Mission: Impossible – Fallout is garnering surprisingly glowing reviews. Don’t get us wrong, the creative team on both sides of the camera is solid and the franchise has never been less than interesting, but when five stars becomes the order of the day, something needs to be said.
What is being said, primarily, is that the story is compelling and the action set-pieces are thrilling. Which sounds an awful lot like praise for old-fashioned film-making mainstays. CGI (and its close kin, like performance capture) has given us so much in the past 3 decades (dinosaurs, Gollum, Hulk, T1000, Davy Jones), but what it has clearly never been able to replace is the excitement of knowing that what you are watching *really happened*, that even though wires might have been removed and a stunt performer’s face might have been cleverly concealed, someone actually crawled under that moving jeep, someone crashed that car, someone delivered that jumping spin-kick.
The Mission: Impossible franchise has given us a wealth of memorable action sequences and stunts. Consider the following highlights:-
Mission: Impossible – Fighting on top of a train that is running through a tunnel, with a helicopter being dragged behind…
Mission: Impossible II – A thrilling motorcycle chase leading to a mid-air collision and ensuing fist fight…
Mission: Impossible III – The attack on the bridge, with Ethan Hunt being flung into a car by the blast of an explosion…
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol – The almost absurd sequence where Ethan Hunt is clinging to the outside of the Burj Khalifa by a gradually malfunctioning sticky glove…
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation – Hunt clings to the outside of an aeroplane as it is taking off…
It is hard to know what will best endure from Fallout, though the suffering of a broken ankle during the rooftop leap by Cruise will likely wind up duking it out with the climactic helicopter chase.
With a careful avoidance of recency bias, but also with a big thumbs up for any film that has persevered with practical stunts despite how easy it is to use CGI, here is a top ten of practical stunts for your enjoyment.
- Police Story – Shopping Mall Brawl
Jackie Chan went from being a relatively unsung bit player (at one point his best-known work was a Fist of Fury sequel/remake) to eventually being one of the best-known and best-loved martial artists to come out of Hong Kong cinema. During his 1980s heyday, his films featured an almost breathless array of brawls, stunts and set-pieces and although the focus was always on the martial arts, Jackie Chan was an exceptionally accomplished stunt man as well.
By training with the same team of actors, fighters, stunt players and fight choreographers week in and week out, Jackie Chan was able to infuse his action sequences with authenticity and wince-inducing impact, long before Hollywood got in on the action. One of any number of Jackie Chan’s could make this list, but by virtue of the length of the sequence, the variety of stunts (not just fighting) and the clear physical peril to Chan himself and not just a stunt double, this elaborate sequence from Police Story gets the nod.
2. The Bourne Ultimatum – Rooftop Pursuit and a close-quarters ruck
Doug Liman created the feel for the franchise and Paul Greengrass then went on to embellish it with excellent fight, chase and action sequences. Training, preparation and Matt Damon’s outstanding physicality all contributed to a series of believable fight scenes, but Bourne’s fight with Desh in 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum is an arguable high-point for the franchise. A parkour-esque rooftop run, followed by a desperate dive through a not-especially-open window leads seamlessly into a brawling but nimble and sophisticated fight.
A combination of skillful fighting and inventive use of books, candlesticks and shower utensils all fed into a chase and fight scene full of intensity and (unusually) character beats. Rare is the fight scene at the end of which the hero looks at his bruised knuckles and dead opponent and looks remorseful, even ashamed.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark – Under the truck we go
Before we say anything else about the above stunt, we have to honour Stagecoach, John Ford and Yakima Canutt who got there first, by quite a margin. Although the route taken in that case was under a stagecoach rather than a speeding Nazi truck, it was just as “real” a stunt and just as impressive an achievement. But Raiders of the Lost Ark is so iconic a film and Indiana Jones so phenomenal a character that we just have to give this rendition of the stunt the nod.
It’s just one segment of a massively impressive chase sequence, involving cars, jeeps, trucks, horses and Indy making it up as he goes along. But the actual stunt itself is phenomenal, with Vic Armstrong very much sliding his way underneath a moving truck and then being dragged behind it. No disrespect to Marvel, who do what they do very well, but there is nothing like the same impact when Black Panther delivers a kinetic blast to a moving car which then erupts from the road and he spins around and lands on another vehicle – it’s visually impressive, but no-one thinks that even a stunt player in a costume performed any of that.
These days, CGI has become so seamless that there is no longer any need to jeopardise stunt players with even moderately hazardous stunts, but there remains nothing quite like this sort of scene to stir the blood.
4. The Man with the Golden Gun – The Spiral Bridge Jump
James Bond has always given good stunt, whether it is a good old-fashioned punch up, a kinetic car chase or running across a line of alligators. It would therefore seem churlish to exclude 007 from an article such as this.
For Roger Moore’s debut (and one of his best) The Man With The Golden Gun, we have a car chase where Bond needs to cross a river, using the mangled remains of a wooden bridge. Not only does the car need to make the jump, it needs to complete a spiral in order to nail the landing. It is an absurd stunt, completed for no other reason than because the opportunity and challenge was there. In these days of CGI, we would never believe such a stunt, assuming digital augmentation had done its fine work.
In fact, the stunt was completed for real (though of course not by Sir Roger) and the stunt driver walked away unscathed. Longer jumps have been completed for the screen (for the finale of Burt Reynold’s Hooper, for example), but the added embellishment of a mid-air twist marks this one out.
Footnote: Check out Hooper, it’s a wonderful tribute to old fashioned action stunts, as well as containing no small number of excellent stunts in the process.
