We don’t think much about stunt men in this business because we’re not supposed to think much about stunt men. But consider what it must be like to risk your life on a daily basis, doing the things they won’t let a guy who looks like a more rich, famous, and handsome version of you do because they’re too dangerous, with no shot at riches, fame or additional handsomeness. That inequity — stars getting adoration for things a stunt man does — could drive a man crazy. And maybe that’s what I like best about Richard Rush’s film “The Stunt Man,” out today for the first time on Blu-ray. It may not be the most accurate depiction of Hollywood moviemaking, but it’s a very believable depiction of the mind of a stunt man. On a bad day, it must feel like the world is out to kill you.
Admittedly, Rush had a lot more on his mind when he made “The Stunt Man” than just plumbing the depths of a body double’s soul. “The Stunt Man” is a classic passion project: overflowing with ideas, bursting with ambition, bloating under the weight of its loose ends. It’s an action film, a deconstruction of action films, a movie about movies, a love story, an anti-war film, a meditation on how perception colors reality, and a Biblical parable about a director as an all-powerful God and a stunt man as his Job-like test subject. “The Stunt Man” isn’t just a movie; it’s every movie. It’s an action director trying to make his “The Tree of Life:” an attempt to distill the totality of the universe and filmmaking into a single microcosmmic story of a single Hollywood production.
That production is run by Peter O’Toole’s mad and madly charismatic film director Eli Cross (O’Toole reportedly based his portrayal on his “Lawrence of Arabia” director David Lean). A grungy Vietnam vet and fugitive from the law named Cameron (Steve Railsback) wanders into the middle of Cross’ movie shoot and accidentally causes the death of a stuntman. Since he can’t afford for the police to shut him down, Cross makes Cameron a deal: replace the dead stunt man and he won’t turn him over to the cops. With no other options, Cameron agrees. But working for a director so unfazed by the death of one employee makes him wonder: would he care at all if it happened again? And with an already damaged psyche from the war and its aftermath, Cameron isn’t in the best frame of mind to be jumping from buildings, leaping from explosions, or play fighting guys with machine guns. One way or another, this job will kill him.
Rush’s presentation of a movie set is less informed by the realities of filmmaking than a cynic’s perverse nightmare of it. Action sequences of the film-within-a-film stretch to near-satirical length and feature long takes of such complexity and barely organized chaos they would make Martin Scorsese howl with jealousy. But it all makes sense when you realize you are seeing this place not as it truly is, but as it appears to one very screwed up and bewildered veteran. The role of point-of-view in film is just one of the many elements of cinematic syntax that Rush gives a good tweaking; note the POV shot early in the film from O’Toole’s perspective as he munches on an apple and delivers the line “That’s your point of view.”
With his autocratic demeanor and penchant for floating in and out of scenes on a camera crane, it’s easy to read Cross as some sort of deity (his last name certainly helps too). Of course, you can also read him as a stand-in for Rush. After all, the themes of Cross’ movie are the same as Rush’s, and the two men seem to share a similar stance on war and a similar obsession with this material. But we should also note that if “The Stunt Man” has a villain, it’s Cross, and that it takes a far more sympathetic view of its lowly stunt man than its brilliant but cruel director. If the film is autobiographical, it’s also a stinging self-critique.
Even as it flails around with aspirations to high art, “The Stunt Man” is still a blast to watch; it has pretentions, but it’s not pretentious. Rush keeps us in the dark about Railsback’s crimes and O’Toole’s motives, inviting us to sit back, relax, and enjoy the confusion. Characters are rarely what they seem, and motivations shift constantly, even within individual scenes. That means even at its worst — and some of Railsback’s love scenes with Cross’ leading lady (Barbara Hershey) are pretty painful — it is always an engaging mind-fuck.
The same goes for the new Severin Blu-ray of the film as well. New exclusive features include a delightful, rambling O’Toole recollecting the making of the film, plus interviews with Rush, Railsback, Hershey, and co-star Alex Rocco, and a post-screening Q&A at L.A.’s New Beverly Theater. The most entertaining extra, though, is one from the long out-of-print collector’s edition of the first “Stunt Man” DVD. Entitled “The Sinister Saga of the Making of ‘The Stunt Man,'” it features unbelievably entertaining anecdotes from the long and messy production and unbelievably cheesy video editing effects of said anecdotes as Rush himself recites them while he walks around his mansion, or gasses up and then flies the camera around on his private jet. The inside baseball details and casual declarations of massive ego (and, y’know, the ride in the private jet!) are so collectively absurd, that the film rivals the mad vibe of Robert Evans’ audibook of “The Kid Stays in the Picture.” “The Sinister Saga” is sort of the perfect sequel to “The Stunt Man:” another messy, passionate statement destined for cult status.