Every now and then fellow EMB man David Hall and myself like to get together in a London boozer and talk about movies. And more movies. And on it goes. Generally it revolves around the golden days of 1970s exploitation/gialli/poliziotteschi but occasionally we'll even find the chat veering towards something, you know, modern. Like Grindhouse. And how great Kurt Russell is in Death Proof.
Every one of his scenes (which there sadly aren't enough of) is something to savour, taking you back to some of the best of Kurt. And what naturally ensues is an enthusiastic, red wine-fuelled Kurt Russell appreciation session. Wouldn't it be great to do a Top Ten Kurt movies? Especially if we include ALL the movies he made with the legendary John Carpenter. Yes, even Escape from LA, because we can.
10 .The Deadly Tower (1975) Not too many folks are familiar with this little-seen TV movie from 1975. Here, Russell plays real life mass murderer Charles Whitman during his final day when he killed his mother, wife, and 14 other unlucky Austin residents. Some criticise this production for denying us adequate background information on Whitman, but one could just as easily argue that its simplicity renders it more compelling, complementing the fact that Russell says about ten words during the entire running time.
His actions certainly do speak louder than words as he takes to the observation tower at the University of Texas, armed to the teeth with an arsenal that he would employ with relentless accuracy – so accurate in fact that accuracy enthusiast Stanley Kubrick name-checked Whitman in one of R Lee Ermey’s legendary scenes in Full Metal Jacket. A good supporting cast include Ned Beatty as eager-to-help citizen Allan Crum, John Forsythe as Lieutenant Forbes, and Richard Yniguez as hero cop Officer Martinez.
Interestingly, the real life Martinez sued the films producers for the way he and his wife were portrayed in the film. That said, this is a really solid 70s TV movie so if the subject matter intrigues, you should check it out. - Zomblee
9 .Vanilla Sky (2001) Bit sneaky this, but bear with me. Cameron Crowe’s pop cultural retooling of Alejandro Amenenbar’s psychological SF thriller is frequently shrill and embarrassing, but as failures go it’s an interesting one and in its own absurd way, preposterously enjoyable.
Crowe cannily casts almost all of his actors here in unfamiliar and surprising roles, which helps to support the film's mildly unhinged narrative. So we get Kurt as a slightly nerdy lawyer and family man, ostensibly there to help a disfigured Tom Cruise piece his life together in the wake of a terrible accident, but clearly dealing with self-esteem issues of his own.
When Kurt shows up midway through the film it reminds you how underused he has been throughout his career. This is an unusually low key Russell performance, full of nuance and shade, which makes the characters kooky reveal all the more surprising. Even as he is revealed to be nothing more than a memory implant, part of the dream package Cruise purchased to escape his nightmarish reality, Russell’s character battles gamely to simply exist – and you want him to. “I'm real! I'm... I'm... mortality as home entertainment? THIS CANNOT BE THE FUTURE. Can it?” One of Kurt’s more affecting performances and a far worthier Top Ten entry than, say, Captain Ron. - David Hall
8 .Escape from LA (1996) We all remember how we felt when news reached us that JC was making a follow-up to his cult gem from 1982, and when we found out that Kurt was accompanied by a veritable plethora of screen legends, the prognosis was pretty positive. For one, JC’s contemporary reputation at the time wasn’t what it is now – he had recently made In the Mouth of Madness - and a further adventure with Snake Plisskin was clearly a concept that most film fans could easily get excited about. Problem was, almost everyone hated Escape from LA.
In contrast to the first film, the sequel felt like a joke movie, complete with joke CGI special effects, but in retrospect it looks like an incredibly astute satirical jab right in the heart of the USA. From freakish plastic surgery mutations (with Bruce Campbell) to the smoking ban, JC and Russell (who co-wrote) had their red-blooded cynical fingers right on the pulse when they conceived this one – Plissken’s trademark sneer and Eastwood-style whispers are more pronounced than before, everyone looks like they’re having a great time, and the ending is a hoot. - Zomblee
7 .Death Proof (2007) There’s one thing almost everyone can agree on about Quentin Tarantino’s unloved 42nd Street valentine; Kurt as Stuntman Mike was – and is – the shit. Coming on like Elvis Knievel – a bloated, ageing hipster in ill-fitting duds, best days behind him, spouting about angels and bruised egos while chugging horrible BBQ chicken – Russell is never anything less than majestic and gives the only genuine movie star performance of the entire Grindhouse enterprise.
