From roles in Disney films, to playing Elvis (and actually acting with him in 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair), to donning the eye patch of one of film’s greatest and most iconic anti-heroes, to vanquishing aliens and fires, and subduing terrorists on planes (and even knocking Steven Segal out of top billing) it’s fair to say that Kurt Russell’s nigh on 54 years of acting have lent themselves some credence to the term ‘well-rounded’. Indeed, four of his films on this list are some of my all-time favourites from the 1980s, and two of them (All will be explained; I haven’t miscounted or lost my mind) are firmly solid entries in a genre that is now being re-explored. So, to celebrate his appearance-somewhat in the way Han Solo was introduced in the second Force Awakens trailer-in the new Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 trailer, here are Kurt Russell’s 5 best outings. Needless to say, spoilers abound.
5) Tango and Cash (1989)
One of the last dozen or so films to actually be released in the 1980s, Tango and Cash seems no different from a slew of other buddy-cop action movies from the decade. Indeed, it goes through the motions that nearly all of them do: two cops, who are both exceptional at their jobs, hate each other but are forced to work together, thereby overcoming their prejudices towards each other and saving the day. And while it’s true that it is by no means the best example of the buddy-cop film-that crown would have to go to the daddy of the sub-genre, the Lethal Weapon series-Tango and Cash puts together two actors you honestly couldn’t imagine being together; at times Stallone’s detective Raymond Tango seems so far away in personality and conduct than Russell’s Gabriel Cash that it would appear that neither will ever solve their differences. Where Cash is arrogant and egotistical, yet savvy and level-headed, Tango is at times distant, cold, and too intelligent (a look Stallone pulls off marvellously with his (real) bookish, nerdy specs) for the likes of quick-fire Cash, yet he holds together the morale of the pair and retains the logic and will to see the pair’s fight for justice through to the end.
This is where the film really delivers, and differs from other similar examples: in its relationship between the two leads. Many buddy-cop films fail because the relationship between their characters are either too flat, too predictable, or too unbelievable. Here however, we are subjected to just the right mixture of chemistry between Stallone and Russell that their road to friendship through adversity isn’t too flat, predictable, or unbelievable. Let me explain why: the plot involves two excellent, yet drastically different police lieutenants, the eponymous Tango and Cash, who through pursuing the same crime lord (Jack Pallance), happen to end up framed by their departments for a crime both of them didn’t commit. As a result, they end up in prison amongst many of the criminals they have put there themselves, and then end up escaping and putting things right in true action movie style. This little detail is what sells it above a lot of other buddy-cop films; the fact that they are both framed for a crime, rather than just one of them (most of the action genre’s slew of movies usually depict one cop being framed rather than two) gives them both the chance to bond faster than many duos actually do. They both struggle with prison, then both decide to finally work together to both escape and figure out the truth. This is a familiar moment in many of these films; the moment where both cops decide to stop picking at each other, or goading and mocking one another in order to come together and realise that they are one hundred per cent stronger as a team than as two single entities, constantly bickering.
In Lethal Weapon (1987), this moment comes when Riggs and Murtaugh both decide to trust each other in order to save Murtaugh’s kidnapped daughter; in Rush Hour (1998) it comes, again, when a youngster is kidnapped and wise-cracking, fast-talking detective Carter (Chris Tucker) decides to finally work with, rather than against, Jackie Chan’s Chinese police detective Lee to rescue the girl; even the greatest action movie of all time, Die Hard (1988), although not a buddy-cop film, employs this moment, where Bruce Willis’s put-upon detective John McClane strikes up a friendship with jovial, donut-loving police sergeant Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson), and there comes a moment when Powell, not knowing if who he is talking to on the radio is a terrorist or who he really says he is, suddenly and instinctually knows that McClane is a cop, that he is trustworthy.
In Tango and Cash this moment comes just as they escape the prison, which is a fairly early moment for this to happen in the sub-genre, but a welcome change to establish a relationship that is a little different from all the others. Having Stallone play the quiet bookish guy and Russell play the loud, self-obsessed one is a nice switch from their usual roles in movies of the decade (Stallone had already established himself as the larger-than-life protagonist to rival Schwarzenegger in the less-than-subtle Rambo films, whereas Russell had maintained smaller, more personal roles in movies such as The Thing (1982), Overboard (1987), and TV movie Elvis (1979)) and just goes to show how much of a difference to their resume actors can make when they attempt something different.
The film wasn’t without its troubles however, as original director Andrey Konchalovskiy was replaced near the end of shooting with Albert Magnoli (who would go on to direct Prince’s 1984 musical-themed Purple Rain), supposedly over the tone of the movie; Konchalovskiy wanted a darker, truer-to-life cop drama over Warner’s and producer Jon Peters’ insistence that it remain comedic in tone. You can see this in the film to this day actually: one part feels gritty and classic, whilst the other feels more outrageous and light-hearted. It does not however, detract from the experience of a really solid entry in the buddy-cop sub-genre, with a good plot, great chemistry from its leads, and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Kurt Russell both do the best Stallone impression put on film, and dress up as a (really unconvincing) woman. There’s even a great gag from Stallone when, asked if he will have a coffee and Danish shortly after their prison escape, replies “I hate Danish”-quite clearly a reference to his then-recent divorce from Danish actress Bridgette Nielsen. Like I said, a great movie where the comedy actually does work for a change.