Tango and Cash had a good 2015. Sylvester Stallone made off with the Golden Globe (and deservedly so) last weekend for Creed, and his performance as Rocky Balboa just netted him an Oscar nomination on Thursday morning. Meanwhile, there’s his old co-star, Kurt Russell, who’s had a killer year himself.
Russell has remained elusive from the A-list for several years. His last mainstream effort was his sinister turn as vehicular murderer Stuntman Mike in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse segment, Death Proof, in 2007. A planned reteam with Tarantino on Django Unchained fell through, but in the meantime, he’s launched a winery and had an amusing stint introducing the Seahawks and Broncos at Super Bowl XLVIII.
To the pleasant surprise of many, 2015 proved to be a grand return for the beloved actor. He started with Furious 7, weaving into the billion-dollar sequel as a black-ops government suit named Mr. Nobody, who tenaciously tried to convert Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto from Corona to a fine Belgian white. While the Fast and Furious crew handled most of the vehicular chaos, Russell’s wide-smiled exposition drops—not to mention a brief moment where he brandishes dual pistols wearing night-vision sunglasses—made Mr. Nobody one of the most delightful elements of an already entertaining blockbuster.
In the fall and winter, he bumped up his profile with two vicious revisionist Westerns, both of which are among the best films of the year. He led the ensemble cast of S. Craig Zahler’s thrilling Bone Tomahawk, but his turn as John “The Hangman” Ruth in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight proved to be his true return to form.
In a film flowing with more performances than the title’s promised octet, Tarantino cuts Russell loose. The glorious long hair of Escape from New York‘s Snake Plissken? Check. The snowbound paranoia of The Thing‘s MacReady? Done. The surly, boozy attitude of Big Trouble in Little China‘s Jack Burton? It’s there. Per Tarantino tradition, John Ruth is a grand deconstruction of the mythical Kurt Russell, an Old West antihero whose morality is clouded by his belligerence. Unlike his John Carpenter characters, however, Ruth is distrusting and impatient. Despite his unwavering belief in due process, his impulsive nature leads to his unexpected demise midway through, a culmination of a common theme in all three characters.
All of Kurt’s 2015 roles meet lethal, even fatal, ends. He’s last seen in Furious 7 awaiting SOCOM medics. Bone Tomahawk ends with Sheriff Franklin Hunt incapacitated and surrounded by cannibals. Tarantino kills off John Ruth, then uses his corpse to Fangoria-friendly extremes throughout the climax. True to his under-the-radar persona, Russell has let his characters age gracefully, unafraid to meet terrible ends and not let them sail into the sunset for the sake of his image. It’s this kind of rebranding that evokes the reflective comeback of Michael Keaton with Birdman, and one that, like Keaton, looks to stay put after taking a breather in the new millennium.
Russell will appear this year in Peter Berg’s BP oil spill thriller Deepwater Horizon, co-starring with Mark Wahlberg and daughter Kate Hudson. A return engagement as Mr. Nobody in F. Gary Gray’s eighth Fast and the Furious installment seems likely. However, the most discussed potential for Russell’s resurgence is as Peter Quill’s father in Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.
The role is unconfirmed—Marvel has contacted Russell, but he’s still contemplating, admitting he’s “one of the four idiots who hasn’t seen” the first film. Getting Kurt in this role would be close to perfection, almost fan-casting come true. More so than the inevitable Harrison Ford comparisons he received, Chris Pratt adheres closely to the beat of Russell’s laughing, self-aware charm as Star-Lord—not to mention that James Gunn captures the spirit of his old pal, John Carpenter, in the film. Seeing how Marvel has wrangled big names like Robert Redford and Michael Douglas into recent films, the prognosis is good.
“That’s the problem with old men,” John Ruth warns Marquis Warren. “You can kick ‘em down the stairs and say it’s an accident, but you can’t just shoot ‘em.” If this is any indication, Kurt Russell is wiser and as great as ever—and he isn’t getting kicked down any time soon.