The Stunt Man (1980) / Thriller-Action

MPAA Rated: R for language, violence, nudity, and sexuality
Running Time: 113 min.

Cast: Steve Railsback, Peter O'Toole, Barbara Hershey, Allen Garfield, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell, Adam Roarke, Philip Bruns
Director: Richard Rush
Screenplay: Richard Rush, Lawrence B. Marcus (adapted from the novel by Paul Brodeur)
Review published March 8, 2005

A mesmerizing thriller in almost every respect, The Stunt Man is a subtly ambiguous, twisty story that treads the line between reality and fantasy so well, it's hard to tell if it's 100% in the realm of realism, or if the majority of what transpires is the work of some character's overactive imagination.  It's trickery of the highest order, constantly toying with our perceptions, until we aren't sure what to make of each scene, always expecting the bottom to drop out of the story at any moment, and wondering if it already has and we just aren't aware of it. 

The story starts with Steve Railsback (Barb Wire, Helter Skelter) as Cameron, a fugitive who has been trying to elude the authorities, which have him seemingly cornered, but he makes a brave escape.  As he is crossing a bridge to potential freedom, he is almost run over by a speeding vehicle, which disappears, followed by a helicopter that begins its own pursuit of him.  Eventually he finds his way to a movie set, where the passenger in the helicopter, a highly eccentric movie director named Eli Cross (O'Toole, Caligula), needs a replacement for Burt, the presumed dead stunt man of the vehicle that almost ran Cameron over.  With the cops sniffing around looking for both Cameron and Burt's whereabouts, Eli offers Cameron a chance to solve both of their problems by becoming Burt, and replacing him as a stunt man.  Bigger problems develop when a romance begins to brew between Cameron and Eli's leading lady (on and off screen), Nina (Hershey, Hoosiers).

To reveal any more of the plot would probably ruin The Stunt Man's many surprises, as writer-director Richard Rush (Color of Night, Freebie and the Bean) never plays anything straight, always playing both sides of the fence, fantasy vs. reality, that we wonder if he isn't constantly pulling our leg.  Reportedly a pet project of Rush's for almost a decade, an ambitious adaptation of Paul Brooder's novel of the same name, he completed the film in 1978, only to have it sit for a couple of years before it was finally released.  Possibly, the folks at 20th Century Fox didn't know what to make of it, but in the end, it ended up surging to critical success.  Rush would receive Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay as a result.

An Oscar nomination would also go to the phenomenal flamboyant performance by Peter O'Toole, who is bursting with eccentricity to the point where it is hard to determine what his motivations are.  Is he a friend?  An opportunist?  A megalomaniac?  An apathetic madman who would gladly kill a man to get just the right shot?  It's never quite clear what his angle is until the very end, and even when all the cards are revealed, we are not quite sure if we are really seeing the full picture.  Certainly there is little help in the dreamy score by Dominic Frontiere (The Gumball Rally, Hang 'Em High), which plays like a thriller and a haunting fantasy perfectly.

The Stunt Man is a beguiling work, but completely inspired, with delicious irony and satiric wit throughout.  It is an impossible film to pigeonhole, which made it such a chore to market, as it had difficulty finding an audience, despite lavish praise by film critics everywhere.  It is a unique experience, although influential in other films based on trickery, such as the subsequent thrillers by Brian De Palma (Blow Out and Body Double feature some strikingly similar themes) and Total Recall (with its constant playing around with reality vs. perceived reality).  Its trickery may not be for conventional tastes, as it doesn't really adhere to traditional rules of storytelling. Rather, it exploits them in order to throw us completely off the track of its meaning, and in so doing, keeps us coming back time and again to try to make sense of its mercurial plot.

Qwipster's rating:

2005 Vince Leo