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SYFY WIRE The Fall Guy

Before You See The Fall Guy, Revisit the Wild Ride of The Stunt Man

Great performances, fun plotting, and lots of laughs make this action-comedy a must-see.

By Matthew Jackson
Cameron (Steve Railsback) grips a fence in The Stunt Man (1980).

The world of movie stunts has always been compelling, as far back as the days of Buster Keaton's death-defying comedy work and as recently as Tom Cruise's cliff-jumping motorcycle rides.

We're fascinated by this world in which real people will undertake real danger for the sake of fictional entertainments, and that means that stunt men are not just heroes in the minds of a certain kind of cinephile, but fodder for some very interesting storytelling. From The Fall Guy (both the original series and the upcoming feature film starring Ryan Gosling) to Hal Needham's Hooper, we're fascinated by what's behind the guys who risk it all for our amusement.

Then there's The Stunt Man (now streaming on Peacock), a movie about a guy who risks it all because he's basically got no other choice.

For More on Stunts:
Are The Stunts in The Fall Guy Real?
John Wick Director Thinks Stunts Should Be Recognized at the Oscars
Why Jason Statham Prefers Action Roles

Why Now Is a Great Time to Revisit The Stunt Man on Peacock

Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole) stands next to a large camera rig in The Stunt Man (1980).

Directed by Richard Rush and starring Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, and Barbara Hershey, 1980's The Stunt Man is about exactly what it sounds like, but it approaches the story of a stunt man working on an epic war movie from a place that's entirely its own. The title character, Cameron (Railsback), isn't a stunt man at all when we meet him, but rather a Vietnam veteran on the run from the law. When a mishap puts him in the midst of a film set overseen by the charismatic Eli (O'Toole), Cameron ingratiates himself to the cast and crew by winning over lead actress Nina (Hershey), then Eli himself. Sensing that Cameron needs a place to hide, and desperate to cover-up the accidental death of his previous stunt man, Eli makes him an offer: Become the stunt man Eli is missing, get paid to face danger, and maybe carve out a new life.

There's a lot of juicy plot to contend with in these opening minutes, and that's before you get into the sheer charisma that oozes from the entire cast, particularly O'Toole, who was nominated for an Oscar for this role and who might be the best over-the-top director character ever committed to film. But The Stunt Man is after more than a clever hook. The script, adapted by Rush and Lawrence B. Marcus from Paul Brodeur's novel of the same name, sets out to map the complexities of the relationship between Eli and Cameron, who the director christens "Lucky" because of the break he just caught. They need each other, yes, but they're also using each other in ways neither is entirely comfortable with, something O'Toole and Railsback both play with remarkable dexterity. Though it's a comedy through and through, the film uses the tension between stunt man and director to explore tropes you might find in a psychological thriller, as Cameron becomes convinced that Eli just might get him killed rather than deal with the true complexities of their relationship. Throw in Cameron's increasing feelings for Nina, and her own complex ties to Cameron, and it becomes a fascinating cauldron full of meaty emotional strands, all knotting together into something more.

Even if you only look at the film on a character level, The Stunt Man has so much to offer. O'Toole is doing some of his best work, Hershey is luminous, Railsback is terrific, and they're all charting a course that's both mapping their own personal narratives and the larger, more cynical narrative of Hollywood and what it means to tell an honest story. Rush's visual sense, which includes using the equipment of modern filmmaking to his advantage in mapping out dynamic shot after dynamic shot, only adds to the allure, and even delivers believable stunts that would thrill in any context. It all adds up to an action-comedy gem that should be seen as widely as possible, and a film that's influenced everything from Tropic Thunder to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Check out The Stunt Man, now streaming on Peacock, before heading to theaters May 3 to see Ryan Gosling as The Fall Guy.