In each successive Mission: Impossible entry, Tom Cruise tries to dazzle audiences with new and incredible action stunts, from climbing the world’s tallest building to dangling from various airplanes and helicopters in flight. Our Roundtable this week puts a spotlight on some of cinema’s other great stunt scenes.
M. Enois Duarte
Harold Lloyd will always be the greatest pioneer when it comes to film stunts, but for the most extreme, near-fatal insanity and white-knuckle daredevil physical feats, we must honor legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt. The former rodeo-riding champion is a Hollywood legend who established many of the tropes we now think of when discussing stunt choreography and introduced many safety techniques still used to this day.
Probably the craziest and most dangerous stunt in Canutt’s 50-plus film career has to be his work on John Ford’s Stagecoach. Two scenes in particular immediately come to mind. The first is Canutt doubling for John Wayne’s Ringo Kid when he jumps from atop a stagecoach down to six horses running at full speed and frog-jumps his way to the front of the line. The second, and arguably most famous, is Canutt again jumping from one horse to the front of the line and then dropping on the ground as the horses and stagecoach continue running at full speed. It’s pure insanity, and somehow Canutt made it all look easy. It’s a moment cemented in cinema history and has been homaged in various ways, most famously in Steven Speilberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
My favorite movie stunt sequences are the chase scenes in Mad Max: Fury Road. Director George Miller has a flair for the dramatic and insisted that all of these stunts be as real as possible. Heck, he even insisted that the propmaster remake the flamethrowing guitar when he discovered that the flames were real, but the guitar was not a working musical instrument. Seeing these dozens of stunt actors, all of various states of protection against the elements, careening full-speed across the desert, with some even perched upon the tip-tops of metronome-like poles, ready for a fight, is like a cinematic amphetamine.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. celebrated its 90th birthday a couple months back, and its standout stunt continues to astonish these many decades later.
Keaton’s titular steamboat captain finally comes to in the hospital just as a cyclone ravages his little seaside town. Terrified of seeing all these buildings collapse around him, Bill cowers under his bedsheets, for all the good it does. The gale force winds send Bill’s bed soaring throughout the town. It’s not any safer under the bed than it is on top. The bed is blown away, and as Bill tries to orient himself, the face of a two story building comes tumbling down towards him. No, the guy’s not squashed like a bug; they couldn’t get away with that even in these years before the Hays Code! Thanks to an open upstairs window and some fortunate positioning, Bill escapes without a scratch.
Chances are that you don’t even need a recap that long. We are, after all, talking about one of the most iconic stunts in motion picture history. Even if you haven’t seen an excerpt from Steamboat Bill, Jr. at some point, you’ve almost certainly come across one of many homages and recreations. This was (and still is!) as dangerous a stunt as they come. The façade weighed in at some two tons, and the margin of error only amounted to a few short inches. The story goes that even the cameraman couldn’t bear to watch. I know the feeling! As many times as I’ve watched this stunt unfold, it still leaves me on edge.
The M:I series has gotten a lot more ambitious and daring as it has gone on. As you may recall, the first Mission: Impossible climaxed with Tom Cruise dodging a careening helicopter while running around on top of a speeding train. It was a fun scene, but was very obviously aided by a lot of CGI and digital trickery. Four years earlier, Jackie Chan had pulled off a similar scene in the fantastic Police Story 3: Supercop without any of the green-screen or other visual effects safety nets, and the palpable realness of his stunt was way more impressive and exciting than the Hollywood imitator.
In his prime, Jackie Chan was the real deal, performing outrageously elaborate and dangerous stunts with no regard for his own personal safety. He didn’t do wire-fu and only used slo-mo sparingly, instead throwing himself into all manner of death-defying stunts with abandon. Viewers could feel his pain when he took a particularly hard tumble, because they could see that it was really him doing it, not a stunt double or a VFX artist. While staging an homage to Harold Lloyd’s iconic clocktower scene in Safety Last! for 1983’s Project A, Chan fell 60 feet to the ground and landed on his head, very nearly killing himself. He was incredibly lucky to walk away from that fall, and yet the cameras kept rolling and that footage is actually in the movie!
Call out your favorite movie stunt scenes in the Comments.