When a niche director or a beloved cult film actor fades from the spotlight, it’s unfortunate. But when one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, someone who once displayed major box office might, goes AWOL, it borders on bizarre.
Yes, there is something to be said for every actor having their heyday and while it’s true that it’s only been a few years since his last film, we are still puzzled by the disappearance of Kurt Russell.
Why We Love Him
Kurt Russell has been a star nearly his entire life. He got his start doing a number of television series as a child. Then, in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Disney took notice of this talented youngster and Russell starred in several of their live-action family films including The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, The Barefoot Executive, and Superdad. He took a few other gigs here and there but up until the end of the 70s, much of his revenue came from the Walt Disney Corporation. But just when it seemed he would be a squeaky clean mouseketeer forever, along came John Carpenter.
In 1981, Russell was cast as one of cinema’s premier badasses, Snake Plissken, in Carpenter’s dystopian action flick Escape from New York. Russell displayed so much swagger and hard-edged disdain for authority that, coupled with his best vocal impression of Clint Eastwood, allowed for his complete reinvention in the eyes of Hollywood. He would follow this up with two more phenomenal Carpenter collaborations: The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China. Russell was not only proving his merits as a leading man, but also as an action hero.
In the 90s, Russell padded out his action hero resume with even more unforgettable roles. First he played firefighter Bull McCaffrey in Ron Howard’s blazing action drama Backdraft. Next, he portrayed legendary lawman Wyatt Earp in 1993’s Tombstone; my favorite of Russell’s films to not be directed by John Carpenter. He then won the lead role of Col. Jack O’Neil in Stargate; a film that would later spawn a successful television series in which Russell’s character was played by MacGyver star Richard Dean Anderson. Then in 1996 he played an analyst who had to help take down a plane full of terrorists in Executive Decision; a film that, maybe more so than any since Escape from New York, would become synonymous with Russell himself.
What Happened to Him?
Russell’s career hit a bit of skid right at the end of the 1990s. It began with a revisit to the mantle of Snake Plissken in the abysmally silly and incredibly disappointing sequel Escape from L.A. In what I’ve deemed the “insult to injury trio,” we were then treated to Breakdown, Soldier, and 3000 Miles to Graceland. Seemingly seeking to shake off this cavalcade of failures, Russell returned to the studio that had made him a household name so many years prior. In 2004 he appeared in Miracle playing the coach of the 1980 U.S.A. men’s Olympic hockey team that shocked the world when they upset the Soviet Union. The next year he played superhero and father The Commander in the teen comedy Sky High. Both strong films and Russell was fantastic in each one.
Then, in 2007, Russell got the chance to make a comeback and a return to the darker action hero mold that had so informed his onscreen persona years before. With the help of Quentin Tarantino, a man accustomed to resurrecting careers (see John Travolta in Pulp Fiction), Russell brought to life the sinister Stuntman Mike in Death Proof; one half of the throwback exploitation anthology Grindhouse. Stuntman Mike was as charming as he was sadistic and his scenes with real life stuntwoman Zoe Bell amount to some of the best driving sequences on film.
Where’s He Been?
But somehow, despite this apparent resurgence, Russell still has not been seen in a film in four years. Again, this may seem a brief absence, but with the immense body of blockbuster films and memorable characters to his name, it’s an unusual one.
Since 1983, Russell has been involved with actress Goldie Hawn and together they have a child and Russell has another by a previous marriage. He’s also served as the father figure to Kate Hudson, Hawn’s daughter by a previous marriage, so he’s got plenty of fatherly duties to keep him busy. But beyond that conjecture, it’s hard to pin down the source of this particular acting sabbatical.
Thankfully the sabbatical is not permanent and Russell has two projects in the works. The first is called Touchback and revolves around a once-promising high school athlete reflecting on his life after an injury thwarted his dreams almost two decades before. The second is a film called Waco, a retelling of the infamous showdown between FBI agents and cult leader David Koresh. Both sound like interesting roles and hopefully at least one of them will return Russell to the mainstream success he so richly deserves.
