Total Recall

Rank Kurt Russell's 10 Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 star.

by | May 3, 2017 | Comments

When he strolls on the screen this weekend as Ego the Living Planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Kurt Russell will be bringing one of Marvel’s wackiest characters to life in the MCU — and adding another big hit to a filmography that already boasts more than a few. Over the course of a screen career that spans more than 50 years and shows no signs of slowing down, Russell’s racked up blockbusters, cult classics, and pretty much everything in between, and we knew there was no time like the present to take a fond look back at some of his brightest critical highlights. Grab your Six Demon Bag, ’cause it’s time for Total Recall!

10. The Hateful Eight (2015) 74%

Photo: Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company

What if Quentin Tarantino tried his hand at an Agatha Christie mystery? Filmgoers got their answer to that question — sort of — with 2015’s The Hateful Eight, in which a rogue’s gallery of typically Tarantino-esque characters find themselves bound up in lethally close quarters while a murder mystery inexorably tightens its way toward a gleefully violent conclusion. It’s a setup rich with possibilities for the director’s signature style of filmmaking, and in a fair number of respects, critics said Hateful didn’t disappoint: Tarantino assembled a stellar ensemble cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and fed them heaping servings of the sort of pungently knotty dialogue fans have come to expect. Yet while Tarantino’s films have often benefited from an approach to violence that could be charitably described as “enthusiastic,” some scribes admitted to a certain amount of discomfort with the particular brand of bloodshed he unleashed here, identifying a darker, meaner strain that explored racism and misogyny without necessarily offering illumination. “The Hateful Eight is a movie about the worst aspects of human nature, which is why the film can’t be quite described as ‘fun,’ at least in the traditional sense,” wrote the Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez. “But Tarantino isn’t glorifying the ugliness; he’s condemning it.”

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9. Furious 7 (2015) 81%

Photo: Universal Pictures

Just when you thought the Fast & Furious franchise couldn’t add any more action stars to its already-sprawling cast, along came 2015’s Furious 7, which packed Russell (along with Tony Jaa and Ronda Rousey) into an ensemble that already included Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, and the late Paul Walker. Russell’s addition proved particularly (ahem) fateful, as it’s his Mr. Nobody who sends the gang on a covert ops mission, helping the series continue its pivot away from street-racing action and toward good old-fashioned spy caper thrills. While it’s hardly the largest role on Russell’s résumé, it added another blockbuster to his list while proving he could still hold his own on a screen crowded with big-budget mayhem. “It’s all dumb,” shrugged the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Molly Eichel, “but it’s wonderfully, comfortably dumb in just the right way.”

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8. Breakdown (1997) 83%

Sociologically speaking, a thriller that encourages out-of-town drivers to be afraid of beat-up trucks on lonely stretches of road might not be the best thing. But as far as taut kidnapping thrillers go, 1997’s Breakdown — starring Russell as a panicked husband who pursues any means necessary to secure the release of his wife (Kathleen Quinlan) from the clutches of deluded robbers — delivers the goods, with director Jonathan Mostow cranking up the tension while his leading man races against time (and J.T. Walsh). “Breakdown,” wrote the Houston Chronicle’s Jeff Millar, “gets the job done.”

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7. Miracle (2004) 81%

Photo: Walt Disney Studios

If you’ve seen one sports drama, you’ve kinda seen ’em all… but the formula is still powerfully effective, especially when the story is rooted in reality — and it’s the incredible underdog Olympic success story dramatized in 2004’s Miracle. Starring Russell as 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks, this Disney-distributed effort follows its inspirational arc clearly and cleanly; anyone who’s watched much of this sort of thing can sense the resolution coming well before the final act. Yet it’s still undeniably stirring, especially for viewers with an emotional stake in the American team’s unlikely upset of their Soviet counterparts at a pivotal moment in the Cold War. “I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more involved in fictional competition than I was throughout this movie,” marveled Jack Mathews of the New York Daily News. “And I can’t tell a hockey puck from cow pie.”

