Ranking the best – and most ultimate – action films from the legendary Kurt Russell.
Kurt Russell is one of the few legitimate action heroes who is also a great actor. Charming, charismatic and a total bad-ass when the role demanded it, every film is made better when Russell is on board! He started his career in the action genre with the breakthrough role as Snake Plissken in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, and from that time he never stopped kicking ass. So let’s get started and look at the 10 best action classics featuring Kurt Russell!
10) Stargate (1994)
Roland Emmerich’s Stargate is a classic 1990s action-adventure blockbuster which builds upon the popular myth that aliens built the pyramids. Archaeologist Daniel Jackson and US Army colonel Jack O’Neil traverse an ancient Egyptian portal to another planet. They encounter and befriend the people of an indigenous culture worshiping the Egyptian god Ra who is not pleased with the earthlings’ arrival. Like every Emmerich film, Stargate never goes out of its way to become something truly special, and yet it delivers a thoroughly entertaining mix of humor, thrills and action.
The film is carried by its two main protagonists, the clumsy, but charming Jackson (James Spader) and the hard-ass military O’Neil (Kurt Russell). O’Neil takes the fight to the interplanetary tyrant Ra thanks to importing some good old American firearms, even though he also learns the lesson why you should never bring a nuclear weapon to another planet. It’s not an overly demanding role for Russell, but he is a formidable action hero, with the most ultimate flat top cut since John Matrix!
9) Breakdown (1997)
Breakdown is the true spiritual successor to The Hitcher. The car of couple Amy and Jeff breaks down on a desert freeway, and friendly trucker Red offers to take Amy to a diner in the next town to call roadside assistance. When Jeff arrives at the diner, there is no trace of his wife. It’s a simple setup, but director Jonathan Mostow amps the tension and thrills up to the absolute maximum!
Russell portrays a fairly normal middle-class guy, who goes through an ordeal of torment and terror. He rises to the occasion, though, and faces off a psychopathic trucker (the ever-shady late J.T. Walsh) and his associates. The film is packed with nerve-wrecking scenes, and just like The Hitcher closes out with a terrific car action finale. Breakdown is an absolute action thriller masterpiece, just don’t watch before going on a road trip!
8) Backdraft (1991)
An action film without shootouts, car chases and villains but only fire, how is that supposed to work? Like a charm! The two estranged brothers Brian and Stephen (Russell) are firefighters in the same unit of the Chicago fire department. Their rivalry borders on becoming dangerous, but ultimately they get their act together, and investigate a series of mysterious arsonist fires that are killing people. Director Ron Howard created a genre bastard that blends drama with action, crime and the inevitable romance, and it all falls into place beautifully.
Russell is great as Stephen, who recklessly storms to the front line with every assignment, but who is a surprisingly complex character with a large burden of grief and anger. The fire fighting operations are the centerpiece of the film, and Howard created some jaw-dropping set pieces with the most spectacular pyrotechnics and fire effects to ever make it into a movie. Backdraft is a welcome change from the myriad of weaponized actioners, and a sincere ode to one of the most honorable and dangerous professions that exist!
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7) Soldier (1998)
A few years before director Paul W.S. Anderson ruined his reputation with the Resident Evil saga he created a bad-ass piece of Sci-Fi action cinema. Elite soldier Todd (Russell) is dumped on a garbage planet after his squad is replaced by new generation of genetically engineered supersoldiers. He is taken in by a human colony, and needs to protect them from his replacements who are landing on the planet for a training mission.
It’s a slightly bizarre setting that combines ultraviolent over-the-top action with the schmaltzy portrayals of harmonious life in the garbage colony. There are no interesting characters, dialogues and plot lines in Soldier, and yet the film never fails to entertain thanks to atmospheric sets, good special effects and high-octane action set pieces. Russell talks less than the T-800 and has a rather dumb stare for most of the film. No problem, though, he’s totally jacked and turns into a killing machine in the instant danger approaches. Mission accomplished, private Todd!
6) Executive Decision (1996)
Action movies featuring a hijacked aircraft have understandably fallen out of favor since 9/11, but if you can detach yourself from that dark memory at least briefly, you’re in a for a lot of excitement with Executive Decision. A passenger airplane is abducted by terrorists demanding the release of one of their own. To stop them, a squad is assembled to sneak aboard the plane while in the air, among them intelligence analyst David Grant (Russell).
