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Keep 'em Hangin'

Talk about suspending disbelief: It seems like action movies just can't get enough precarious dangling vehicles these days.

October 05, 1997|Judy Brennan | Judy Brennan is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Hollywood just loves cliffhangers, but one particular bit of gravity defiance has emerged as an industry favorite in recent months: the old "heavy vehicle dangles from a high place, often suspended by only a cable" trick.

In early May came "Breakdown," a Paramount release starring Kurt Russell and Kathleen Quinlan. In the climactic scene, Quinlan sits trapped in a truck as it teeters on the edge of a cliff while her husband, played by Russell, dukes it out with killer trucker J.T. Walsh.

In the end, a mere shove is enough to send the precariously perched semi hurtling down the cliff.

Later that month came Steven Spielberg's "The Lost World: Jurassic Park," in which only a cable keeps a huge motor home containing Jeff Goldblum and Julianne Moore from plunging down a steep mountainside after a nasty encounter with a Tyrannosaurus rex.

Now, in "The Peacemaker"--the first feature film from Spielberg's new studio, DreamWorks--a telephone cable is all that keeps a truck and barrels full of nuclear warheads from plummeting earthward, while star George Clooney battles a ferocious terrorist in the truck.

These films, of course, aren't the first time audiences have experienced such high-wire escapades. In 1994's "True Lies," for example, the bad guys were stuck in their wrecked truck as it sat precariously balanced on Florida's Sunshine Skyway Bridge--only to be sent plunging to their watery deaths when a pelican landed on their vehicle.

As one source put it: "If it works, why not?"

For "Breakdown" director Jonathan Mostow, the coincidence has an odd twist. Critics said that his film echoed Spielberg's 1971 TV feature "Duel," in which a businessman is traveling down a deserted stretch of road and inexplicably becomes the target of a faceless diesel truck driver determined to kill him.

Then "The Lost World" came out and Spielberg's cliffhanger scene was said to echo Mostow's. Of course, Spielberg did not know about the "Breakdown" sequence when he was shooting "Lost World."

"It was just weird timing. The whole truck thing had come full circle," Mostow says with a laugh. "I'm embarrassed to say I have been working and haven't seen the other two films ["Lost World" and "Peacemaker"], but I can tell you the reason this scene was in my film: because it works."

He said such stunts are usually done with miniatures and/or special effects, although not in his case. "That's a real truck hanging off a real bridge in 'Breakdown.' Actors were really hanging off of it," he says. "We spent weeks bringing structural engineers in to test and safety check the bridge, everything. We had cranes swinging all around to protect them, the trucks, everything."

So, how often does this kind of thing really happen?

Occasionally, but not as frequently as depicted in the movies, according to Nick Walsh, the regional director of the Office of Motor Carriers for the Federal Highway Administration, who adds that his agency doesn't really keep track of trucks dangling from bridges.

As for the reality-based physics of it, he says: "It depends a lot on what part of the truck is dangling. If it is the bed of the truck and that bed is loaded with 45,000 pounds of lumber, it's not going to dangle for very long. It's empty, that's a different story."

Walsh described the length of time the motor home was suspended in "The Lost World" as "ridiculous, [but] I learned a long time ago when I see scenes like that to suspend disbelief or I won't enjoy the movie."

As for the pelican in "True Lies," he adds: "That's entertainment!"

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