Stunt work continues to be one of the most impressive and underappreciated aspects of filmmaking. Time and time again, stunt performers perform jaw-dropping feats to entertain an audience. What would action filmmaking be without the stunt performers? It’s why Chad Stahelski and Christopher McQuarrie have campaigned for a stunt category at the Academy Awards.
- Collapsing house – Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
- Pole slide – Police Story (1985)
- The corkscrew jump – The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)
- The Burj Khalifa climb – Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
- Chariot race – Ben-Hur (1959)
- The car chase – Death Proof (2007)
- Pole battle – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
From Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan to Zoë Bell and Tom Cruise, stunt work continues to evolve and improve with the dawn of new technology. To honor stunt work in movies, watch seven of the greatest death-defying stunts below.
Before Tom Cruise, there was Buster Keaton. The fact Keaton was pulling off death-defying stunts in the 1920s is truly unfathomable. Without CGI, Keaton pulled off his most famous stunt in 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. In the scene, Keaton has an entire building fall with his back turned to the wall. Keaton’s body goes through an open attic window, saving him from death.
Since Keaton did not look back at the building, he used a nail on the ground as a marker for where to stand. If Keaton missed his mark by even an inch, the building would have killed him. The stunt was so dangerous that half the crew walked off the set, refusing to witness a potential death.
Stream Steamboat Bill, Jr. on Prime Video.
Hidden Strike‘s Jackie Chan is an icon, and in the 1980s, he began his ascent to superstardom. In 1985, Chan co-wrote, directed, and starred in Police Story, an action thriller about a police detective (Chan) who must prove his innocence after being framed for murder. Toward the end, Chan completes a stunt considered one of the greatest in action movie history.
Chan jumps off a mall balcony onto a pole surrounded by lights. As he slides down the pole, the lights break and explode, and Chan falls through the glass at the end of the stunt. In an interview with IGN, Chan said he suffered second-degree burns, broke his seventh and eighth vertebrae, and dislocated his pelvis.
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Leave it to 007 to pull off an impossible stunt. In 1974’s The Man With The Golden Gun, James Bond (Roger Moore) steals an AMC Hornet X and begins his pursuit of Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) in Bangkok, Thailand. To catch up with Scaramanga, Bond is forced to jump the car over a river by way of a broken bridge.
Because the bridge was tilted, the car completed a barrel roll, spinning 360 degrees in mid-air before safely landing on the other side. With no CGI, the stunt was completed by Loren “Bumps” Willert. The innovative stunt was conceived with vehicle simulation software at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory (CAL) in Buffalo, New York. The stunt is in the Guinness World Records for the first “Astro spiral” stunt on film.
Rent The Man with the Golden Gun on YouTube.
It wouldn’t be a death-defying stunt list without a Tom Cruise story. Cruise is the poster boy for actors who do their own stunts. In the Mission: Impossible franchise alone, Cruise has completed a HALO jump, led a helicopter chase in the mountain, and parachuted to safety after driving a motorcycle off a cliff. Those all feel inferior to the Burj Khalifa climb in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
In the scene, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt scales the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, with only a few wires keeping him from falling to his death. The climb was so dangerous that Cruise had to find a new safety guy to approve the scene, a story famously shared by Matt Damon.
Stream Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol on Paramount+.
To conduct the chariot race in Ben-Hur, $1 million was spent to build an entire arena, the biggest film set ever constructed at the time. The nine-minute sequence is full of heart-pounding action and edge-of-your-seat moments, including one instance that could have been catastrophic. At one point, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) is forced to drive over wreckage from a crashed chariot.
Joe Canutt, the stuntman for Heston, is launched into the air with his feet pointing to the sky, causing his body to flip over the chariot. However, Canutt holds onto the chariot’s railing and pulls himself back into the chariot’s car. For an accident that could have resulted in death, Cannutt only suffered a minor chin injury.
Rent Ben-Hur on Prime Video.
After impressing Uma Thurman’s stuntwoman in Kill Bill, Zoë Bell played the lead female role in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Death Proof. Bell plays a stuntwoman based on herself and some of her experiences in the business. During the climactic scene, Bell rides on the hood of a speeding 1971 Dodge Challenger while holding onto two seatbelt straps from the doors of the car.
Stuntman Mike McKay (Kurt Russell) arrives on the scene in his 1969 Dodge Charger and begins ramming Zoë’s car, causing her to hold on for dear life as her body. When recalling the scene to RogerEbert.com, Bell said, “There’s no double, there’s no CGI, it’s all practical, and you’re seeing that the person crying is the same one falling off the car.”
Rent Death Proof on Apple TV.
Mad Max: Fury Road is a masterclass in action filmmaking from director George Miller. During the desert chase, the “pole-cats” stole the show as they glided from vehicle to vehicle. Guy Norris, the action unit director on Fury Road, said the pole-cats were inspired by Babe and Cirque du Soleil.
Norris brought in a Cirque du Soleil performer to train the stuntmen on Fury Road. Miller filmed long takes to make the chase feel like a live event. The resulting scene became one of the iconic memories of the film.
Rent Mad Max: Fury Road on Prime Video.