Mike’s transition from ladykiller to lady killer is smooth and sinister, revealing a palpable psychotic edge to the trademark Russell machismo. The main problem with Death Proof is that Russell isn’t in it enough. Most disappointingly there is no extra Kurt in the extended edition, something fans of the shorter cut were crying out for. No matter, Stuntman Mike is the kind of part Russell was born to play and that Tarantino, canny casting genius that he is, was born to give to him. - David Hall
6 .Tombstone (1993) What’s up Doc? The polar opposite of Lawrence Kasdan’s sombre, near-comatose Wyatt Earp, Tombstone (effectively directed by Russell himself) is an old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment that takes its cues from Gunfight at the OK Coral rather than My Darling Clementine in its exploration of the Earp/Holliday mythos - less revisionist piece, more hokey, classical romp. If that makes it sound like a campy, ersatz Beverly Hills western like Silverado though, I apologise, because it definitely isn’t. It’s no classic, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Russell’s surprising versatility as an actor means that you could quite easily see him essaying either Wyatt or Doc, but frankly, as soon as you realise that Val Kilmer is on board you know there is no doubt who is best suited to having fun playing the mischievous, unpredictable TB addled soak and who will get to glower a lot and say things like “You tell 'em I'M coming... and hell's coming with me, you hear?”.
Kurt’s stoic, taciturn take on the retired Marshall is another of Russell’s performances that carries an unmistakeable whiff of Eastwood about it, his reluctant hero similar in tone to Unforgiven’s William Munny, with Earp resisting the call to violence until absolutely necessary. Naturally, when he finally embraces his inner killer all hell breaks loose and the result is a highly enjoyable showdown – a recreation of the infamous OK Coral battle that somehow manages to be both shamelessly anachronistic and relentlessly modern, owing much to Sergio Leone’s editing aesthetic, if not his bleak vision. It’s just a shame that, for the purposes of this Top Ten, Kurt is not the most memorable thing about the film. His underplayed but authoritative portrayal is comprehensively blown away by Kilmer, whose intelligent and multi-dimensional turn as the intellectual Holliday is the film's standout performance. - David Hall
5 .Elvis The Movie (1977) Pop Quiz: In what other movie did Kurt Russell play Elvis? The answer is at the end of this review but for now let’s consider this - one of the highest rated made-for-TV movies ever shown in the US. Made with an impressive cast and crew by the then white-hot Carpenter (on the back of Halloween), it has everything needed for a kickass bio; hotshot young auteur coupled with a cool young actor who looks and sounds like The King. Russell had in fact worked with the Burger King as a child, making his screen debut in the 1963 Elvis vehicle It Happened at the World's Fair, as a boy who kicks Elvis.
Elvis has a charismatic star turn from Kurt and he rarely – if ever – slips into parody, which when paying Presley is something of an achievement. However, the harsh truth is that the film is just too damn ordinary to get excited about. The confines of the TV movie ethos mean that the really interesting stuff about Presley – cheating on Priscilla, prescription abuse, elaborate burger and jelly night snacking – remains untouched. The movie ends before the steep decline and offers little insight into Elvis’ state of mind during one of the most remarkable periods of US cultural history. Plus we get no sense of the seismic sexual intensity of Presley’s arrival on a generation of pubescent teens.
Elvis the Movie is exactly what it was clearly intended to be - a respectful made for TV flick with high production values and fine character actors in supporting roles. It still looks fuckin' weird on Carpenter’s CV but Kurt rocks out just fine. - David Hall
* Forest Gump – in which Kurt provides the voice of the King.
4 .Breakdown (1997) Why Breakdown isn’t revered as a true modern classic is beyond me. When viewed these days it’s difficult to think of the slew of contemporary thriller/horror movies set in an isolated, rural American landscape which clearly are indebted to its influence, just as it is by precursors like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
When Kurt’s wife disappears after accepting help from a seemingly friendly truck driver (JT Walsh), he risks life and limb on a treacherous pursuit where he encounters a truly deplorable cast of small-town characters who specialise in missing persons. At the centre of what makes Breakdown work is Russell – his Jeff is just an ordinary guy, as flawed as the rest of us.
Watch in awe as he tries to ask for help in the local bank, crippled by paranoia that he is being watched, before he foils the treacherous rednecks. His everyman uses whatever devices are available to find his wife almost dead in a freezer – the dynamics in the final twenty minutes of this mini masterpiece are as good as American thrillers get. Breakdown is incredibly solid and accomplished. Yes, I like it. - Zomblee
3 .Big Trouble in Little China (1986) Big Trouble in Little China, or rather Kurt’s performance in Big Trouble in Little China, is almost impossible to dislike. Carpenters 1983 homage to the genre-fusing celluloid delights of the orient replaces the classic hero with the classic putz – a guy so arrogant and self absorbed that despite his ineptitude, he still comes out of it in one piece, victorious.
Big Trouble defies the theory that films tend to turn shitty when everything moves underground, as Carpenter has Jack and his cohorts battle it out in an effort to rescue a kidnapped green-eyed girl from ancient warrior David Lo Pan. And whereas at this time (when Aliens had just been released) the movie going public had developed an exclusive appetite for one-dimensional muscle bound heroes, they had no fucking idea what to make of a wise-cracking dickhead like Jack Burton, who spoke just like John Wayne and drove a truck called the Pork Chop Express.
