Kurt Russell gets a lot less credit than he deserves as an actor. He started off a solid child actor in Disney movies, and when he grew up became a dependable leading man. Most importantly for horror fans, he anchored a number of John Carpenter’s films, among them ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and my favorite Carpenter film, THE THING. Kurt turns 61 today, so we wish him a Happy Death Ensemble Birthday.
Kurt started his association with Carpenter on a completely non-horror vein: as Elvis Presley. Carpenter tells a great story about how a casting person said he had one guy who looked exactly like Elvis, but did a totally unconvincing portrayal; the other guy he had looked nothing like the King, but was spot on in his performance. That guy was Kurt Russell, and we may not have R.J. MacReady, Snake Plissken or Jack Burton if he wasn’t such an excellent Presley.
Their next collaboration was ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, in which Kurt plays a lean, mean Plissken, or as he says, “Call me… Snake.” The ensemble cast is stellar, sporting Adrienne Barbeau, Ernest Borgning, Harry Dean Stanton, Isaac Hayes as the blaxploitation worthy Duke of New York, and Donald Pleasence as a wild-eyed U.S. president. But Plissken is the star of the show, with his eye patch and renegade attitude as he does battle with the Duke and Lee van Cleef as Hauk. His lines are iconic, his swagger plentiful, his character legendary.
THE THING started out as an ensemble piece, but once Kurt got involved, MacReady became the film’s center. In a tale of paranoia and an alien that eats people then imitates them, MacReady is crafty, ready to fight and tough as nails. His hat and beard would be great alone, but they’re even better in the service of Kurt Russell. There are certain roles I can’t see any other actor playing, and this is one. This is the high water mark of his collaboration with Carpenter, and maybe the best pairing of director and actor in the history of horror films.
BIG TROUBLE IN CHINA may be Kurt’s greatest role. Playing Jack Burton as a dimwitted take on John Wayne, in Russell’s hands the character is sweet perfection. The trucker finds himself in the midst of an ancient Chinese battle between dark and light, with mysticism and monsters thrown in for good measure. Burton proves that Russell has a versatility that many actors lack, and that he’s not above having fun with both a role and his image.
Kurt would return before Carpenter’s lens one more time, reprising Snake Plissken in ESCAPE FROM L.A. The less I say about that film, the better. But he’s every bit as good as Snake the second time around, and he even fit into the same leather pants.
Kurt Russell’s appeared in Disney films, horror shows, thrillers, and a number of romantic comedies. And he’s never once given a bad performance. He doesn’t act all that much anymore, but I look back fondly at his collaboration with Carpenter and know the two men share a great legacy.
So I wish him a Happy Death Ensemble 61st today, when the Duke of New York isn’t A # 1, because Kurt Russell is.