With Fast and the Furious 8 due out in cinemas this week, it seems only right that we look back at some of the landmark moments in the proud history of ridiculous stunts. The Fast and the Furious movie franchise is one which has firmly embraced the “more is more” approach to set pieces and stunts and while in its infancy it made do with garish cars racing quickly, it now parachutes them out of planes and drives them from building to building.
Since the early days of cinema though, filmmakers have been going to great lengths to make their action sequences really impress:
Safety Last! (1923) – The clock face
In this aptly titled silent comedy, star Harold Lloyd was playing an employee climbing the outside of his work’s building as part of a publicity stunt. How did they make this feat look so realistic with 1920s technology? Simple. They actually got the director/star himself to do it for real.
As a result, other than in some of the long shots where a double was used, what you see is Lloyd himself genuinely hanging from the minute hand of a clock, several stories high and with only a single mattress placed just below the camera line to break his fall. It’s a scene that has become one of the indelible images of the silent movie era, and is a stunning reminder of a time when health and safety was more of an abstract concept that a vigorously followed practice.
Stagecoach (1939) – The coach chase
Another extremely old school stunt here that is both simultaneously needlessly dangerous and undeniably impressive. In John Ford’s landmark western, former rodeo rider Yakima Canutt plays an Apache warrior seeking to hold up the titular horse-drawn coach. Canutt was tasked with leaping from his horse on to the stallions pulling the stagecoach and then after being “shot” in the back, falling between the charging horses and passing underneath both their legs and the coach itself.
Amazingly, he not only agreed to this in the first place but also somehow lived to tell the tale as well. It was a daring act like set a new benchmark for what movie action sequences could involve.
Ben-Hur (1959) – The chariot race
Yakima Canutt eventually stopped performing these deadly sequences himself and moved behind the camera to become a stunt coordinator instead. Perhaps his finest work in this slightly less dangerous role was the exhilarating chariot race sequence in William Wyler’s biblical epic, Ben-Hur.
Yakima may have stepped away from completing the deadly stunts himself, but he was more than happy for his son Joe to take over the family business. During this fast-paced and hectic race sequence where horses hurtle around a real-life track at breakneck speed, Joe performed a variety of death-defying stunts.
The most notable of which saw him standing in for Charlton Heston and being thrown over the front of his chariot, catching his balance and somehow climbing back in, all while the charging horses careered onwards. It’s fast, its frantic, involved 82 horses, thousands of extras and took over five weeks to shoot. Ridiculous stunts don’t get much more epic than this.
Raider of the Lost Ark (1981) – the truck chase
In a fitting homage to the classic Stagecoach stunt, stuntman Terry Leonard, under the watchful eye of second-unit director Mickey Moore, performed this incredibly dangerous move in Spielberg’s classic adventure.
In amongst one of cinema’s all-time great chase sequences, Indiana slips underneath a moving truck, works his way to the rear and using his trusty whip to latch on, is then dragged behind the vehicle for some way before making his way back on-board. Terry had tried the stunt before on an earlier film Legend of the Lone Raider, and had badly hurt his legs in the process.
This time though it worked perfectly, and you feel every bump and face full of dust as he miraculously keeps his grip.
Police Story (1985) – The pole slide
It’s no secret that Jackie Chan takes a fairly cavalier approach to personal safety, so including some of his work on this list is basically a foregone conclusion. Chan has broken more bones and caused more insurance headaches than the rest of us put together.
In Police Story, he is fighting some bad guys in a mall and then leaps from a balcony on to a 100 foot pole which he then slides down, smashing through countless electric lights and a pane of glass on his way down. This is definitely one of those stunts that when you watch, it requires you to remind yourself that some nutter actually did it for real.
He was left with second degree burns on his hands, a severely bruised vertebrae and a dislocated pelvis. All in a day’s work for Jackie.
Fast Five (2011) – The bank vault
It wouldn’t be right to compile this list and not include at least one moment of insanity from the Fast and the Furious Franchise given the eighth outings arrives in cinemas this week. The car-heist on a train sequence was great fun, as was the run-in with a tank on a busy highway and every moment of the car chase around a surprisingly quiet central London.
However the most gloriously insane stunt of them all came in Fast Five, where the team drag a huge vault around the streets of central Rio de Janeiro, taking out bad guys, destroying property, and most likely many civilians too, as they go. With over 200 cars wrecked and the laws of physics thrown gleefully out of the window, it’s the perfect over-the-top moment in the movie that rejuvenated a flagging franchise.
It also set a new bar for what big-budget action movies would try to accomplish in the name of blockbuster entertainment.