Kurt Russell is one of the few child actors to successfully make the transition from child actor to Hollywood heavyweight. Born into the entertainment industry to actor father Neil Oliver “Bing” Russell and dancer Louise Julia, Russell came of age on the silver screen. He began his career at 12 years old with a role in the western television series The Travels of Jamie McPheeters. After proving himself as a young actor, Disney offered Russell a 10-year film contract in 1966, wherein Russell became Disney’s most notable star of the '60s and '70s.
Since his time as a Disney Prince, Russell has starred in a wide variety of projects across many genres. He has made a name for himself as a veritable action star, taken on iconic roles such as Elvis Presley and Santa Claus, and has become a favorite choice of renowned directors John Carpenter and Quentin Tarantino. Whittling down the list of his best roles was a near-impossible challenge when considering his body of work — certainly, one could argue that many more could meet the criteria. These ten of Kurt Russell’s best movies ranked.
Update November 20, 2023: In honor of Russell's latest role on Monarch: Legacy of Monsters, this article has been updated with more details on Russell's best performance and where each title can be streamed.
Kurt Russell takes on the role of the popular villain Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It is one of Russell’s best movies because of his uncanny ability to make you want to root for him despite his character being a megalomaniac of the highest degree. As Quill learns that Ego is his father, he soon learns that he was also responsible for the death of his mother and will be responsible for the death of many more unless Quill and the Guardians can stop him.
Over the years, we've become accustomed to seeing Russell assume the role of the hero, whether it be Santa Claus, a morally correct law enforcement officer, or a humble, working man. However, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, the talented veteran actor appears as the supervillain, Ego, who, unsurprisingly, has an overinflated view of self. There's a grounded nature to his display as the movie's resident villain. He never labors the point or tries too hard, potentially running the risk of tapping into a gimmick, he's just a straight-up narcissistic slime-ball.
Stream on Disney+
Russell stars opposite long-time partner Goldie Hawn in Overboard a hilarious rom-com about Joanna Staton (Hawn), a spoiled heiress who stiffs carpenter Dean Proffitt (Russell) out of money after he did some work for her on her luxury yacht. When the heiress later falls overboard and gets amnesia, Proffitt claims she is his wife, Annie, and cons her into raising his kids and keeping his home. In typical rom-com fashion, the pair soon develop feelings for one another, that is, until Joanna gets her memory back.
Naturally, Russell and Hawn have incredible chemistry in this classic romantic comedy, and we witness Russell in a role that was, and perhaps still is, massively outside his comfort zone as an actor, having starred in mostly action, dramas, and Westerns. Amalgamating superb comedic timing with a flirtatious side that has rarely been revealed, this is a great role for Russell, and he certainly makes the audience forget about some of the uncomfortable implications of the plot.
Stream on Sling TV
Miracle follows the tale of a coach who guided the American hockey team to a gold medal victory over the Soviets in the 1980 Winter Olympics. The unprecedented win would later be dubbed the “Miracle on Ice”. Miracle is often included in the best sports movies of all time lists. It is also a notable high-profile Disney film, the same studio that Russell made his name at as a child.
Miracle is one of Kurt Russell’s best movies because of his outstanding and emotional performance as Coach Herb Brooks. Leading his players with a steely resolve and defiant will to succeed, Russell encapsulates the very essence of Brooks' complex and multi-layered character. While Russell portrays Brooks as this macho, assertive, and traditional male, Russell ensures there is more than meets the eye.
Stream on Disney+
In one of his best movies, Kurt Russell stars as Jeff Taylor in the action-thriller Breakdown, which follows Jeff and his wife Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) on their move across the country. After a seemingly innocuous confrontation with a fellow traveler at a gas station, Jeff’s wife Amy mysteriously goes missing and Jeff must find her before it is too late.
This Gone Girl-meets-Taken thriller certainly plays on the strengths of Kurt Russell as the lead. Dealing with his role of a panicked husband, frantically trying to locate his missing wife, piecing together her mysterious disappearance with the utmost sensitivity as a wearied Everyman, searching high and low for his missing beloved.
Stream on Prime Video and Paramount+
Backdraft is one of Kurt Russell’s best movies because of the incredible firefighting action sequences and the underlying story about brotherly love. Russell stars opposite Billy Baldwin as two firefighters and brothers who are each trying to step out of the shadow of their deceased father in their own way. The pair have a strained relationship but must learn to work together to help catch a dangerous arsonist.
