Born March 17, 1951, Kurt Vogel Russell is the son of a dancer and a character actor. His career started out as a child actor with a roles on the 1960's shows Dennis The Menace, Gunsmoke, The Fugitive and later a major role in The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, a show developed from the movie Guns of Diablo . But we're not here to talk about Westerns. We're here to talk about science fiction and fantasy films. By my count Russell has starred in ten films that I would consider to be in the sci-fi or fantasy genres, but what makes him an icon? Well, he's battled aliens on multiple occasions, fought in future wars, one of them intergalactic, been a superhero and he even turned into a human computer once!
Genre Defining Role
It's difficult to decide what film role defines Kurt Russell within the genre. You could make an argument that it is the role of R.J. MacReady in The Thing or Jack Burton in Big Trouble In Little China. Those are both great roles, but I'm not going to make that argument. My choice is the grizzled, war hero turned criminal S.D. Bob Plissken.
Sorry. Snake fought for his country during World War III and turned to a life of crime when he felt betrayed by that same country. Although he is the protagonist of Escape From New York, it would be a stretch to call him a hero. He agrees to retrieve the President and a top secret cassette tape from New York only when he is injected with explosives and told he will die if he doesn't complete the mission. Even after he succeeds and the explosives are neutralized, he pulls a double cross on the President, switches the tapes and destroys the real one.
There are two movie roles for Russell that I consider to be underrated. The first is the role of Colonel Jack O'Neil in Stargate.
Russell plays a slightly different, grittier version of the character than Richard Dean Anderson does on the television series. Colonel O'Neil is basically damaged goods. A career Air Force Special Ops troop, he is at the point of suicide after the death of his son. He is offered one last mission to take a team through the Stargate and destroy it. He accepts knowing that it is basically a one-way trip for him. These details from the movie are glanced over in the pilot of the show and then mostly forgotten.
The second role is that of Sergeant Todd 3465 in the 1998 movie Soldier.
In this film, Russell plays a member of a group of future soldiers who have been raised from infancy to know nothing but military training. His platoon becomes obsolete when new genetically engineered soldiers are developed. When Sgt. Todd and two of his fellow soldiers are killed in a demonstration fight with the new soldiers, their bodies are dumped on a distant planet. Todd is not actually dead, just unconscious and he stumbles upon a colony of pacifist humans on the planet. Todd is forced to defend the colonists when the military arrives for a training exercise on the planet and their sadistic Colonel orders the inhabitants slain. Todd ultimately defeats the new soldiers and regains some of his humanity in the process.
Ones You Should Probably Avoid!
There are several of Kurt Russell's genre roles that you should probably avoid. Unless you are watching them for the sake of completion. If so, enjoy! In the 1970's the Walt Disney company signed a young Russell to a ten-year film contract. Three of these movies fall into the category of campy Disney science fiction films. They are The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don't and The Strongest Man in the World.
Russell plays the character of Dexter Reilly in all three movies which are set at the fictional Medfield College. The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes involves Dexter receiving an electrical shock while fixing a computer and gaining super intelligence. Now You See Him, Now You Don't is the story of Reilly and his classmates inventing an invisibility spray and trying to stop thieves from stealing it. The Strongest Man in the World is the last movie in the trilogy. It revolves around Reilly accidentally gaining super strength from a chemical poured onto vitamin cereal. One bright spot in all these movies is that the villain A.J. Arno is played by Cesar Romero.
I know what you're thinking right now. "Why haven't you discussed Escape From L.A.? That's a terrible movie!" Okay let's do it. Is Escape From L.A. a bad movie? The answer to that question is complicated. It is on the surface a shameless rehash of Escape From New York that appears to be John Carpenter's effort to cash a check. It reworks all the same plot devices from the first movie from start to finish and somehow seems to have worse special effects than a movie made in 1981. But Kurt Russell is definitely not the problem with this movie. In fact much of the acting in Escape From L.A. is fun and appropriately over the top for this type of movie. It's just wasted with the lazy story. Appearances from Bruce Campbell as the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills and Peter Fonda as Pipeline are fun, but just seem out of place and jarring to the overall story. So overall, I would not say Escape From L.A. is a movie to avoid. Just temper your expectations.