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6. The Thing (1982) 84%

Photo: Universal Pictures

Russell reunited with his Escape from New York director John Carpenter for the following year’s The Thing, an adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella Who Goes There? about an all-but-impossible-to-detect alien creature who infiltrates the crew of a remote Antarctic research base. Part of an outstanding ensemble that also included Wilford Brimley and character actor’s character actor Keith David, Russell gave viewers a hero of sorts for the film’s first couple of acts — and then, in its waning moments, made them guess whether they knew who was human and who was, ultimately, the Thing. As Austin Trunick wrote for Under the Radar, “With a thick, thick air of intense paranoia and jaw-dropping monster effects work, The Thing stands as one of the greatest films of both the horror and science fiction genres.”

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5. Big Trouble in Little China (1986) 74%

Photo: 20th Century Fox

It’s all in the reflexes. Sadly, it wasn’t at the box office, where this John Carpenter-crafted homage to kung fu flicks went neglected during its initial theatrical run. But whatever it lacked in box-office receipts, Big Trouble in Little China — starring Russell as Jack Burton, the wisecracking doofus truck driver dragooned into a centuries-old vendetta pursued by a cursed Chinese warlord doomed to quasi-immortality — has more than made up in cult status over the ensuing decades. “Kung fu, monsters, sorcery, 18-wheelers, swordfights and world-saving heroics against impossible odds,” wrote James Rocchi for Netflix. “What more could you want?”

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4. Deepwater Horizon (2016) 82%

Photo: David Lee/Summit Entertainment

At this point, if Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg team up for an action thriller based on real-life events, butts are probably going to end up in seats regardless of anything else, so it’s to Berg’s credit that he still cares enough to round out his ripped-from-the-headlines oeuvre with tremendously talented acting ensembles. Case in point: 2016’s Deepwater Horizon, in which Wahlberg leads a cast dramatizing the catastrophic oil spill that polluted the Louisiana bay six years previous. As the manager of the rig responsible for the disaster, Russell personifies the middle manager caught between his duties to the company, his crew, and the world at large — and as we all know now, he pays dearly for his position. “Deepwater Horizon,” wrote Adam Graham of the Detroit News, “makes its intentions clear and does its job, just like the workers aboard that rig.”

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3. Escape From New York (1981) 86%

The first in a trilogy of John Carpenter classics led by Russell, Escape from New York weaves cinematic magic from an elegantly pure premise: in a post-apocalyptic future in which Manhattan has been converted into a prison, veteran soldier turned prisoner Snake Plissken is offered the opportunity to earn a pardon by rescuing the kidnapped President — with the caveat that if he doesn’t get back in less than 24 hours, explosives implanted in his body will explode. Outfitted with an eyepatch, artillery, and a glorious early-’80s mullet, Russell led audiences on a thrilling adventure whose relatively modest box office returns only hinted at its future cult status and subtle influence. “The movie proudly wears its affection for crusty Sergio Leone archetypes and countdown-clock suspense sequences,” observed Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf. “Carpenter was Tarantino long before Tarantino was.”

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2. Bone Tomahawk (2015) 91%

The debut directorial effort from multi-hyphenate talent S. Craig Zahler (who also wrote the screenplay and handled the music), Bone Tomahawk blends the horror and western genres so effectively it’s almost surprising that more movies haven’t tried the juggling act. Russell leads a talented ensemble (including Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, and Richard Jenkins) as Sheriff Franklin Hunt, a lawman dragged against his better judgment into a hunt for a tribe of troglodytes who’ve kidnapped a handful of people in his town, and that rather threadbare setup leads to all manner of steadily escalating Old West horrors. The rare genre film that cares enough to balance its stomach-churning gore against well-written (and powerfully acted) characters, Tomahawk earned raves from appreciative critics like the Daily Telegraph’s Tim Robey, who wrote, “You’ll be watching — at least, I was — with your hand clamped over your mouth in various states of aghast-ness. But the film’s bloodiest moments, in a real turn-up for the books, are also its saddest.”

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1. Swing Shift (1984) 87%

Photo: Warner Brothers

It endured an infamously bumpy production period — during which stars Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell went over Jonathan Demme’s head to arrange edits and reshoots with a different director — but even if Swing Shift didn’t end up fulfilling Demme’s original vision, critics still felt it effectively told the story of a war bride (Hawn) who enters the workforce and starts an affair with a musician (Russell) during WWII while her husband (Ed Harris) is overseas. Although more than a few viewers have taken issue with its soft-focused treatment of adultery, the picture’s rich detail and well-written script impressed writers like Filmcritic’s Pete Croatto, who observed, “Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson could learn a few things watching this. Or maybe they already have.”

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