluring and slightly imposing.
Taking No Shit, Severely
Elvis changed the course of Russell’s career by emphasizing his magnetic swagger, which continued to flourish in a series of heroic roles that vacillated between gruff badassery and wise-cracking lunacy. The former mode was best served by Escape From New York, a dystopian action fantasy featuring Russell as Snake Plissken, the eye-patched soldier-turned-convict charged with rescuing the president from a future Manhattan that’s been transformed into a maximum security prison. Radiating take-it-or-leave-it machismo, Russell’s sleeveless performance is elevated by his smarter-than-you sneers, which are broken up by one-liners delivered in a raspy whisper that makes him seem like the roguish grandson of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. Plissken was the perfect vehicle for the actor’s brand of fierce physicality and don’t-tread-on-me brusqueness, qualities that he’d again tap into in as a genetically modified killing machine in Paul W. Anderson’s better-than-you’ve-heard Soldier (a performance of super-robotic masculinity) and as a serial-killing stunt car driver in Death Proof, a turn marked by a deviant, come-hither twinkle in his eye.
Cracking Wise While Saving the Day
Plissken fully established Russell’s ass-kicking credentials. However, it was two subsequent roles that turned him into an icon of smirky heroism. The first, and finest, was Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, a rollicking genre mash-up from 1986 that cemented his persona as a guy who was up to the challenge of saving the world (and the girl), and yet couldn’t help but find it all just a bit ludicrous. As trucker Jack Burton, Russell bounces through a saga of martial arts assassins, damsels in distress, and supernatural villains with a perpetual look of you-gotta-be-kidding-me amusement. Russell pulls off the tricky feat of enhancing, rather than undercutting, Burton’s superheroism by turning him into something of a jester, his obnoxious arrogance ideally offset by his slapsticky buffoonery. And while 1989’s Tango & Cash is a collection of unintentionally funny buddy-cop clichés, Russell’s pairing with Sylvester Stallone likewise demonstrated that the actor was most comfortable embodying gung-ho archetypes only if he could also poke fun at them, if not outright emasculate them, in this case via a memorable tongue-in-cheek scene involving Russell’s cop in garish drag.
Reveling in the Ridiculous
While many other action stars have tried their hand at humor (often to distressingly awkward results), few have been so comfortable discarding their macho-man guises for out-and-out nonsense like Russell, whose turns in 1987’s Overboard and 1992’s Captain Ron allowed the star to express his inner goofball. While the latter is an uneven comedy bolstered by Russell’s willingness to embrace caricature, it’s the former that truly stands as a testament to his skills. As a rube who tricks an amnesic heiress (Goldie Hawn) into thinking she’s his wife and the father of his white-trash kids, he’s all fast-talking deviousness and rubbery physicality, carrying himself like a mulleted muscleman whose limbs are a little too loosely hinged. By so enthusiastically acting the fool, Russell comes across as perfectly comfortable in his own skin, thereby enhancing his aura of unassailable confidence and cool.
The Everyman, Albeit More
Over-the-top absurd or larger-than-life heroic, Russell’s best performances never lose sight of a more basic, engaging fallibility and humanity. It’s no surprise, then, that the actor has had such success playing average Joes thrust into overwhelming circumstances. Be it the Antarctic research team member suddenly forced to contend with a shape-shifting alien in 1982’s peerless The Thing, the husband whose wife goes missing on an open stretch of desert highway in 1997’s phenomenal Breakdown, the firefighter tasked with a baffling arson case in 1991’s Backdraft, the military man contending with an interstellar portal in 1994’s Stargate, or the head coach of the 1980 men’s Olympic hockey team in 2004’s stirring Miracle, Russell colors his characters’ heroism with a no-frills, down-and-dirty stoutness and resourcefulness. It’s that quality, that someone’s-got-to-do-it approach to tackling daunting hazards and odds, which gives even his legendary gunman Wyatt Earp (in 1993’s Tombstone) a relatable, down-to-earth ruggedness and resolve. As in his greatest roles, he’s more man than myth.