Kurt Russell’s reunion with Quentin Tarantino for The Hateful 8 hearkened back to his glory days working with John Carpenter in the 1980s. Cineplex.com columnist Shane McNeil looks at the one-time action stud’s top five heroes and anti-heroes.

Originally appeared on Cineplex.com, Jan. 28, 2016


In many ways, Kurt Russell’s turn as John “The Hangman” Ruth in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight marks a logical marker in his 35-year progression as an action star.

One of the top action stars of the 1980s, Russell forged a formidable partnership with cult filmmaker John Carpenter that not only produced some of the decade’s greatest films but also allowed Russell to become a big-time action draw.

Building on the success of films like The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China, Russell anchored big ticket draws in the late ‘80s and ‘90s including everything from screwball antics in 1987’s Overboard to huge action undertakings like 1996’s Executive Decision.

While he continued to work in the late 90s and early 2000s in dramatic roles, he faded out of the spotlight as a big-time Hollywood draw.

However, in 2007 he linked up with Tarantino for Death Proof which may have been the beginning of his second great cinematic partnership. The role re-established Russell’s action cred and while he didn’t work much in the intervening years, his reunion with QT for The Hateful Eight proved that there may still be gas left in the tank.

Russell’s star-making turns return to the big screen as The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China are both part of Cineplex’s Great Digital Film Festival which runs February 5-11, 2016. Click here to read more about the Festival’s Clint Eastwood and 80s action/comedy programming.

Here are five crucial roles in the making of Kurt Russell’s action iconography.

5. Stuntman Mike in Death Proof (2007)

kurt russell, death proofIn his first Tarantino collaboration, Russell was almost a caricature of his former self. A worn-out action star with sinister intentions, Stuntman Mike lured victims with his charm and then cut them down with his souped-up Challenger. Though not included among the eight official Tarantino features, his reclamation of a years-dormant Russell for his arch villain in his and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double-feature continued his trend of resuscitating heroes of the past.


4. “Bull” McCaffrey in Backdraft (1991)

kurt russell, backdraftWhile it lacks the cult appeal of filmmakers like Tarantino and Carpenter, Russell was arguably on his biggest stage in Ron Howard’s 1991 firefighting blockbuster. As the aptly named “Bull” McCaffrey, Russell dives headlong into a series of suspicious arson cases that threaten the lives of his firehouse including his younger brother, a rookie on the team. Backdraft’s spectacular fire rescues provided action sequences on a scale not seen since 1974’s The Towering Inferno. Earning $77 million it is currently the highest-grossing of Russell’s star vehicles (third all-time behind supporting turns in Vanilla Sky and Furious 7).


3. Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

kurt russell, big trouble in little china, imageThe third installment in Russell’s iconic action trilogy with Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China blends sci-fi, western and even kung fu elements as Jack Burton gets mixed up in Chinese street gang warfare in an airport pick-up gone awry. In a lot of ways it’s this role that marks the perfect confluence between Russell’s Carpenter and Tarantino partnerships: Burton is clearly a hero built on the chassis of his previous 80s collaborations with Carpenter, making it revisionist in nature, while the genre-bending ways of the film anticipate the style that would form Tarantino’s future template.


2. R.J. MacReady in The Thing (1982)

kurt russell, the thing, imageA lone wolf at the best of times, Russell got pushed to the extreme in one of Carpenter’s finest films. A take on the classic sci-fi story “The Thing from Another World”, R.J. MacReady is isolated when an alien life force decimates his Antarctic research team. With nowhere to go, R.J. is forced to extreme measures to find out which of his former allies is not what he says he is and if there’s any escape to be had. Speaking of escapes…


1. Snake Pilssken in Escape from New York (1981) and Escape from L.A. (1996)

kurt russell, escape from new york, escape from LA, imageMacReady was a man acting alone, but Snake is the ultimate lone wolf. Part Mad Max, part Dirty Harry, he twice eludes dystopian future overlords to save the U.S. In the original, he’s recruited to save the President after he gets stranded on Manhattan Island, which has become a penal colony. Though up to the challenge, Snake remains a rogue soldier, distrustful of the regime and – though he carries out his mission – maintains his own survival instincts. The film became a cult classic and was revisited 15 years later, envisioning a Los Angeles overrun by immorality. When U.S. security is threatened by an enemy cartel, Snake is thrust back into action.