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The Stunt Man

In 1980, I loved THE STUNT MAN in all its manic, goofy, over-the-top brilliance. Watching it again more than 40 years later is an interesting experience.

It is, by ANY measure, Director Richard Rush's best film. Anyone that's seen 1994's "Color of Night" or 1974's "Freebie and the Bean" would likely agree, as both those films are absolute garbage.

Rush worked for nearly a decade to bring THE STUNT MAN to the screen and that care shows. A fascinating mix of fantasy, thrills and mystery, this complicated story is never quite what it seems.

Steve Railsback (Lifeforce) is probably best remembered as Charles Manson in the 1976 TV mini-series "Helter Skelter". Railsback will never escape that role because he basically sounds and looks just as crazy here as he did there. He plays Cameron, a fugitive running from small town cops (think Mayberry) as the film opens. During his escape, he runs onto a movie set during a stunt sequence featuring an antique car on a large bridge.

It's the first scene that baffles you with all its visuals. What really happens in that scene? Does the car go off the bridge? Is the film's blonde stunt man in the car? Why DID it drive off the bridge?

A couple scenes later, Cameron sees who appears to be the same blonde stunt man on a beach during a World War I battle sequence staging. Speaking of that scene, how do the stuntmen implement all their graphic wounds all over the beach in the 15 seconds between the fake bombs dropping, synchronized explosions and the smoke clearing? And why does the crowd scream and cheer without admonition when the assistant director has just told them to please be quiet to avoid ruining the shot?

Rush is teasing you with questions that will permeate the entire film.

Are you watching fantasy or reality? A blend of both? Is this Cameron's impression of what's happening or a third party's interpretation? Those questions elevate the film beyond a normal thriller.

But what truly elevates the film is Peter O'Toole's excellent & eccentric portrayal of film director Eli Cross. The god-like ruler over the film within the film, Cross seems to live on a giant boom, floating in and out of camera range and situations whether he's on set or not.

It's hilarious, cool and gives O'Toole plenty of opportunities to do what he's done best his entire career, bringing power and gravitas to well written dialogue that sounds ten times smarter when it pours out of his mouth.

Cross pulls Cameron under his wing as the new stunt man on the film. Is Cross hiding him? Protecting him? Or is he using to cover up the death (?) of that stunt man in the antique car?

Rush spins those questions around and intertwines them with all the sex, drugs and cacophony of a film set. Cameron's paranoia runs high. Those other stunt men do seem to want to really kill him during a roof top chase loaded with explosions and dangerous falls.

Barbara Hershey (The Entity, The Right Stuff) is good in a tricky role as Nina, the beautiful lead actress of Cross's epic. Cameron falls in love with her almost instantly, but as they tumble into bed repeatedly, is it real for her? There are a few scenes between Hershey and Railsbeck that are so over-the-top they are uncomfortable. Hershey all of a sudden overacts, Railsbeck falls back into his Charlie Manson routine and it all goes seriously off the rails for me with about a half hour left in the film.

That scene ends with them laughing (too loud, too much) as they roll around in a room full of spilled paint cans and props. It's a very bad scene in a pretty good movie. Rush manages to get things back on track in a fairly exciting conclusion. Helicopters swoop, another car goes off that bridge as bullets riddle all around its plunge into the river.

You can read a little or a lot into everything on screen.

In the early 80's this was one of the films I had on a new thing called VHS that I watched again and again. While I can't say that I enjoyed it nearly as much in 2024, I can still admire Rush's audacity in creating a massive, complicated contraption that works on multiple levels. I still love Peter O'Toole's perfect line readings of sharp, witty dialogue. When he's on screen, it's perfection. It's when the film focuses on Nina & Cameron that it seriously frays around the edges for me.

As those cringe worthy moments pass and Eli swoops back in on his crane with Dominic Frontiere's terrific music score bouncing like some mad circus behind him, THE STUNT MAN falls right back in its unique groove.

It still gets a solid, if complicated B.

"It's not what he's eating, but what's eating him that makes it... sort of interesting."

If you enjoy the film, seek out the nearly two hour making of doc "The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man". Rush created it in 2000 for a double DVD release by Anchor Bay. It's almost as crazy and eccentric as the film itself. Incredibly odd, but entertaining.

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