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Kurt Russell's 5 best movie roles: From Plissken to Elvis Presley

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Like a long-lost childhood friend returning after years in the wilderness, Kurt Russell is finally back on leading man duties in new heist caper The Art of the Steal. To celebrate the perennially-mulleted icon's return to the big screen, here's a look at five of his classic roles...

Elvis Presley - Elvis (1979)


Made just two years after the American icon's tragic demise and therefore placed under intense scrutiny by a still-devastated public, John Carpenter's TV movie Elvis managed to win over those suspicious minds with a terrific portrayal of the hip-shaking star by the Emmy-nominated Russell.

Such an iconic, identifiable, and effectively deified figure was never going to be a simple task to imitate - just look at the casting issues over Freddie Mercury in the planned biopic. It speaks volumes for Russell's versatility that he donned the blue suede shoes with such assurance to deliver a rousing performance that captured the effervescent appeal of the singer while bringing out the conflicts, issues and resentments that lurked deep inside and sent him on a path to self destruction.

Snake Plissken - Escape From New York (1981)


"Call me Snake". Adopting a survive-at-all-costs mentality in a bleak future world ravaged by World War III and the US government's nefarious machinations, Snake Plissken seethed cynicism through every one of his sweat-infused pores. Yet the soldier-turned-criminal's deep-rooted code of honour and integrity proved to be the one shining light amid the omnipresent darkness, compelling us to cheer on this stern character as he tried to rescue the president within 24 hours and secure vital documents or else face death.

Despite the extreme predicament, Snake's actions were highly relatable for anyone who takes pride in sticking two fingers up at reprehensible authority figures. Russell was so perfect in the role of the terse one-eyed anti-hero that the often-mooted remake always appears to come unstuck because of casting issues. Nobody else can play Snake. Nobody should even attempt it.

MacReady - The Thing (1982)


John Carpenter's 1982 classic is justly lauded for its stunningly monstrous visual effects and claustrophobic atmosphere, but Kurt Russell's performance as helicopter pilot MacReady anchors the whole movie and gives it a human heartbeat amid the extraterrestrial carnage and paranoia in an Antarctic research station. Yet MacReady's far from the conventional chisel-jawed, one-liner dispensing action hero. Instead he's a bearded, booze-swilling and largely anti-social presence.

The Thing showcases the subtlety of Russell's craft. There's an inherent goodness that emerges through the cracks in MacReady's abrasive exterior and instinctively draws us to him, much like Snake Plissken. It all feels natural and not contrived in the slightest and that's what distinguishes genuine star presence from the rest of the pack. Russell's inherent appeal serves to heighten the drama when we start to suspect MacReady's body might be possessed.

Having aligned with the flamethrower-toting MacReady in the fight against the shape-shifting bodysnatchers, we're left hanging by the movie's ambiguous ending that leaves his fate in the balance. It's a brilliant, bittersweet dénouement made all the more powerful by Russell's ability to make us root for an initially unfriendly character. If only someone would greenlight a sequel, which we probed Carpenter about not so long ago...

Jack Burton - Big Trouble In Little China (1986)


Kurt Russell excelled as rugged everyman trucker Jack Burton in Carpenter's bonkers but brilliant kung fu jaunt. Well, that's if your everyman has massive '80s hair, bulging biceps, denim jeans that Shakin' Stevens would be proud of and a white vest sparkling enough to make John McClane weep. It's a classic 'fish out of water' role for Russell, as Burton's proficiency at brawling and making declarations like "I was born ready" hold little sway over the mystical martial arts marauders he tries to fend off.

"Jack is and isn't the hero," Russell told Starlog magazine in 1986. "This guy is a real blowhard. He's a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up". All the Inspector Clouseau-style pratfalls he experiences, amid his delusions of being an Indiana Jones-type, are given an endearing quality by Russell's performance. We laugh at Jack, but we still want him to sweep Kim Cattrall off her feet and vanquish his nemesis Lo Pan to the extent that his servant literally explodes with rage. He does so in fine style.

Stuntman Mike - Death Proof (2007)


Can one tremendous performance save an otherwise lousy movie? Kurt Russell's transfixing turn as the demented Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse homage Death Proof came close to redeeming the otherwise turgid mess. As the psychopathic menace who stalks a group of young ladies, Russell's strengths (sheer coolness, ability to exude menace and whisper minimal lines of dialogue to mesmerising effect) are cleverly used by Tarantino while subverting our familiarity with seeing the actor as a heroic figure, much like he accomplished with John Travolta in Pulp Fiction.

Used sparingly, Russell's presence suddenly makes Death Proof spark into life whenever he appears. There's also a wonderfully surreal comic touch to his line delivery at points, an ability that's largely been untapped over the decades. Unless Tango & Cash had you howling in the aisles.

What are your favourite Kurt Russell roles? Leave your comments in the space below!

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