Friday, September 23, 2011

Film Review: THE STUNT MAN (1980, Richard Rush)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 131 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback (LIFEFORCE, HELTER SKELTER, SAVE ME), Barbara Hershey (THE RIGHT STUFF, THE NATURAL), Sharon Farrell (CAN'T BUY ME LOVE, IT'S ALIVE), Alex Rocco (Moe Greene in THE GODFATHER, FREEBIE AND THE BEAN). Music by Dominic Frontiere (HANG 'EM HIGH, THE OUTER LIMITS). Cinematography by Mario Tosi (CARRIE, RESURRECTION). Stunts coordinated by Gray Johnson (ZAPPED!, THE BEASTMASTER). Additional stunts by myriad stuntmen, including Dick Warlock (THE THING, ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, CHRISTINE, MR. MAJESTYK, THE ABYSS).
Tag-line: "If God could do the things that we can do, he'd be a happy man . . ."
Best one-liner: "Besides, I've fallen madly in love with the dark side of your nature." (Smarmily intoned by Peter O'Toole.)

THE STUNT MAN. Hot damn- what a specimen! One of the great films of the 1980s. It's a wild-pinball game of a movie, full of brilliant, inventive visual pops and gags that zig and zag and zing throughout, around, and across the movie with a demented, electric exuberance. As the film played out, I found myself brimming with primitive excitement: for the first time in a long time, I felt as if I was watching something alive, insane, full of pulsating energy– something NEW. (And naturally, the director, Richard Rush, has only directed one fiction film in the thirty-one years since– damn you, Hollywood, for rewarding the uninspired and punishing the innovative!)
Right off the bat, Rush lets us know exactly what kind of a mad, irreverent journey he's about to lead us on: a dog licks its own balls.

This sets off a chain-reaction of events which involves helicopters, electricians, a diner, an errant apple-core, an actual game of pinball, an arrest, an escape, and, in general terms, the subsequent events of the film. But allow me to take a step back for a moment: a movie that begins with a dog licking its own balls was nominated for two Oscars, and even more surprisingly– really deserved them. Obviously, this is a candidate for the Junta Juleil Hall-O-Fame.

Now I won't say too much about the plot of the film, but it involves a fugitive drifter (played by a rugged, fuzzy Steve Railsback, whose performance here occasionally has the feel of a young Tommy Lee Jones)

Railsback: Here, more HELTER SKELTER than LIFEFORCE.

who accidentally brings about the death of a stunt man as a war movie is being shot in a small town by a psychotic director (Peter O'Toole, in one of his finest hours). In return for not turning him in to the police, O'Toole requires the somewhat naive Railsback (who's excited to risk his life for $600 a go) to impersonate the deceased stunt man– dangerous, show-stopping feats and all. Simultaneously, Railsback builds a burgeoning romance with co-star Barbara Hershey as events spiral continuously and exponentially out of control. It's a film of döppelgangers and secret sharers, of lofty gods and mere mortals; of men who fight wars, men who fight windmills, and men who fight to make movies. Along the way, it toys with the many disconnects between reality and illusion in film, and more cleverly than any other movie I can think of– latex is peeled off, body parts retrieved, rugs pulled out from beneath us, and you're eternally left guessing as to whether the punch-line will take place in the real world or in the film-within-a-film.

Some of my favorite moments include a gaggle of gum-chewing tourists watching the brutalities of war being recorded on 35mm and applauding like they're at the State Fair, lens flares used as bizarre transitions, Steve Railsback doing the Charleston on the wing of an airborne biplane,

an extraordinarily visceral depiction of drowning, a shitload of mind-blowing stunts,

Dominic Frontiere's infectious Euro-style score, and, in general, Mario Tosi's breathtaking cinematography.

O'Toole, as always, deserves special mention– he floats about on a crane like an omnipresent cine-deity,

coming down from Olympus only to manipulate his insignificant cast, to blow smoke rings, and to drip sugar off of a knife while exuding utter disinterest.

Replace that bowl of sugar with a bowl of booze, and O'Toole might be able to muster some enthusiasm.

When he first appears in earnest, he embodies absolute, self-possessed lunacy without even opening his mouth.

When he does, it's usually to announce something incredible like "I'LL KILL THEM, AND THEN I'LL EAT THEM!" or bellowing orders that "NO CAMERA SHALL JAM, AND NO CLOUD SHALL PASS BEFORE THE SUN!"

Is O'Toole three sheets to the wind in this freeze frame? I'll leave that to the film historians to decide.

It's got the zaniness of HOOPER, the energy of Ken Russell, the groundbreaking creativity of films from the likes of Welles or Buñuel, and a shocking amount of class– not to mention that it's from the director of FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (which had a rumored feud between director Rush and actor Alan Arkin pertaining to... the performing of dangerous stunts). In short, it's the kind of movie that I really think you should see. Five stars.

-Sean Gill

Side note: In 2001, Richard Rush made only the second film he's made in the last thirty-one years: a documentary on THE STUNT MAN called THE SINISTER SAGA OF MAKING THE STUNT MAN, which I'll have to check out forthwith.


Jason said...

Awesome review! Glad to have you back– got some horror reviews planned for Halloween?

dayulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

Keep up the good work!

Sean Gill said...


Thanks- glad you enjoyed, and I appreciate it!