There’s a lot going on in this plane, with thrills galore thousands of feet above ground, and one of most nerve-wrecking bomb disarming sequences ever seen on celluloid! It’s a certainly a change of character for Russell in an action film, as a nerd who doesn’t want to get involved in the mission other than watching it from his desk. But as usual he nails it, and contributes his share in making Executive Decision one of the best action-thrillers of the 1990s.
5) Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Several years after Backdraft, Deepwater Horizon saw Kurt Russell (alongside Mark Wahlberg) caught in another flaming inferno, a film that was based on the real-life catastrophe of the offshore oil platform Deepwater Horizon. Director Peter Berg effectively builds up tension as we witness the mistakes and malfunctions leading to the disaster almost in real-time.
After the well blows out, the platform becomes a hellish place, and the disaster is captured in grueling and spectacular images, it feels as if you’re on the rig yourself. Russell’s Jimmy Harrell is a blunt platform manager who takes the heat for his crew, and gets into many quarrels with cocky BP executives. Deepwater Horizon will stress you out and leave you exhausted, it’s one of the best disaster movies that exists.
4) Tombstone (1993)
A film about a time when the width of a man’s mustache determined his manliness, Tombstone is the ultimate mustache action film. Joking aside, this tale written in gunpowder and blood is one of most action-packed Western sever made! The story of the Earp brothers, who want to create a good life for themselves in the booming town of Tombstone, and their deadly quarrels with the outlaw gang The Cowboys is a famous piece of Wild West lore.
Russell vividly brings Wyatt Earp to life as a man full of conflicting emotions who only seems truly alive when facing his adversaries. He is joined by an all-star cast, from which Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday stands out the most. Tough men, tough talk, tough action, Tombstone is kicking some serious ass!
3) Tango & Cash (1989)
“Action, good old American Action!” The 1980s went out with a bang named Tango & Cash, a film that is in overdrive mode every single second. Detectives Ray Tango (Sylvester Stallone) and Gabe Cash (Kurt Russell) are framed for murder by crime lord Perret and thrown into prison. Their violent escape is just the beginning of an avalanche of mayhem and corny one-liners.
Stallone’s cultivated Tango and Russell’s Cash, who is a loose cannon with loose mouth, have a terrific love-hate relationship. The plot is a hot mess, but we don’t care, it all moves so fast with car chases, shootouts, a thrilling prison escape sequence and a finale that is pure insanity. Tango & Cash is maybe the most outrageous and wildest buddy cop action flick of them all, and just perfect in its own special way.
2) Escape from New York (1981)
Dystopian Science Fiction films used to be fairly serious and depressing affairs in the 1970s, but at the start of the following decade, John Carpenter showed us that much fun can also be had in this type of setting! In the future, all of Manhattan has been cordoned off and turned into an open air prison. Ex-elite soldier Snake Plissken is sent into Manhattan by the US military to rescue the president after terrorists abducted and crashed Air Force One.
Carpenter crafted a unique and captivating piece of genre cinema that became a template for countless ripoffs. A fantastic world-building with terrific visuals and a killer soundtrack, all about this film is pure movie magic. Russell’s Plissken is one of the greatest antiheroes of action cinema, a violent nihilist with a bad attitude that can only be made compliant by a bomb implanted into his body. Russell’s and Carpenter’s first collaboration became a timeless classic that yields the first place in our ranking only to another of their 1980s masterpieces.
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1) Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Every time John Carpenter and Kurt Russell collaborated in the 1980s, is resulted in a masterpiece, and Big Trouble in Little China is their crowning achievement in the action genre! The film takes us on the quest of truck driver Jack Burton and his friends to defeat ancient evil sorcerer Lo Pan in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Russell is Jack Burton, tough talker and clumsy wanna-be action hero, who never gets anything done right but in the end still gets the girl. Carpenter is at the top of his game fusing different genre elements, and he created a fantastic world behind the walls of everyday life in Chinatown, as we follow our heroes sneaking and fighting through alleyways, sewers and hidden tunnels. Fantastic special effects, enchanting sets and, as usual, a banging soundtrack composed by Carpenter himself, all contribute to make Big Trouble in Little China one of the best action-adventures to ever see the light of day!
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