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).