True Grit opens wide in theaters this week and, as a tremendous fan of the Coen Brothers, I am thrilled. The film, a remake of the classic American western starring John Wayne, tells the story of a determined young girl who hires a grizzled, rough-and-tumble U.S. Marshal to track down the man that murdered her father. Jeff Bridges turns in an outstanding performance as Marshal Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn and watching the film made me reminisce about my favorite lawmen, or law dogs, in westerns.
Doc Holiday (Val Kilmer) in Tombstone
Though he doesn't spend the entire film as an agent of the law, once Wyatt Earp swears in Doc Holiday as a deputized marshal, a slew of desperados meet bloody ends. In what is arguably the greatest performance of Kilmer's career, Doc Holiday is portrayed as a charming, witty scoundrel with a taste for gambling and dangerous women. But despite his weaknesses of character and his debilitating tuberculosis, Doc Holiday's penance as a gunslinger never wanes. Kilmer makes Doc Holiday endlessly likable by playing up the friendship between he and Wyatt with the utmost sincerity. He also has some of the best one-liners of any western hero. "I have not yet begun to defile myself."
Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon
The reason westerns have had such a massive male following over the years, possibly more so than any other genre, is due in part to the way in which westerns display the archetypes of manliness. Few characters in the genre can rival Gary Cooper's Will Kane in this particular regard. Kane is a strong, silent sentinel of right over wrong, good over evil, and is well liked by all the citizenry he serves as marshal. But when a vicious outlaw Kane helped put away is released and whose return is promised upon the noon train, Kane's supposed allies back away from him as if he were the most heinous of pariahs. Much has been made of the subtle allusions within High Noon to the McCarthy-era Communist witch hunts; the faceless threat, the singled out, put-upon hero, and the all-consuming fear that forces good people to retreat instead of fighting for what's right. Whatever the metaphor, Kane refuses to relent and proves how one man with the right conviction can stand down evil all by himself.
Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) in Rio Bravo
It would seem more appropriate if one were to include John Wayne on this list, especially given the very impetus to write it, to cite his Rooster Cogburn from the original True Grit. While I enjoy and respect his performance in True Grit, I prefer his turn as Sheriff John T. Chance in Rio Bravo. Much like Will Kane, Chance is a man who refuses to deter from the righteous path even in the face of insurmountable odds and potentially his own death. When he refuses to turn loose the outlaw brother of a corrupt rancher, the rancher sends all manner of thug and lowlife to spring the murderous sibling. The opening scene of the film sees John Wayne beating the snot out of Dean Martin in an effort to sober him up, how can you not love that? Martin, along with yet another musical cast member Ricky Nelson, does a wonderful job supporting Wayne and solidifying his status as a classic law dog. John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 is actually a loose remake of Rio Bravo.
Everett Hitch (Viggo Mortensen) in Appaloosa
One of the better modern westerns, in my opinion, Appaloosa is the story of a pair of traveling lawmen played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. When they set up shop in Appaloosa, they are immediately greeted by an untouchable businessman accused of murdering a marshal. While Ed Harris is the leader of this duo, I find Viggo Mortensen's Everett Hitch far more interesting. A man of incredibly few words, Hitch is a deadeye with his wrathful shotgun and, more importantly, a staunch defender of justice. The scene wherein he and Ed Harris march to an obvious ambush without a trace of fear in their faces is phenomenal. Hitch's eventual showdown with the villainous Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) elevates his character from loyal second banana to preeminent law dog.
Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) in Blazing Saddles
When the town of Rock Ridge petitioned the governor for a new sheriff after theirs was killed, they were definitely unprepared for the response they received. Bart, a black sheriff in the old west, is faced with more than his fair share of obstacles. But with a combination of Bart's quick thinking, flair for disguises, and the fact that most of the residents of Rock Ridge were halfwits, he was able to not only run a marauding gang of baddies out of town, but also win the grudging respect of the citizenry. His inclusion on this list is hard earned. It's not every lawman that manages to ward off evil, withstand hateful racism, and sabotage a number of other productions on the Warner Brothers lot all while looking damn cool in the process.
Wyatt Earp returns to Tombstone, Arizona, 25 years after the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral, where he reflects back on his tenure as a frontier marshal. The reminiscences are compilations of clips from the television series starring Hugh O'Brian, "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp," broadcast on ABC from 1955 to 1961.