Why Kurt Russell Is Still a One-of-a-Kind Movie Star

The most idiosyncratic action hero of the ’80s and ’90s is experiencing a late-career renaissance in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and the Fast & Furious movies.

Disney / Marvel Studios

At certain points in his life, Kurt Russell just stops making movies. Few actors possess obvious self-awareness about their own changing place in the industry, but Russell has always been someone who takes a hint. After breaking into Hollywood in 1979 by playing Elvis Presley in the TV movie Elvis, he spent two decades as one of the industry’s most charming leading men. But after the action epic Soldier flopped in 1998, he vanished for three years, returning in 2001 to play middle-aged characters for smaller-budget movies like Miracle, Dark Blue, and Death Proof. Then, in 2007, he disappeared again. Bored of acting, he wanted to open a vineyard.

We are now in the third Russell renaissance. Starting with Furious 7 (2015), he’s returned to the cocky, ultra-charismatic persona that defined him as a younger actor, taking roles in the kind of big-budget Hollywood schlock he avoided for most of the 2000s, and embracing his status as an elder statesman of action filmmaking. It’s been one of the most fruitful periods of his career, even when he’s popping up in tentpole sequels. In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the latest episode of the Marvel Cinematic Universe out Friday, he fittingly plays a comic-book version of a movie star: a celestial alien being.

His character in Guardians 2 is a “living planet” named Ego; a charismatic, god-like creature with a greying pompadour as bouffant as it was in Russell’s ’80s heyday. But he might as well be a celebrity, waltzing into the carefully balanced Marvel world and throwing it gleefully out of whack. It’s the same role he plays in the Fast & Furious franchise, where his “Mr. Nobody,” an anonymous government agent working for some mysterious organization, serves as a walking deus ex machina, allowing Vin Diesel’s gearheaded band of misfits to travel around the world in various absurd vehicles.

Unsurprisingly, Russell is terrific in Guardians 2, imbuing the film with the same jolt of energy he gave the Fast & Furious movies. Even more interesting, though, is the clash of eras he represents—to see him interact with the Guardians hero Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), who is Ego’s son, is to see someone from an entirely star-driven era do on-screen battle with someone from the current more brand-focused one. Pratt is an A-list actor, but mostly because of the major titles he’s worked on (The Lego Movie, Marvel films, Jurassic World). It’s as if Kurt Russell is visiting him from a time before global brands even existed in Hollywood, as an ambassador for his own one-of-a-kind, more character-focused screen presence.

Russell was a journeyman actor starting in the early ’60s (his teenage years). When John Carpenter cast him as the lead of his sci-fi dystopia Escape From New York (1981), the film’s backers considered Russell not tough enough for the role of renegade super-soldier Snake Plissken. He eventually bulked up and suggested Plissken wear an eye patch. And yet Plissken is one of cinema’s most iconic antiheroes not because of his look, but because of how Russell keeps him grounded amid Escape From New York’s futuristic chaos. Russell had been considered to play Han Solo a few years earlier in Star Wars, but lost the part to Harrison Ford—with Snake, he gave a glimpse of the harder-edged performance he could have offered.

Russell’s greatest collaborations are all with Carpenter, who, like him, eschewed much of the tedious formula of expensive Hollywood action movies. The Thing (1982) is a jarringly violent cross of horror and sci-fi that never risks a wink at the audience, even when spider-limbed aliens are wreaking bloody havoc onscreen. Russell’s bearded MacReady is an ordinary Joe and marquee superhero wrapped into one, letting the movie’s scares play to the back of the theater while he reminds viewers this chaos is happening to real people.

Unlike so many of his ’80s action counterparts (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood), Russell was happy to play second fiddle (as he did to Meryl Streep in Mike Nichols’s real-life drama Silkwood). Even better, he was glad to be in on the joke, as he is in his third collaboration with Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China (1986). That throwback piece of adventure filmmaking stars Russell’s square-jawed hero Jack Burton, who thinks he’s the center of the story, but keeps causing more harm rather than saving the day (the real protagonist is his buddy Wang Chi, played by Dennis Dun).

Often, Russell’s movies wouldn’t hit as squarely at the box office as the more generic offerings of Schwarzenegger and Stallone, who churned out sequels to their biggest hits while also making stand-alone action movies (like Cobra or Commando) that obeyed a very simple “cool hero beats up the bad guys” formula. His collaborations with his eventual wife Goldie Hawn (Swing Shift, Overboard) showed how easily his charismatic persona could translate to comedy. In the ’90s, he focused on more ensemble-heavy pictures like Stargate, Backdraft, and Executive Decision, but quickly tapped out of the leading-man business after Carpenter’s attempt to revive Plissken with Escape From L.A. (1996) bombed with critics and audiences.

Since then, Russell seemed to take only sporadic interest in making movies at all, and he really did go all in on founding a high-end winery. When Quentin Tarantino cast him as the villain of his faux-grindhouse flick Death Proof (2007), it seemed like the start of the kind of career revival Tarantino pioneered with John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. Instead, Russell didn’t appear in another major theatrical release until Furious 7. What changed? Distractions aside, it seems that Russell simply waited until he got the itch to act again. It also seems, at least from the wide-ranging, fascinating interview he gave to Bill Simmons’ podcast, that he could bow out again just as quickly.

Until then, moviegoers are experiencing a joyous revival. As Mr. Nobody, Ego, the hard-bitten “Mr. Jimmy” in Deepwater Horizon, and “The Hangman” John Ruth in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Russell has been consistently extraordinary, commanding the screen with the same easygoing, grounded presence that made him so special in the first place. The best way to describe Russell’s work is that it never seems like he’s trying to be a movie star, even when reading Tarantino dialogue or zapping energy bolts at the Guardians of the Galaxy. Anything he does seems wholly natural, no matter how heightened his trappings.

It’s the kind of invaluable skill many current movie stars could stand to learn from. Ben Affleck is not a bad actor, but when he’s Bruce Wayne in Batman v. Superman, you can’t help but think that Affleck is playing some version of himself—offering some meta-commentary on his own tabloid life (the same goes for stars like Brad Pitt or even latter-day Tom Cruise). Others, like the various “Chrises” (Pratt, Evans, Pine, Hemsworth) are defined by the iconic roles that made them famous. When Evans speaks out on a real-life issue, people practically treat him as if he is Captain America.

Russell is never himself, yet he always is—he’s got a persona and a certain indefinable swagger, but even his silliest roles are fully realized creations, from an actual nobody to a literal planet. At some point, he’ll certainly tire of these new, carefully managed mega-sequels and retreat back to his winery. For now, Hollywood’s all the better with him back on board.