With a script so hilariously hot it needed constant fire department attention, Big Trouble managed to alienate cinema-goers almost as much as The Thing had done three years earlier, but is now regarded as not only one of Carpenter’s best, but also one of Kurt’s. I’m sure if you were to ask Kurt what he thought he’d look at you, shrug his shoulders and say, “Hey, it’s all in the reflexes.” - Zomblee
2 .The Thing (1982) The cult following that The Thing has rightfully garnered through the years since its original release in 1982 says a lot about horror audience's taste. While it may not be true that people know a good horror film when they see one, it may be the case that they know a good horror film a few years after they see one. On a personal note, I can certainly say that this didn't have the immediate effect of other JC flicks when I watched the video for the first time; this was a different breed of appreciation - I was able to unlock more of what The Thing was really about as I grew a little older and found myself tempted to view it again. It was an unusual allure, and a most rewarding one.
This bleak, icy paranoiafest was lost on 1982 audiences who wanted sentimental nonsense like ET rather than watching loads of men with big beards unmask and destroy a slimy, shape-shifting alien in the Antarctic. But that was the 1980s for you I guess, when grown men wore roller skates and Kurt didn't know Swedes from Norwegians. Carpenter's film was simultaneously ahead of its time and stuck in a suitably despondent 1970s perspective. Bill Lancaster's cold, cynical script finds its true home with the relatively unknown (but outstanding) supporting cast; both Keith David (Childs) and Wilford Brimley (Blair) turn in particularly memorable performances, but the real star here is Rob Bottin's kaleidoscopic f/x magic. Making the unimaginable happen merely scrapes the surface of trying to describe his intentions here - the enthusiastic young latexmeister re-traced the original novella alongside JC to figure out the physical aesthetic potential of how such a hostile visitor would behave, and then gave the ideas surrealist form, setting new standards for the modern horror film while doing so.
And of course there is helicopter pilot RJ MacReady - a hard drinking man's man cut from the same tough cloth as most Carpenter leads. The director / actor chemistry between Carpenter and Russell has only been this good with the previous year's Escape from New York - the pair have never managed to forge such a professional relationship since (perhaps because it’s not exactly ‘professional’ as such). Ironic it certainly is that the one movie that could have (and almost did) ruin Carpenter's career is generally considered to be his finest. If you're only going to live long enough to watch one Kurt Russell movie, then this is it. A timeless classic. - Zomblee
1 .Escape from New York (1981) “I seem to have a knack for picking movies that go on to be cult favourites." Never has that rung truer than in the case of John Carpenter’s monumental iconic 1981 schlock masterpiece. No Russell movie, perhaps not even The Thing, enjoys such a formidable cult reputation. Subsequently, there can be few unfamiliar with its unimpeachable premise (Manhattan as maximum state security prison, a president of a crumbling empire captured by it’s most dangerous inmates) or the central character – Carpenter and Russell’s ultimate creation – S.D. Robert (Bob) "Snake" Plissken, a swaggering mix of the man with no name and every anti-hero John Wayne ever played (the famous greeting Snake gets wherever he goes – “I heard you were dead" – is an homage to the Wayne film Big Jake).
I can’t imagine how I would feel about this film were I seeing it fresh, as an adult, utterly unaware of its myriad charms. I doubt that I would love it quite so much, as the film's chief pleasure – for me at least – lies in its nostalgic time-capsule quality (Carpenter hilariously setting it a mere 16 years into the future, so that its 1997 setting looks vaguely quaint now). Plissken was as much a part of my personal hero canon as a kid as Han Solo (a role ironically that Russell screen tested for), so my love for Escape is the purest fanboy love, utterly unconditional, and any mention of the film immediately brings back memories of it's exciting, ridiculously pleasurable moments and characters.
And what characters they are: Isaac Hayes, so commanding as the ‘Duke’ (“A number one”) big pimpin’ through NY with chandeliers on the bonnet of his car, a spluttering Pleasance scrambling into the Air Force One ‘egg’, chained to his briefcase, Harry Dean Stanton (the human Droopy) – as the perpetually exasperated ‘Harold’ and a fantastically wide-eyed childlike Ernest Borgnine as the ever reliable ‘Cabbie’. A special mention too for Adrianne Barbeau and her monumental, upholstered breasts, which appear to be made from varnished teak.
Ultimately though, its Russell’s film – he’s always driving the narrative forward – his innate masculinity allowing him to get away with a risible eye patch and leather trews combo that lesser mortals would render ridiculous. And any man that can face off against Lee Van Cleef – a man so cool he probably urinated ice-cold vodka martinis throughout his entire existence – is truly worthy of respect. King Kurt indeed. - David Hall
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