Kurt Russell has had one of the most remarkable and convention-defying careers in Hollywood history. He began acting at age 11 with a small role in the 1960s Dennis the Menace live action series, and went on to appear in some of the most beloved TV shows of the decade; including Gilligan’s Island, The Fugitive, Lost in Space, and Gunsmoke.
Russell transitioned into films beginning with a small part in Elvis Presley‘s It Happened at the World’s Fair, and was soon signed to a lengthy studio contract with Disney. Russell made a whopping ten films for the company– including the mega-hit The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes.
Russell transitioned effortlessly from young Disney star to legitimate adult actor, especially once he began his next successful working relationship, again beginning with Elvis– Russell played the musician in director John Carpenter’s 1979 TV biopic, the first of five films the pair would make together.
And he hasn’t let up since, never going more than a couple of years without a role in his 55-year career. Perhaps most remarkable about Russell is that he remains a Hollywood A-lister five decades on, still starring in multiple billion-dollar movies this year as he closes in on 70.
Here are Kurt Russell’s 17 Greatest Movie Roles, Ranked.
17. Mr. Nobody – Fast & Furious
Russell joined the ensemble cast of the Fast and Furious franchise for the seventh installment, as Mr. Nobody, an easygoing government agent who is so good at keeping his cool under pressure that he even winks at Vin Diesel’s character in the midst of an intense gunfight. It’s little moments like these that prove that Russell can be just as tough as any of the young musclebound action stars that he often finds himself co-starring with.
The Fast and Furious movies didn’t get to eight movies by just coasting along and not shaking things up, and it tends to introduce some major new star/character every couple of films to revitalize both the story and the franchise itself.
It’s easy to make the argument that, despite other recent big-name additions like Jason Statham and Charlize Theron, it is Russell who is at the core of the franchise’s latest re-invigoration. And if anyone can believably reign in that many oversized personalities, it’s Kurt Russell.
16. Stephen & Dennis McCaffrey – Backdraft
While many critics at the time weren’t very kind to Backdraft as a whole, most praised the strong performances in the film. Russell was lauded for playing not one, but two characters– a firefighter in the present, and his father in flashbacks. This brilliant device allowed Russell to masterfully play both sides of a complex father/son relationship at different points in the men’s lives, showing both the behavior of one man and its effect on his son once he has reached adulthood. Russell even got to do something that very few actors will ever get to do: die on-screen as two different characters in the same movie.
In 1991, when Backdraft was released, Russell was arguably at the peak of his star power– able to get top-billing over even Robert De Niro. Even so, he often gravitated toward ensemble pieces during that period of his career, intentionally shying away from big, solo “leading man” roles. This is one of the key things that sets him apart from most of his ’80s contemporaries– a willingness to be in movies that aren’t just vehicles built around him.
15. Captain Ron – Captain Ron
While Russell was no stranger to comedic roles, most of his funny performances still hinge on him being smart, charming, and in on the joke rather than the butt of it. His starring role in Captain Ron was the first time that Russell played something of a doofus, and surprising nobody, he handled it flawlessly. Such are his comedic chops that he was able to play off a “straight man” played by Martin Short, leaving most of the comedic heavy lifting to Russell himself.
Make no mistake: Russell is still very much his charming self in Captain Ron, wooing a family into thinking he’s far more experienced and knowledgeable about the sea than he actually is. Unlike movies with similar premises, where you wonder how anyone can be taken in by such a blatantly obvious shyster, Russell makes it completely believable. We’re just as shocked as the characters in the movie when he turns out not to be what he was selling himself as–even though we knew the truth all along. Only Russell can play a character who you know is a con artist and still turns right around and cons you anyway.
14. Gabe Cash – Tango & Cash
In the tradition of the mismatched cop partner movie as made legendary by Lethal Weapon, Sylvester’s Stallone’s serious, by-the-book Tango is forced into an unlikely partnership with Russell’s long-haired wild child Cash in this flawed but funny cult hit. The performances of both Russell and Stallone make Tango & Cash a joy to watch.
