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THE STUNT MAN
Limited Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Peter O’Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey
Director:  Richard Rush
Audio:  Dolby Digital 6.1 EX, DTS 6.1 ES
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Anchor Bay
Features:  See Review
Length:  130 Minutes
Release Date:  November 20, 2001

“This is just like in the movies!”

“I AM the movies.”

Film ****

I guess I was about twelve or thirteen when I first saw The Stunt Man, but even at that age, I found it an eye opening experience.  Up until that point, movies had merely been entertainment for me…the bigger, the brighter, the louder, the better.  And here was a film with a title that promised plenty of action, so there I sat expecting a couple of hours of slick, fast entertainment, and having no idea what was in store for me.

I later learned, of course, that there are many wonderful movies that deal with the subject of movie making in one form or another, ranging anywhere from the classic Preston Sturges picture Sullivan’s Travels to Francois Truffaut’s masterful Day For Night.  But I still consider The Stunt Man the best of the bunch, personally.  No matter how many times I’ve seen it, it takes me back to my wide-eyed youth, where I first learned that a film could mess with your mind, and mess with it good.

The opening is a masterpiece of containment, tight editing, and non-narrative flow, as the camera seems to follow one object that leads to another and so on.  A buzzard takes flight; his shadow passes over a prone dog doing what most dogs do.  A cop car honks at it.  Telephone workers notice the bird and shoo it off.  It slams into a passing helicopter that we later learn contains the charmingly maniacal film director Eli Cross (O’Toole, in one of his greatest performances).  He drops an apple onto the cop car.  And so on.

The cops are looking for a fugitive named Cameron (Railsback).  Cameron will soon be the focal point of our story, and that fact is just one of the many ways the pictures toys with us…what did Cameron do that has the cops after him?  We don’t know until much later…in the meantime, we can’t help but like the guy, but some hidden doubt is always nagging at us that maybe we shouldn’t.

While on the run, he is nearly run down by an old fashioned car on a bridge.  He throws a piece of metal at it as he dives out of the way.  The car vanishes, and soon, the Eli Cross helicopter appears, with the director staring him down.

The car was being driven by a stunt man, we learn, who was supposed to go off the bridge for the climactic scene in Eli’s picture.  Go off the bridge, he did…get out of the car, he did not…did Cameron’s actions have anything to do with his death?

Soon, Cameron makes a sort of bargain with the devil…Cross, knowing the cops are after him, makes him an offer:  if he will replace the dead stunt man, Cross will shelter him from the law.  It’s an offer he can’t refuse.

But…maybe he should have.  As Eli’s anti-war picture grows more and more insane, the boundaries of Cameron’s world blur and break apart.  What is reality?  Is it the beautiful leading lady, Nina (Hershey), who ends up in his arms but seems to have more secrets than he could ever guess?  Is it Eli, who exudes an almost God-like presence over the shoot and the lives of the people working in it?

And finally, the ultimate question…what is the reality of Cameron’s role?  Is he simply a stunt man being paid to take a fall or two?  Or is he a lamb about to be sacrificed for the sake of Eli’s movie?  For a finale, Cameron is expected to perform the same stunt that got the earlier stunt man killed…will he suffer the same fate?

This movie is surreal and funny, haunting yet inexplicably entertaining.  Like for Cameron, the lines of real and unreal begin to blur before our eyes, too.  A classic sequence near the beginning sets the tone nicely…a giant battle scene is being waged on a beach before a crowd of enthused spectators.  The cheers turn to screams as the smoke clears, revealing human carnage.  “Cut” is called, and the maimed actors rise…they were not hurt at all.  The ultimate smoke and mirrors trick!

For the audience, the illusion was harmless.  For Cameron, who gets his first real look at the world of Eli Cross along with them, it is the beginning of a world “where nothing is what it seems”, according to the Dusty Springfield theme song.  “I just want to feel like I’m not going crazy,” he says at one point…the look in his eyes suggests it may already be too late.

I’ve always liked Steve Railsback as an actor…he has a similar intensity to Jack Nicholson, but not the sly charm that puts audiences at ease.  His performance as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter was so unsettling that I couldn’t even get my mother to watch The Stunt Man!  He is the perfect Cameron, however, playing the role with tightly wound tension and a slightly off-centered but likable quality that makes us accept him as a protagonist, yet always fear the other shoe dropping. 

Of course, the presence of Peter O’Toole really helps make the film what it is.  “If God could do the tricks we can do,” he muses, “He’d be a happy man!”  Eli is charming and single minded…we come to believe this is a man who would kill for the sake of his film, which makes Cameron’s fate all the more uncertain.

But the real star of the picture is Richard Rush, who created a bold, eccentric masterpiece from the novel by Paul Brodeur.  He instinctively understood the cinematic possibilities of the material, and told the story in such a way that only film could tell it…it became more than mere pictures or spoken words, but a purely artistic form of narration.  His film was nominated for three Oscars including Best Director, and rightly so…I haven’t seen a film before or since The Stunt Man that was anything like it.

Movies are fantasy and life is reality…but in The Stunt Man, movies are life.  There are no rules and no limits…anything goes.

Video ***1/2

Anchor Bay has delivered a quality and top-notch transfer for this cult classic!  The THX certification is well earned…this is by far the best home video presentation I’ve seen for The Stunt Man.  The anamorphic image is superbly presented throughout, with terrific and natural looking colors, sharp, clear images, and a very clean looking print to boot.  One or two brief darker scenes exhibit a small touch of grain, but it’s nothing distracting or even that noteworthy…overall, the effort is extremely commendable, and both fans and first time watchers should be pleased.  

Audio ***1/2

The Dolby Digital audio mix (DTS EX also included) is a real treat…I don’t always expect much for 5.1 or 6.1 remasters of older films, but Anchor Bay has continually shown ingenuity and boldness when it comes to new mixes.  There are plenty of wide open action sequences that light up both stages with plenty of discreet effects.  Eli’s helicopter buzzes from corner to corner at times, making for a nice bit of mixing, and the .1 channel gets its share of scenes with explosions, motors, and of course, a good crash or two.  Dialogue is clear and well presented, as is Dominic Frontiere’s memorable music score.  All in all, a quality audio presentation!

Features ****

This limited edition set from Anchor Bay includes a second disc, “The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man”, which is also available for purchase separately.  It’s a stunning and creatively crafted 114 minute retrospective documentary, with a playful job of hosting and narrating done by director Richard Rush.  He’s a real joy to listen to, and his strange sense of humor doesn’t seem to have waned in twenty years.  It also features new interviews with Peter O’Toole, Steve Railsback and Barbara Hershey, and it contains everything you would want to know about the film, from the 8 plus year struggle to realize it as a project and more.

On the first disc, there is more to be learned from a commentary track…Richard Rush and Peter O’Toole each are recorded separately, and as far as I can tell, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell and Chuck Bail are all together.  It’s a well done track that covers some of the same information as the documentary, but the actors are heard from much more…it’s both enlightening and entertaining.  There are also a couple of theatrical trailers which intrigued me (how do you make a trailer for this kind of movie?), plus some deleted scenes (reasons for deletion discussed on disc two), production and advertising art, stills gallery, and a complete screenplay with director’s notes for your DVD ROM.

Summary:

I was as thrilled as can be at the prospect of just having The Stunt Man on disc, but Anchor Bay, as usual, has gone above and beyond the call of duty with this impressive double disc packaging.  The transfer is terrific, the features are generous and fun…just act fast, before your chance to own this limited edition DVD crashes and burns.