Tuesday, April 17, 2007

From The Vault: The Stunt Man

Director: Richard Rush
Starring: Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Allen Garfield, Alex Rocco

Running Time: 131 min.

Rating: R

Release Date: 1980

*** (out of ****)

One of the many positive things to come out of the recent release of Grindhouse is that it finally shines the spotlight on the unsung heroes of movie making: stunt people. Zoe Bell's performance in Death Proof is the only instance I can remember where a stunt person is actually portraying themself in a film. They might have the most difficult job (and easily the most physically taxing) in movies, but must stand behind the curtain as the high paying actor or actress gets all the credit. Of course there are exceptions, as Tom Cruise supposedly performs most of his own stunts (which he's more than happy to tell us). You could probably name all the actors and actresses involved in your favorite action scenes, but try naming the stunt people who actually made them possible.

This got me thinking about the most famous movie ever made about stunt men, Richard Rush's The Stunt Man, which was received by critics as a masterpiece upon its release in 1980. It was considered to be the first great movie of the 80's, but time has instead revealed it as one of the last great ones of the 70's. While the press embraced it and it even earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Peter O'Toole, audiences stayed away and it fell off the map. The stress of actually getting it made, greenlit and its subsequent box office failure lead to a 14 year exile from Hollywood for director Richard Rush. While I don't think The Stunt Man is the masterpiece its fans proclaim and has some serious flaws, it is a lot of fun and worth checking out. If nothing else, it features an amazing performance from the great O'Toole and the most unintentionally hilarious film score you'll ever hear in your life.

Cameron (Steve Railback) is a fugitive on the run who stumbles upon the filming of a World War I movie directed by the eccentric and enigmatic Eli Cross (O' Toole). Cross offers to help Cameron hide under the condition he step in and replace his stunt man who was (accidently?) killed during filming. He falls in love with the movie's star, Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey) but soon suspects Cross is crazy and attempting to kill him by eventually having him perform the very stunt that killed his predecessor. The whole movie and movie within the movie becomes a tighrope walk between perception and reality.

This may be one of the most far fetched films I've ever seen. If aliens came down and abducted every character in the film that would probably be more believable than what we actually witness. Here's just a few examples:

1) Despite a stunt man being killed on the set of a major motion picture there's really no formal investigation, yet a buffoon cop (Alex Rocco) decides to just hang around all week yelling at the crew and director, making empty threats to shut down production.

2) A man who looks homeless is taken off the street and replaces the deceased stunt man despite having no experience.

3) The beautiful star actress of the movie falls in love with the new stunt man instantly.

4) All action scenes in this movie are filmed in uninterrupted takes. They go on for up to 15 minutes at a time with the director not once calling for another take or yelling "cut!" The action is accompanied by what sounds like vaudeville carnival music.

5) This director decides it would be more convenient to travel around set on his moving camera crane (when they're not filming!)

6) This director also sets up a barricade so members of the cast or crew can't "escape." The police (who should be investigating him for murder) are not only behind the idea they later take cameo roles in his movie.

From what I just listed there you'd probably think I hate this film but nothing could be further from the truth. It's so bizarre and determined to entertain that you just can't. A lot of that stems from the performance of Peter O' Toole as Eli Cross (who supposedly based his portrayal of the egomaniacal director on his Lawrence of Arabia director David Lean). Even though Railsback's Cameron is the title character and in just about every scene, O'Toole owns this movie. He's charming, funny, selfish and arrogant, all while remaining completely likable and just believable enough to hire a criminal off the street to kill him in his film. The movie tries to juggle a lot of balls at once as it tries to be a dark comedy, an action/adventure, a romance, a mystery and a drama. By the end I think I came to the conclusion it was a dark comedy. I think. Without O'Toole the movie couldn't have even been anything.

Steve Railsback is adequate as the fugitive stunt man who may or may not be paranoid (even though his performance becomes whiny and irratating as the film wears on), but Hershey adds some real substance in a role that otherwise would have been forgettable. Now about that music. Dominic Frontiere's score for this film is so cartoonish and catchy I started to wonder if it was being done as a joke. It's distracting and hilariously out of place given the subject matter, but I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't humming the theme for hours after the film ended. It sure is catchy. It's in my head now as I'm typing this. Maybe it's fitting a film this weird contain a musical score that's even weirder. Still, like most of the elements in this film, I have to give it a pass because there's no doubt it'll entertain the hell out of you.

The Stunt Man was released on DVD in 2001 in a special collector's edition, which includes a making of documentary entitled The Sinister Saga of Making The Stuntman. The doc is almost as long as the film itself (it clocks in just under 2 hours) and is hosted by the film's director, Richard Rush. I absolutely loved this documentary and it may go down as one of those special features that are actually as entertaining as the film itself. On very few occasions have I seen a "making of…" documentary where the director was this passionate and excited about the film they made as Rush is here. Some may think he's just stroking his own ego, but I don't think so. Even if he is, so what? He's proud of himself and the film he made and there's nothing wrong with that. He's like a 5 year-old at Christmas and his passion and enthusiasm for filmmaking is contagious. You can't knock that.

Rush seems to be having the time of his life explaining the technical and narrative aspects of the movie. He also isn't afraid to make a fool of himself and participates in some ridiculously cheesy visual tricks to demonstrate the themes of perceived reality in the film. The movie may not nearly be as deep as he thinks it is, but he certainly makes a good case. He hosts this entire 2 hour affair himself which had me wondering: Why can't other filmmakers be as giving as this guy is on their DVD releases? If he has this much excitement and enthusiasm for the film, how can I not? This was one of those rare cases where the supplemental material increased my appreciation for the actual movie.

The sad footnote to this saga of The Stunt Man is that Rush only made one other film after it (The 1994 Bruce Willis flop Color of Night) and all but disappeared from Hollywood. His problems with the studio system are even hinted at in the documentary as at times he comes across as somewhat bitter about the struggles he had to get it made and the audience reception. He entertainingly takes little inside shots at how studios aren't receptive to any idea that may be somewhat original and complex (a statement that rings even truer now) and criticizes them for trying to change certain aspects of the film. Good for him. He seems like the kind of guy who wants to make films he's passionate about and do it his way. It makes sense that he wouldn't fit into the Hollywood system, which could be the one thing he has in common with the fictional director O'Toole portrays in his film.

I've heard rumors that Rush was considered to be a judge on the upcoming Steven Spielberg/Mark Burnett reality show On The Lot premiering in May. I've yet to get a confirmation on that but really hope it's true because Rush seems like a great guy who could add a lot of insight and education into the world of filmmaking, even for the most casual viewer. It would be fantastic to have him back. For now though, we get to look back on The Stunt Man as fun, interesting entertainment that, despite its flaws, took risks very few films today seem capable of.

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