By 1989, both actors already had a solid decade of big-time leading-man work behind them, and they clearly enjoyed having a little fun with their action star legacies. Tango & Cash both parodies and pays tribute to the type of movies Stallone and Russel had made names for themselves making, and there were few actors at that moment better prepared to take on a film like this. Russell, who is very often the fun, charming foil to uptight, buttoned-down characters, has one of his best “squares” ever to play off of in Tango & Cash, which he uses to his hilarious advantage in one scene after another.
13. Sheriff Hunt – Bone Tomahawk
While Westerns have been a big part of Russell’s career since his childhood days, Gunsmoke this ain’t. Bone Tomahawk is a gritty Western that also combines elements of comedy and horror to be one of the most offbeat and original movies the genre has ever seen. The film begins as a seemingly standard Western, complete with extended scenes of people just chatting on horseback, until it hits a final act that wouldn’t be out of place in a Rob Zombie or Eli Roth movie.
Even though Tomahawk features a number of great actors turning in some of the biggest and best performances of their career– Matthew Fox and Patrick Wilson in particular have never been better– Russell seems strangely subdued for much of the film, especially when surrounded by such “big” performances. But as is often the case with the gifted actor, there is something lurking beneath the unassuming facade, and his performance is a slow burn that explodes in the movie’s climax. We won’t spoil it, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself actually covering your mouth by the end.
12. Ego – Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
In the lead up to this sequel, much was made of Ego the Living Planet being one of the biggest visual effects ever seen. But there was just as much excitement over Mr. Russell joining the MCU family as Ego’s human form. Who better to play a character so full of himself that his name is literally “Ego” than Russell, an actor who has played some of the cockiest characters in the history of film?
One of the reasons that people fell so in love with the first GotG movie was that it had a fun, lighthearted vibe, more so than any of the other movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That type of film fits Russell like a glove, and he does a great job at keeping things loose and effortless in the sequel even as things around him get uncharacteristically melancholy. With Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill getting surprisingly somber in his scenes with Ego, Russell’s there to both keep the snarky charm alive and also give us some sense as to where Peter might have inherited it in the first place.
11. McCabe – Vanilla Sky
Kurt Russell has starred alongside some of the all-time great Hollywood actors, and he is never outshone, no matter the quality of the performances his co-stars are giving. Tom Cruise gives one of his strongest and most daring performances in Vanilla Sky, and Russell is right there with him every step of the way, delivering on the unenviable task of being a believable psychiatrist to a man who is wearing a mask and is slowly becoming unhinged.
It’s impossible to properly extol the virtues of Russell’s performance in Vanilla Sky without veering into spoiler territory, so skip to the next entry if you don’t want the movie ruined for you. We find out that Russell is actually an AI-controlled fabrication inside of a computer program that Cruise’s character, David, is in. Once David catches on, he confronts McCabe. Russell expertly bounces between serious and hilarious as he desperately tries in vain to convince David of his realness. The scene allows Russell to demonstrate just about every tool in his acting arsenal in a span of a couple compelling minutes.
10. Herb Brooks – Miracle
Having portrayed Elvis in two different movies– he also voices the King in an uncredited Forrest Gump cameo– and playing legendary lawman Wyatt Earp, Russell was no stranger to taking on roles based on real people. But playing hockey coach Herb Brooks in Miracle was still a new challenge for the actor, stepping into the shoes of a real person who didn’t have a larger-than-life persona.
Miracle tells the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and their shocking gold medal win over the heavily-favored Soviet team. While the movie hits a lot of familiar sports movie beats–underdog team led by no-nonsense coach to surprising victory– Russell sells it every step of the way, inhabiting Brooks both in appearance and mannerism. Brooks was a coach who never believed in miracles but instead simply felt that the team with the most determination and the biggest heart is the one who takes the victory.
