Movies We Like
After the mania of Evel Knievel-style daredevils and stuntmen entered the pop culture imagination and the American lexicon, stuntmen became the subject matter of a string of films in the late '70s. This includes the Burt Reynolds opus Hooper (which was the directing follow up to Smokey & The Bandit by big time stunt coordinator Hal Needham) and finally the genre’s masterpiece, The Stunt Man in 1980, which earned three Oscar nominations, including one for the director Richard Rush. However most of the films from the stunt craze usually fell somewhere between forgettable, like Animal, with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Raquel Welch (how have I never seen this?) and the bizarre, like Stunt Rock, starring the prog band Sorcery! Stunts in ’77 fell somewhere between the two. But now almost forty years later, Stunts -- while ignored in its day -- is a fascinating look at the filmmaking process, the stuntman brotherhood and an entertaining scorecard for genre box checking.
Many years later Quentin Tarantino would famously resurrect Robert Forster’s sagging career with Jackie Brown, but in this era, he would often pop up in some glorious B movies like Alligator and Vigilante. Stunts is another high point during his low years, and though the material may be lacking, you can see his easy charisma on display here. If you grew up in the '70s and '80s the rest of the cast is a virtual all-star team of B actors who had some hits, but are maybe more recognizable from episodes of Police Story or Fantasy Island. The cast includes Ray Sharkey (later fantastic in The Idolmaker), Fiona Lewis (The Fearless Vampire Killers), Joanna Cassidy (Blade Runner), Bruce Glover (best known for playing one of the pair of oddball killers in Diamonds Are Forever), Darrell Fetty (Big Wednesday), Candice Rialson (the talking vagina epic, Chatterbox!) and finally the great character actor Richard Lynch. (Lynch has a massive midnight movie resume; he’s always watchable in oddball films like The Ninth Configuration, but is best known for, I guess, playing the bad guy in Invasion USA).
Besides that cast what makes Stunts special is -- instead of a boring old drama about the trials and tribulations of stuntmen -- this is actually an Agatha Christie-like murder mystery! Someone is killing off top stuntmen on a film set. Cool! After a hot young stud stuntman is killed in an “accident,” his brother, the super badass Glen Wilson (Forster) arrives to take his place and also find the killer. He’s like a Hercule Poirot or a Miss Marple, except he likes to jump out of helicopters and be set on fire. And in the meantime he and his stuntman (and woman) posse chug beers, do some cool daredeviling and wait to see which of them will be killed next. He also manages to thaw an icy but foxy British reporter, aptly named BJ (Lewis) and show what a rebel he is by taking on the movie’s scumbag producers. And by the end, with a Scooby Doo-like wrap up (“I could have gotten away with it, if it weren’t for you meddling stuntmen!”), the audience gets some thrills, some action, some romance and some funky disco-ified late '70s grooviness. It's definitely worth your time, money and popcorn.
Mark L. Lester is one of the great Z movie directors of the era. Interestingly Stunts is actually a sorta follow-up to his more trashy daredevil film Steel Arena. Stunts was the start of a four film run on his filmography that proudly contributes to any video store’s cult section with gems like Gold of The Amazon Women (Anita Ekberg’s hilarious team-up with Donald Pleasance!), the Citizen Kane of roller skating films Roller Boogie and finally his magnum opus, the punky updating of Blackboard Jungle, Class of 1984 (one of my favorite guilty pleasures ever). He closed out the decade with more straightforward studio genre films Firestarter, Commando and strangely, the John Candy comedy Armed and Dangerous. He would then go on to mostly direct straight-to-video thrillers starring guys like Eric Roberts, Mario Van Peebles and Judd Nelson. Like the director, they were past their signature roles. The films are forgettable, but not forgettable enough to ruin his earlier oeuvre.
The stunt film craze would finally come to an end with TV’s The Fall Guy, in which Lee Majors is a stuntman and a bounty hunter. It wasn’t until years later that a couple of films by high profile directors would bring the stuntman character back into the mainstream with Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive; both films make reference to Lester’s film. Also deserving credit is the soundtrack by Michael Kamen (Polyester) that mostly sticks to TV movie suspense music but has a couple of ultra groovy ballads including the unforgettable theme song “Daredevil Made An Angel Out Of You” with lyrics by Amy Ephron (the younger sister of Nora). The film was shot around San Luis Obispo, California (including shots and references to the landmark hotel The Madonna Inn). Released on DVD by the rather low end Synergy Archive Series, the film (if nothing else) is a fascinating period curio that could use a new souped-up release with some bells and whistles, but it’s still one of those films that would play best at a drive-in -- and frankly that’s a compliment.