Backdraft is arguably one of the best firefighting movies of all time, and Kurt Russell's offering as one of the principal characters, Steven McCaffrey, is sublime. Channeling his inner daredevil, there's real emotional freedom to his performance as he contends with his strained relationship with his brother, all while competing.
Stream on Netflix
Silkwood is a biographical drama based on the book Who Killed Karen Silkwood? by Howard Kohn, which details the life and suspicious death of real-life whistleblower Karen Silkwood, a labor union activist who was investigating unethical practices at the Kerr-McGee Plutonium plant where she worked. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Meryl Streep for Best Actress, Cher for Best Supporting Actress, and Mike Nichols for Best Director.
This is one of Kurt Russell’s best movies because, at the time, he was mainly known as an action star, and this was one of his first dramatic roles. His depiction of Karen's boyfriend, Drew Stevens, demonstrated beyond any doubt that he had what it took to be a varied, multidimensional film star who was just as capable of delivering a wholehearted performance as a caring boyfriend in a mystery drama as he was at being the rough and ready, confrontational action hero. Understandably, his performance was praised by critics and audiences alike.
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In Tombstone, Russell plays famed lawman Wyatt Earp, who has left his past behind him and settled down with his brothers in Tombstone, Arizona, to start a business. Earp’s reputation precedes him, however, and soon trouble comes calling. Despite their plans for a new life, the three brothers cannot ignore the call of duty and don their badges one last time to restore order to Tombstone, alongside Earp’s loyal friend Doc Holiday (Val Kilmer) who also puts in an outstanding performance.
George P. Cosmatos' Tombstone is Kurt Russell's flagship Western title. He stars as the protagonist, Wyatt Earp. Russell imbues this inexplicably imperious aura as he lays down the law in a lawless, seemingly ungovernable town. With his unmistakable mustache and 1000-yard stare, Russell fuses together an unforgettable look with a character for the ages.
Stream on Sling TV
The top three roles on this list are all collaborations between Russell and director John Carpenter. The first is Big Trouble in Little China, an action comedy where Russell plays a truck driver who helps his friend rescue his fiancee from the criminal element of Chinatown, which includes an evil sorcerer. Russell is joined by Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong.
Russell's character Jack Burton has been cited by many filmmakers as an inspiration for their action heroes, famously Takia Waititi when he made Thor: Ragnarok. Part of the appeal is that Russell's character is a normal guy who wants to be the cool action hero, which is also why he is over his head and, in fact, not the protagonist despite thinking he is. It's a funny misdirection and what makes the joke land so well is how seriously Russell plays the whole thing.
Rent on AppleTV
In one of his most memorable roles, Kurt Russell stars in the futuristic sci-fi-thriller Escape From New York wherein New York City has been designated America’s maximum-security prison. When a dangerous criminal faction highjacks Air Force One and crashes into the prison, inmate Snake Plissken (Russell), who is also an ex-soldier, is promised a pardon if he can rescue the POTUS within 24 hours. The film was a commercial success, earning four times its original production budget. It has since reached cult status and even spawned the less successful sequel Escape From L.A.
Playing the eye-patch-adorned badass Snake Plissken, Russell's frontman appeal went through the roof after Escape From New York's release back in 1981. Dressed head-to-toe in black, with his luscious brown locks and shotgun, there's a laconic mystique to this heartthrob, and Russell plays it to a tee. The ex-convict is the ideal character for Kurt Russell, who milks every last inch of potential out of this ultimate action hero.
Stream on PrimeTV
In his best movie of all time, Kurt Russell stars as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady in John Carpenter’s The Thing. The sci-fi horror film is about a research team in Antarctica that is confronted by an alien life force that can shape-shift and take on the appearance of its victims. Once discovered, tensions rise within the group as paranoia ensues. Upon its initial release, the film received mainly negative reviews and, ironically, was even dubbed the most hated movie of all time by the magazine Cinefantastique. That said, over the years, the film has attained a loyal audience, reached a cult-classic status, and has been re-examined as one of the best science-fiction and horror films ever made. Director John Carpenter has recently declared his desire to make a sequel to The Thing starring Russell.
Kurt Russell's portrayal of R.J. MacReady is utterly show-stealing, and The Thing's critical response can, in part, be attributed to his performance. It is in The Thing that he establishes himself as this smoking-cool lead and more so than in Escape From New York, it was this film that truly redefined him screen presence from a former Disney kid to the coolest action hero around. Fueled by a fierce determination to uncover the truth behind the supernatural happenings in Antarctica, Russell is truly splendid as Carpenter's lead as he guides this visceral and often reactionary tale.
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