While Brooks consulted on the movie, he sadly passed away before the final cut was completed. Miracle simultaneously represents one of the crowning achievements of both Brooks’ and Russell’s respective careers.
9. Eldon Perry – Dark Blue
While screenwriter David Ayer is currently best known for his cinematic take on Suicide Squad, he has spent much of his career examining the complex relationship between crime and law enforcement– and the ways that the line between the two is often blurred. His lesser-known Dark Blue deserves much more attention, in large part because of the unexpected performance of Kurt Russell.
In one of the actor’s darkest and most complicated roles, Russell plays an LAPD office named Eldon Perry, right smack dab in the middle of 1992’s riots. While Perry is unquestionably corrupt and frequently oversteps his duty, the audience is never quite sure when they should cheer him and when they should condemn him, perfectly capturing the often fuzzy nature of right and wrong in such a setting.
Russell, well aware that film goers are used to unconditionally rooting for him, subverts expectations and uses his movie hero history to force the audience to question how they’re supposed to feel about Perry and his actions. It is perhaps the bravest performance of his career.
8. Rudy Russo – Used Cars
Used Cars was Kurt Russell announcing to the world that the cute kid of ’60s Westerns and Disney films was long gone. The hard-R comedy centers on Russell’s shifty used car salesman Rudy Russo, who does all of the things that you’d expect a used car salesman in a naughty ’80s comedy to do. Hearing Russell spout off filthy jokes and seeing him surrounded by topless women remains as jarring today as it was in 1980, but the fun that both character and actor alike are clearly having is infectious. Russell makes the parts of Used Cars that haven’t aged the best easy to put up with.
Even more so than Captain Ron, Russell imbues his own natural charm and charisma into Rudy Russo in such a way that we’re just as dazzled by him as his doomed customers. All we can do is be thankful that he isn’t actually around to try and sell us a crappy car– because we’d most certainly buy just about anything he was selling.
7. John Ruth – The Hateful Eight
Russell is returning to familiar ground in The Hateful Eight not just because it’s his second Quentin Tarantino movie, but also because the film also shares some pretty obvious DNA with John Carpenter’s The Thing. Both films center largely on people being forced to share a confined space under inopportune circumstances, and the way that setup gradually brings out the worst in the group as they slowly turn on each other.
Channeling John Wayne for the second time in his career– this time, a bit more obviously than in Big Trouble in Little China— Russell is somehow both the film’s moral center and also someone who is prone to beating on the female bounty that he is bringing to justice. As the actor also proved in Death Proof, Russell is a wonderful vessel for Tarantino’s complex, wordy dialogue, and the very theatrical feel of Hateful Eight shows that the actor could’ve been a dynamite theater actor.
6. R.J. MacReady – The Thing
A masterpiece of paranoia-fueled horror, The Thing is more scary because of the monsters that people are capable of becoming than the actual monster itself. A parasitic alien is let loose in an Arctic research center and takes over the station’s inhabitants one by one, with suspicion and mistrust forcing the men to turn on each other and do more damage than the alien probably would have on its own.
A young, bearded Russell plays MacReady, whose frozen facial hair and flamethrower-backed warpath are among the most iconic imagery in a film packed wall-to-wall with iconic imagery. Watching MacReady go from a mild-mannered researcher to a man who is forced to kill people with look like his friends is played brilliantly by Russell. He delivers what may be the single strongest performance in horror movie history, Jack Nicholson and Bruce Campbell be damned.
5. Dean Proffitt – Overboard
Russell and actress Goldie Hawn did two movies together, Swing Shift and Overboard, and then never worked together again. The couple, still going strong in real life after nearly 35 years, might have realized that going out on top with a nearly flawless comedy was the way to go. Despite the slightly far-fetched–and morally questionable–premise, Overboard hits all the right notes, due in large part to the wonderful performances and palpable chemistry of Russell and Hawn.
