Sunday, September 02, 2007

Who Is Killing The Stuntmen?

1977's STUNTS came out when daredevils were at their height. From Evel Knievel to HOOPER, movie and television screens were filled with thrilling gags. Police dramas like FREEBIE AND THE BEAN and STARSKY AND HUTCH were riding high, Burt Reynolds was burning rubber in movies often directed by stuntman Hal Needham, and the early 1980’s brought us THE FALL GUY, an ABC series starring Lee Majors as a stuntman/bounty hunter. Shows like THAT’S INCREDIBLE often spotlighted real-life danger seekers.

Unfortunately for undiscriminating action fans, these days are long gone. When’s the last time you saw a decent car roll or high fall? Or even a well-paced foot chase? With “wire fu” and digital technology taking over for old-fashioned guts and inexperienced film directors who substitute shaky camerawork and ultra-fast editing for solid craftsmanship, movies like STUNTS seem almost quaint. I was stunned to hear director Robert Zemeckis in his commentary for the USED CARS DVD point out a stunt that couldn’t be done today, only because no stuntman would dare to attempt it. If you’re a sucker for a good fire gag or car crash, STUNTS is an effective B-movie that spotlights some of the era’s best stuntmen, such as Joie Chitwood, Dar Robinson and stunt coordinator Paul Nuckles.

After his brother is killed while dangling from a helicopter for an action film being shot near San Luis Obispo, California, stuntman Glen Wilson (reliable Robert Forster) takes his place in the unit, ostensibly to successfully perform the same stunt, but really to investigate what happened. Joining him on the set is English journalist B.J. (Fiona Lewis), who’s doing a behind-the-scenes piece for ACTION magazine. While poking his nose into the equipment van, trying to figure out what could have caused his brother to die trying a stunt he had developed himself, Glen renews acquaintances with fellow performers Paul (the late Ray Sharkey), Patti (Joanna Cassidy) and Chuck (Bruce Glover in a rare "regular guy" role). He soon realizes his brother’s death was no accident when more stuntmen are killed, leading him to no shortage of red herrings. Is the killer suspicious special effects man Pete (Richard Lynch)? How about publicity-seeking producer Alvin Blake (James Luisi)? Or local stuntman wannabe Dave (Darrell Fetty) or hotsy-totsy starlet Judy (Candice Rialson)? The film’s director, Earl O’Brien (Malachi Throne), is always urging his crew to make the action tougher and faster; maybe he’s taking his insistence on realism to the extreme?

While STUNTS is more or less a murder mystery complete with black-gloved killer, the emphasis is on the stuntwork and the camaraderie among those special people who perform them. Holding another man’s life in one’s hands in the midst of death-defying feats takes a special breed, and STUNTS does a nice job showing off the professionalism and bond that holds that small community together. Director Mark L. Lester (CLASS OF 1984) has assembled an expert cast, including Forster as his trademark blue-collar guy with a moral code, which helps bring believability to Dennis Johnson & Barney Cohen’s farfetched story. And if you love stunts, there are plenty of those too.

If STUNTS seems familiar, it may be because a first-season episode of THE FALL GUY remade it (without credit) and even used stock footage from it.

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