CGI is easy. You can create all the explosions, and blood, and worlds, and props that you want from the comfort of an indoor stage and a computer. And in an age where I believe we rely on them entirely too much, I thought I’d pay some respect to the coolest stunt moments of recent history. Now, I’m not going to mention some of the most well-known ones like Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplan, but I’ll talk about some of the most impressive (read: Dangerous) and lesser known:
All of Jackie Chan’s career. Yup. All of it.
(Okay, maybe not the soft-core porn he did).
People often talk about Bruce Lee as the greatest movie martial artist of all time. Some people think that Chuck Norris was. To them, I counter with this:
Copyright Golden Harvest Company
Eat it, mouthbreathers.
But Bruce Lee is dead (though that didn’t stop them making movies with him in it). And as an actor that starred with Lee in Fists of Fury when he was young, and as someone who has made more (and I’ll come out and say it- better) movies than Lee, I think that Chan has earned his place as the best movie martial artist alive. 2nd place can go to Len Kabasinski for how genuinely nice he is.
Now I’ll knock Jackie down a little for the atrocious Karate Kid remake, but I think he earned that phone-in from the rest of his career. I gotta say, I always respect actors that do their own stunts, and I also respect martial artists (essentially ass-kicking stuntmen) who are capable of acting. Say what you will about Shanghai Knights, but Rush Hour is wonderful and fun and I will fight you over that.
I’ll put out two especially awesome stunts from his movies The Legend of the Drunken Master and Police Story. Go on and watch this fight from The Legend of the Drunk Master:
Let’s talk about firewalking and how it works. It’s not a secret test of magic, or concentration, or company team building- it’s basic physics. First of all, most of the time they wet the ground just before the hot coals. Believe it or not, water is a pretty great thermal insulator. It’s a neato effect where a small layer of water boils on the edges and prevents most of the heat from getting through to damage you. People have actually dipped their hand into molten lead and not been harmed because of this effect. So that’s part of the reason why firewalking doesn’t usually damage your feet. The second part is because of the construction of the coals. When making a firewalking pit, they burn the logs and then leave the coals as they lay, this leaves the top-most layer of coals relatively cool. And since charred carbon is also a pretty great thermal insulator, not a lot of the underlying heat gets through. The problem with firewalking is when people panic and sprint across. When people do it, they have to calmly (yet quickly) walk across. If you run across it or move your feet too much, you’ll dig up the hot coals and burn your feet. Now look back at that Jackie Chan clip. Notice that when Jackie gets pushed onto the burning coals and slides around, all of those hot coals underneath begin to stir up and actually light his clothes on fire.
The 1985 hong kong picture Police Story was not only Jackie’s real big break, but includes one of the most talked-about Chan stunts. And also involved the most serious potential harm. At the climax of the film, our boy Jackie fights the bad guy in a shopping mall and in order to reach the bottom floor, slides down a string of Christmas lights. For about four stories. And then crashes into a market stall. Jackie emerged with fistfuls of glass shards and a few cracked bones- but he managed to get it done in just one take with no practice.
Golden Harvest, Media Asia Group
Jackie Chan never gets killed in his stunts because his massive balls cushion his fall. Plus he made Jackie Chan Adventures, which earns my respect any day.
Yu Mo Gui Gwai Fai Di Zao
Roger Moore’s stupid movies with cool stunts
Now, not to spoil my column or anything, but later this summer, my brother John, my friend Matt (from Snow Day review) and fellow writer Will Standish will be doing a large roundtable talk about the James Bond series. But this deserves a mention right now. First off, Roger Moore was a stupid Bond. Better than George Lazenby, but stupid.
While the movies are sometimes irritatingly goofy (see, Moonraker, in which Bond uses a hovercraft gondola), one thing they did have is some pretty cool stunts. For instance, in Moore’s first outing, Live And Let Die (in which the bad guy gets inflated like a balloon until he explodes), Bond is trapped on a small island being surrounded by encroaching Crocodiles. So what does he do? He sprints across their backs to reach safety.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: they put up some fake crocs to have Roger Moore run across. Well, first off Roger Moore didn’t do the actual stunt. His Bond was never really a spring chicken- he was already 45 when he filmed Live and Let Die, and was pushing 60 by the time he retired after A View to a Kill, and in that film, the Bond girl was almost half his age. So obviously a more able-bodied stuntman performed the stunt. But no, those were totally actual Crocodiles, and animal rights aside, it’s a pretty cool stunt. Especially since those were real crocs, with real teeth, and real hunger- see those steaks that guy threw into the pit? Actual meat. They used actual meat to bait and entice real live Crocodiles before sending a stuntman to run across their backs and not get brutally mauled. And the fact that he wasn’t is pretty damn awesome. The coolest thing does involve grievous injury. On one of the takes, one of the Crocodiles actually caught and bit his leg. And you know what? The director actually said “Hey, that take got messed up from your LEG WOUND, let’s do it again from the top.” And yeah, the stuntman did another take with a partially gnawed leg. Keep in mind that an adult Crocodile’s bite strength can be about 22,000 newtons of force (compared to a Great White Shark’s bite strength of about 3,000 newtons).
