This week’s question is short and sweet, and comes from our own Caity PenzeyMoog:
What’s your favorite film stunt?
This one took a lot of soul searching and YouTube video clips because world cinema is oh so rich with people willing to possibly murder themselves for my entertainment. But no piece of stunt work is more indelible to me than Indiana Jones being dragged behind a truck in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. It’s not about the dynamism or complexity of the stunt itself (as great as it is) as much as what a perfect action sequence the whole scene presents. Jones, on horseback, chases down a military truck loaded with the ark and a half-dozen soldiers. He briefly wrests control of the truck before being thrown through the windshield. In danger of being crushed against the car in front of him, he slips underneath the speeding truck and uses his bullwhip as a towline until he can shimmy back onboard. And even though he’s obviously performing superhuman feats of stamina and reflex, the scene is peppered with small moments of mishap—the hood ornament popping off in Indy’s hand, the driver pummeling Indy’s gunshot wound—that bring the whole spectacle down to a human scale.
The best stunts take you out of the action, if momentarily: You’re not suspending disbelief any more but wondering quite literally about the physical safety of the actor at hand. This is certainly the case for my favorite stunt of all time, in which a man dressed as a zombie fights an actual shark, from Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2. It’s an all-time great giallo, full of lurid colors and phantasmagoric prog rock, but in its centerpiece scene, all of that fades away and you come face-to-face with a video documentary about a man, dressed as a zombie, fighting an actual fucking shark. After a prolonged sequence involving a topless woman being chased by a shark and a zombie, the woman makes it to safety, and the two remaining predators turn on each other. Suddenly, the zombie’s not so hungry for brains, but rather squaring up and engaging the shark much like a brave but frightened human would. The scene was apparently shot without Fulci’s approval by his special effects guy, but it’s one of the best in the movie, deriving its intensity from the plainspoken way it’s shot.
Buster Keaton’s run-away motorcycle ride in Sherlock Jr. is one that couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be repeated. The scene is dangerous in about 20 different ways, and impressive in about 20 different ways, too. Keaton, who famously did his own stunts, learned how to ride a motorcycle on the handlebars, weaving it through traffic, a stag party, and dynamite in a breathtaking three minutes of fastidious choreography and intensifying stunt work. The last sequence, where Keaton narrowly misses an oncoming train while crossing train tracks, was shot backwards, and composite shots were used to achieve the effect of the motorbike riding over two trucks filling in for part of a missing bridge. Those clever tricks made some of the stunts safer, but it’s still incredible that Keaton really did it all—riding a motorcycle through a series of ridiculously escalating scenarios until he realizes no one is driving, shoots the camera a disapproving look, like we should’ve warned him, and crashes through a house and straight into his foe.
How the hell is Jackie Chan still alive? Tom Cruise acts like it’s a huge deal every time he hangs off of the side of a helicopter or whatever, but Jackie Chan has been putting his body on the line with insanely dangerous stunts since Cruise was in middle school—and he’s a lot more modest about it. Chan’s had more broken bones than most of us have had head colds, but one of his most severe injuries came from an absolutely gobsmacking scene in his 1985 film Police Story where he vaults off of a handrail on the top floor of a crowded shopping mall and slides down a four-story pole, electric lights snapping and breaking around him as he goes, before crashing through a plane of glass into a food stall—not a stunt one made of foam, an actual food stall—below. Chan suffered second-degree burns on his palms from the friction on the pole and broke two vertebrae in his back and dislocated his pelvis in the fall. And he still showed up to work at the other film he was shooting at the same time as Police Story the next morning.
The 1991 movie Point Break has a lot of favorites for me: favorite footrace, favorite character name (Johnny Utah!), favorite action movie overall. It also has my all-time favorite stunt. It’s when the escaping surfer bank robbers, led by Patrick Swayze, skydive out of a plane, leaving behind a parachute-less FBI agent, Utah (Keanu Reeves). Realizing they’re getting away, Utah yells “fuck” and knocks around the plane a bit, before he grabs the gun and jumps out of the plane without a parachute. It’s one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in a movie; the first time I witnessed that scene, I gasped. Apparently the skydiving scenes were done with cranes and rigs and wind machines, but they’re done so seamlessly, helmed by director Kathryn Bigelow, that I’ve watched the movie a million times and still can’t figure out how she pulled it off.
The mark, for my money, of a great stunt is the ability to tell that someone is really doing the amazing, dangerous, foolhardy thing they appear to be doing on screen. It’s a supercharged kind of hyperrealism, generating excitement from the conflation of a character’s exertion and that of the performer embodying them. (Hence my love for the Mission: Impossible films, and Tom Cruise’s noble/insane insistence on endangering his life to get the shot.) To that end, my favorite stunt may be the climax of Akira Kurosawa’s feudal-Japan-set Macbeth adaptation Throne Of Blood, when the director’s star and regular muse, Toshiro Mifune, dodges a deadly shower of arrows. Mifune actually did that shit, allowing archers to send real arrows soaring at him. And though he was wearing boards underneath his armor, they wouldn’t protect him if , say, one of those pointy things being launched in his direction at incredible speed were to connect to his fleshy face. Mifune’s terror looks awfully real—it probably was, after all.