‘The Fall Guy’ Is a Love-Letter to the Movie-Making Process, but ‘The Stunt Man’ Exposes the Tortured Psyches Behind It

“I knew daredevils — and I ain’t got nothing against ‘em — it’s just they’re all dead.”

So says the titular character of “The Stunt Man” to his trainer the first time his desire for mortality is put into question. The theme of death is a constant one in this 1980 film. It’s what propels the main character, Vietnam-Vet Cameron, to go on the run — the state in which we meet him at the beginning of the film. It’s what draws him to a movie set near the beach where dozens of bodies are ripped apart, sporting soldier’s uniforms from World War I, and buried across the sand. It’s what fascinates the film’s director, Eli Cross, whose need to draw reality out of a production that’s drowning in artifice places Cameron in the precarious position of both stuntman and muse. What begins as a convenience for Cross — a need to fill a role he lost as a result of Cameron’s actions — soon becomes an exercise in the sadistic as Cross tests Cameron’s endurance for pain, humiliation, and survival, all while tyrannically ensuring its capture on celluloid.

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There’s a lot of metaphor and allusion to unpack with “The Stunt Man”, elements not as vital to the more recent ode to the unsung heroes of filmmaking, “The Fall Guy”. This may have a lot to do with the background of each film’s respective helmer and the source material they’re each working off of. “The Stunt Man” was adapted by writer/director Richard Rush from Paul Brodeur’s 1970 novel of the same name. The book is little more than a slight thriller with nods to film’s ability to distort and disrupt, but in the hands of Rush — a man who got his start making exploitation films during the 1960s — the story becomes an emotional odyssey brought about by visual and situational trickery. “The Fall Guy”, also an adaptation, comes from a similarly slight 1980s television show starring Lee Majors and Heather Thomas, but is elevated from kitsch to blockbuster with the help of stars Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt. However, it’s director David Leitch, an actual stuntman-turned-filmmaker, whose touch feels most present throughout. Like Rush, Leitch seeks to create an experience, albeit one that prefers to be more in-your-face than thought-provoking.

THE FALL GUY, Ryan Gosling, 2024. © Universal Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Fall Guy’©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Along with wife Kelly McCormick, Leitch has spent the last decade producing work that brings the craft of stunts to the forefront of cinema, even garnering support for a Best Stunts Oscar category, and “The Fall Guy” certainly makes a good argument for why it’s well deserved. Leitch even goes as far as breaking a Guinness World Record for cannon rolls to convince us. While there’s little doubt most audience members will be seeing this film for these incredible feats, it’s actually screenwriter Drew Pearce’s romantic screwball comedy framing around Gosling’s stuntman Colt Seaver and Blunt’s first-time director Jody Moreno that tends to be the most attractive piece of the overall narrative. Leitch puts this piece on the backburner at times for the sake of placing Colt in overcooked situations that force him to use his skills outside the normal confines of the movie set, but the scale and execution of the stunts are often worth the detour. There is a thematic point to this too, as another element to the story is Colt’s return to work after breaking his back in a stunt gone wrong. After 18 months on the mend, Colt faces his own questioning of mortality similar to the one Cameron experiences in “The Stunt Man”. Both men, after living through traumatic experiences, are operating from a need for redemption physically, romantically, and spiritually.

In “The Stunt Man”, this internal conflict exposes itself through Cameron’s PTSD outbursts that often come when the lines of reality are blurred by his experiences both on set and off. While Eli is having him duck bullets and leap from buildings, Eli’s female lead — played by a gleefully in-command Barbara Hershey — is toying with Cameron’s heart in ways that shake him and bring him out of his shell. “The Fall Guy” takes a different approach with this conflict, letting Colt’s pain serve as a dash of color to his free-wheeling, yet sensitive personality, but not giving it a great deal of weight or further background beyond the initial trauma that starts the film. Where does his need to be invincible actually come from? Answering this question might’ve added depth to the film and fit perfectly in a film that explores cinematic creation and recreation. After all, Richard Rush himself suffered two heart attacks in the process of making “The Stunt Man” and still kept going. He wrote the script for the film in 1970 after acquiring the rights to the book, but upon showing Columbia executives a draft, he was met with puzzlement. In a self-made documentary for the DVD release in 2000 entitled, “The Sinister Saga of Making ‘The Stunt Man’”, Rush said of the execs, “They couldn’t figure out if it was a comedy, a drama, if it was a social satire, if it was an action adventure…and, of course, the answer was, ‘Yes, it’s all those things.’ But that isn’t a satisfactory answer to a studio executive.”