As evidenced by the many failed attempts of actor couples in convincingly translating their real-life romance into onscreen chemistry– Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez in El Cantante, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in Love Affair, and so on– it must still take some real talent to pull off. Clearly, Russell and Hawn are not lacking in said talent.
4. Wyatt Earp – Tombstone
Among Russell’s ensemble-heavy ’90s work, the actor worked with no stronger cast– or turned in no stronger of a performance– than in 1993’s Tombstone. Stepping into the cowboy hat of Wyatt Earp, Russell joins a group of formidable actors, many at their career best: Val Kilmer, Bill Paxton, Sam Elliot, Powers Booth, Michael Biehn, Dana Delaney, Michael Rooker, and Charleston Heston, just to name a few. Tombstone was also the standout of a major Western revival that hit Hollywood in the late 80s into the early 90s, with possibly only Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven as a worthy rival from that time.
Russell– along with Kilmer in a career-defining performance– absolutely shines as Earp, giving cinema history’s best performance of the iconic lawman (with all due respect to Kevin Kostner’s solid portrayal). After being such a huge part of his early career, the actor hadn’t touched a Western in nearly two decades before starring in Tombstone. He was clearly ready.
3. Stuntman Mike – Death Proof
Quentin Tarantino seems to have a knack for helping actors reinvigorate their stagnating careers with unexpected performances that nobody sees coming, as he had previously done with Bruce Willis and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. The writer/director helped Russell kick off the third major renaissance of his career– which remains in full swing to this day– with another rare turn as a villain in the hybrid ’70s car movie/slasher flick Death Proof.
Russell takes the charm that he has spent decades perfecting and gives it a deliciously creepy undertone as Stuntman Mike. Mike spends the first part of the film in a bar, managing to simultaneously intrigue and frighten the various young female patrons. After spending a good portion of the movie being one of the most chilling creepers in recent memory, the climax of the movie shows Russell being at the receiving end of some much-deserved revenge in what is honestly one of his funniest performances ever. That all of that could exist in a single role was proof to everyone that Russell’s only gotten more talented with age.
2. Jack Burton – Big Trouble in Little China
The trick to Big Trouble in Little China is that it subverts the typical lead/sidekick dynamic. You think Russell’s Jack Burton is the lead and Dennis Dun’s Wang Chi is his sidekick. The problem is, Jack is way in over his head and has no idea what he’s doing, largely bumbling his way from one moment to the next with Wang possessing all of the skill and doing most of the heavy lifting. Once again, Russell has charmed not only the characters within the movie, but the audience as well into thinking he’s the hero of the piece, when he’s anything but.
When other ’80s action stars did campy movies, they often didn’t seem to be in on the joke, even if they now pretend that they were. Russell and director John Carpenter were fully aware of the movie they were making, and fortunately, audiences eventually found their way aboard as well. This delightfully silly tribute to Hong Kong cinema featured magic, monsters, a still-relevant Kim Catrall, and best of all, two of Hollywood’s all-time best, at their all-time best. Well, maybe not quite their best…
1. Snake Plissken – Escape From New York/Escape from L.A.
While Escape from New York has a lot in common with Big Trouble, there is one important distinction between the two films: Snake Plissken is a total badass. Carpenter and Russell created one of the best anti-heroes in movie history with the eye-patched, leather jacket-wearing Snake as he battled his way through the dystopian future of 1997 (ha).
Escape from New York is John Carpenter and Kurt Russell both letting their creativity run unchecked, making the kind of oddball sci-fi film that a pair of nerdy 13 year old boys would make if they had the resources to make it. While the attempt to recapture that magic with the misguided 1996 sequel didn’t quite work, you could tell that the pair had a blast reuniting and spending millions in studio money just so they could play around in that world again. And who can blame them?
What’s your favorite Kurt Russell role? Let us know in the comments!