5. Ben Hur – *The* Chariot Race
Even for its time, Ben Hur was an astonishing financial and logistical undertaking. William Wyler did not have the luxuries that Ridley Scott enjoyed when “building” the Coliseum for Gladiator. Instead, the entire Hippodrome had to be built from scratch, leading to a ten-week shoot for the now-legendary chariot race, resulting in the thick-end of forty minutes of thrilling, visceral on-screen action. The cameramen had to get right into the middle of the action, the whole sequence had to be staged, mapped out, choreographed and then shot so as to be coherent in the final cut and the various players had to be kept physically intact during some alarmingly dangerous stunts.
Whether it was Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben Hur leaping over another fallen chariot, or Stephen Boyd’s Messala being trampled by galloping horses, it is all incredibly effective, the narrative stakes for Ben Hur only adding to the impact. Yakima Canutt, who performed the under-coach stunt in Stagecoach, was the stunt co-ordinator for the chariot race, another phenomenal achievement in a glittering career.
“Epic” has rarely been more suitably applied to a film than to Ben Hur. Its stunts, scale and emotional heft all dovetail into that most apt description.
6. Steamboat Bill Jr – A Collapsing Facade
Uniquely among this list, this sequence is played more for laughs than dramatic impact or excitement, but nothing can take away from its status as a stunt milestone. The planning had to be meticulous, the stakes could not have been higher and Buster Keaton decided to put no-one other than himself in the firing line. An inch either way and Keaton is at best badly injured, at worst a pancake, but the whole sequence is just part of the film. Yes, it rightly draws attention to itself, but like the best stunt sequences, it is not an opportunity to show off so much as an intrinsic part of the story.
7. The Dark Knight – Flipping the Big Rig
This was another stunt that we were convinced had to be a CGI trick. But although some digital trickery was used to remove wires in post-production, the stunt itself was as real as you or I. For the purposes of the on-screen story, what happens is that Batman, riding the Batpod after the Tumbler has been wrecked, wraps up a big rig being driven by the Joker in high tensile steel, causing it to stop abruptly and flip over. We’ve all seen countless vehicle flips before, but to see the technique applied to something as massive as this lorry was something else. Throw in the now-iconic shot of Batman running the Batpod up a wall and around back onto the pavement and you have a bravura sequence for the ages – thrilling, containing real-world heft and sticking in the memory ever after.
8. Ong Bak – Man on Fire
Ong Bak is far from being the sort of film title to linger easily in the memory, but the film itself has much greater endurance.
Tony Jaa is another of these “discovered” martial artists who then has a break-out (normally subtitled) film built around their considerable expertise, featuring all manner of breath-taking fight scenes and stunts. So great is the breadth of choice on offer in Ong Bak, it becomes difficult to choose one scene. There is a chase scene earlier in the film that includes leaps over and under moving cars, diving through rolls of barbed wire and leapfrogging sharp knives, all replayed (Jackie Chan style) from multiple angles, in a kind of “we really went for it with this stunt, so you’re going to see it a few times” approach.
But when your star actually sets himself on fire and then repeatedly kicks his foes with his flaming legs, you are left with a stunt sequence that just has to be embraced and honoured. Firey explosions, flying knees to crash-helmets, absurdly elaborate spinning kicks, lots of elbows and knees, Ong Bak (and this scene in particular) sticks with in-camera stunts and delivers wireless execution that the likes of Crouching Tiger and Flying Daggers, for all their ethereal beauty, could never hope to match.
9. Death Proof – Bonnet Ride
Although he will undoubtedly succumb like most other film makers, Tarantino seems to remain resolved for the time-being to eschew digital photography and an over-reliance on CGI. His good friend Robert Rodriquez is doing what he can to talk him round, whether asking him to guest-direct a segment of Sin City, or collaborating with him on the Grindhouse project, but at least Tarantino’s reluctance to join the revolution means we keep getting excellent realworld sequences like this excellent chase scene and stunt performance from Zoe Bell for Death Proof.
Whilst the film will always have its fans, it seems to have found its natural resting place towards the bottom of Tarantino’s resume, but that is not to detract from its positives – a grand performance from Kurt Russell and a thrilling bonnet-ride from real-life stunt performer Bell
10. The Raid – A scuffle in the corridor
As with Tony Jaa in Ong Bak, Iko Uwais was discovered by director Gareth Evans, who set about crafting a film that would showcase his dexterity as a fighter and in the process delivered an action film for the ages. Dredd suffered from its narrative similarities to The Raid, but only really because the two films were released so close together. As with the slew of “Die Hard on a …..” homages that populated much of the 90s, there was space in our hearts for Dredd and The Raid, just sadly not space at the box office for both.
At the risk of replacing “stunts” with “fight scenes” as the theme for this article, here we have another masterful example of in-camera, wire-free, non-CGI brawling that gets the hairs on the back of your neck standing up. Whether it is Mad Dog fighting Jaka, or Rama taking on room after room (and corridor after corridor) of armed goons, the fight sequences (and also the gun battles) keep upping the ante, both in creativity and visceral impact. Necks are impaled, kneecaps are stabbed, veins are opened but nothing had the impact of the above corridor sequence, the first time we had really seen Rama cut loose. We knew from his initial training sequence that he could punch hard and fast, but suddenly his life was on the line and despite him having a relatively timid and unassuming look on his face, he raises his game and puts man after man down for keeps. Machetes, knives, fists, feet and knees, everything finds its place and we just wonder at the dizzying complexity and beauty of it all.
Stunt players, extras and stars alike all look like they are taking the odd hit for real, which no doubt they are happy to do in exchange for veracity.