THE STUNT MAN, Peter O'Toole, 1980, TM and Copyright (c)20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved.
‘The Stunt Man’©20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection

And so Rush decided to seek financing away from the studios. It was the ‘70s after all. New Hollywood was on the rise and soon Pauline Kael’s “Movie Brats” would be redefining cinema for decades to come, but Rush didn’t seem to catch a lot of the luck his cinematic brethren managed to harness. It would take seven years for him to find funding for the picture, even with the commitment of the great Peter O’Toole playing his director, Eli Cross. In the time in-between, the “stuntman movie” became a genre unto itself, sending the script into arbitration at one point when the Burt Reynolds action flick “Hooper” fought to claim the name. Rush won. But “Hooper” came out a full two years before “The Stunt Man” even earned distribution from 20th Century Fox — only after multiple screenings and winning the Grand Prix at the Montreal Film Festival — making its concept previously tread ground upon its release. Despite the uphill battle, it still earned a few Oscar nominations — Rush for Director, O’Toole for Actor, and the screenplay — but even then, there were so few theaters playing the film that Academy voters were largely unable to judge it. As O’Toole puts it in the DVD commentary, “The film wasn’t released. It escaped.”

Pair this with the massive press push received by “The Fall Guy”, it’s easy to see that an appreciation for the magic and romance of stunt work has only blossomed in the time since the non-release of “The Stunt Man”. Not only that, but the streaming era has also allowed for its rediscovery as “The Stunt Man” is now widely available on Peacock and for free on Tubi and Freevee. In viewing this remastered edition, one is struck by its inventiveness towards perspective and the way we shift in and out of sumptuous visuals not knowing whether they’re a part of the film we’re watching or the film-within-the-film. This uncertainty is a feature rather than a distraction in that it allows space for the viewer to interact with the narrative. “What am I watching right now?” becomes not an expression of flaw, but an actual question we constantly reexamine throughout the runtime. From the buzzard atop a telephone post in the opening shot to the climactic car crash that finally releases main character Cameron from the anguish of his traumatic past, each visual asks the viewer to engage with it actively.

THE FALL GUY, from left: Emily Blunt, Ryan Gosling, 2024. © Universal Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Fall Guy’©Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

“The Fall Guy” also wants to engage with its viewers, but is less of an invitation and more of a throat-grab. It favors sophistry over nuance and yet Gosling and Blunt’s undeniable charm and Leitch’s loose, yet precise style make for an enjoyably breezy popcorn flick about making popcorn flicks. It doesn’t want to get underneath the process of filmmaking as much as “The Stunt Man” does, but it does want to show it off. This is where the real conflict between the two films reveals itself and it’s a conflict that remains at the route of cinema as a form. It’s the conflict of what’s more valuable to audiences, art or entertainment? The answer, at least as this essay tries to spell out, is that it’s a trick question designed to force audiences to choose. Rush knew that and he bet on art being entertaining. Leitch does too — and while he chooses to place his chips on somewhat mindless entertainment, the passion he puts behind is its own kind of artistry.

What is undeniable about both of these films is the confidence presented by those behind the camera. It would be 14 years after “The Stunt Man” was released until Richard Rush was able to make another feature film and after that, never again. Why? Seemingly it was because he tried to buck the system and, in many ways, succeeded. He got the picture made and stayed true to his vision. He got it put in theaters, few as they were, and eventually garnered a cult following. He got nominated for multiple Oscars. The process of making and releasing “The Stunt Man” may stand as the film’s greatest stunt, implying that the real stuntman of the story is Eli Cross, an amalgam, O’Toole says, of David Lean, John Huston, and Rush himself. It takes confidence to do these things and Hollywood really didn’t like Rush’s brand of it. He died in 2021 and while he did live to see awareness and affection for “The Stunt Man” grow, it still doesn’t hold the place in cinematic history it should, nor his career.

Leitch, on the other hand, has proven a hero to the entertainment industry. As the theatrical business becomes more and more of a pinhole, Leitch’s ability to attract big stars, execute high-octane, cleverly plotted scenarios, and market to a mass audience is an extremely high commodity. Richard Rush he is not, but that’s okay. He fills a different need that’s just as valuable to the Hollywood ecosystem and one imagines he’ll be doing so for a long time to come.

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