I’m conflicted about Tom Cruise, but nonetheless impressed.
The man’s a little odd. Now I don’t want to get sued by the Church of Scientology so I won’t really comment on that (I COULD SAY THAT THEY ARE SHADOWY UNETHICAL MONSTERS, but I won’t comment because I have decency). But despite all that, I have to respect the guy for not only doing almost all of his own stunts (which oddly enough normally involve a whole lot of running) but doing so when he’s 52. Now one scene in the most recent Mission Impossible (and I’ll say most enjoyable) movie, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, involves Tom Cruise’s character climbing around the tallest building in the world: Burj Khalifa in Dubai
Did you hear that guy? Tom Cruise is climbing up around a half a mile above the ground- shit, most people have problems on the second story of a mall. Now, true, he is hooked in to a harness (even diagetically), but there’s a difference between risky practical stunts and suicide.
Viggo Mortensen almost gets hit with a real knife- blocks it anyway
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
I always have to root for Viggo, not only because I think he’s a superb actor, but he’s a fellow alumni of the college most of us writers here went to (St. Lawrence University). Despite the 9 hour plus sigh that was The Hobbit trilogy, I have tremendous respect for Peter Jackson. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is phenomenal. Simple as that. It was clearly a labor of love from a Tolkien fan. One of the coolest parts was Jackson’s use of practical effects.
In order to show the size-difference between hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) and large human-sized Gandalf, Jackson didn’t just shrink Elijah down in post-production. No, he used forced perspective to trick our eyes into thinking they were that sized. He also used child actors and careful camera angles to make 6’1″ tall John Rhys Davies look like 4′ tall Gimli the dwarf. The Orcs were real humans in makeup and prosthetics and it was a wonderful time to enjoy films.
But the best moments in film often come from accidents, and this is no exception. During the filming of one of the fight scenes towards the end of the first movie (The Fellowship of the Ring), Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is fighting a band of Orcs (okay, technically Uruk-hai). Their leader, Lurtz, throws a knife at Aragorn, who deftly swats it out of the air with his sword- cementing his badass for years to come.
New Line Cinema
What a cool stunt- that wasn’t a stunt. That wasn’t a prop knife. That was a totally, 100% sharp knife thrown quite hard at Viggo. The stuntman missed his throw, which originally was supposed to embed itself in the tree behind him but instead zoomed at his face. Even still, Viggo managed to deflect it, and it came away looking like an awesome stunt.
Keanu Reeves endangers his brain, still kicks ass
I seriously cannot sing the praises of John Wick enough. It’s smart, stylish, awesome, cool, cawesome (?), and has some of the best action scenes in recent memory. One such action scene takes place in a Nightclub, where John Wick is pursuing Alfie “Theon Greyjoy” Allen’s character. Amazing choreography and cinematography and stunt-work on Keanu’s part. But that’s not the reason it’s on this list- during the filming of this scene, Keanu had a 104° fever.
Anybody who’s had a bad fever can already begin to respect this. But at 104°, your brain actually begins to “bake,” if you will, and you risk permanent brain damage. Keanu did all of his stunts anyway. Not only that, but because of his flu, he had missed all of the fight rehearsals the week prior, and had to memorize the entire fight choreography for the scene 4 hours before the cameras started rolling. The nightclub fight scene involves hand-to-hand fighting, flips, throws, and John Wick being thrown off of a second-story balcony. All of this was done by Keanu Reeves with a debilitating fever.
NOW, THIS GOES WITHOUT SAYING, but please please don’t try any of these at home (unless you’re Jackie Chan).
What you can is check out my other column, Trope-ic Thunder, where I discuss science tropes in the media.
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