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New Moves They Must Learn

As daredevil stars and computer technology see more action, stunt experts are having to adjust.

September 10, 2000|MICHAEL MALLORY | Michael Mallory is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne flip and spin through the air like anti-gravity whirligigs during a wild martial arts duel. Tom Cruise, in full view, hangs by his fingernails from the side of a cliff. Not long ago, such eye-popping shots as these, from "The Matrix" and "M:I-2," could only have been accomplished by highly skilled stunt doubles for the high-priced stars. But in today's computerized Hollywood, the stars are performing more of the action themselves, often aided by high-tech trickery, and in the process, the entire motion picture stunt industry is changing radically.

Whereas once a stuntman's only tools were skill, daring and whatever padding or rigging could be hidden from the camera, today the action game is increasingly played with the aid of safety wire and cable rigs that can be digitally erased from the shot, and digital compositing, which can take a blue- or green-screened actor and place him in the middle of the action. Many filmmakers see this as a boon.

"Digital technology allows you to do things that you couldn't do in the past; they would have been too dangerous," says producer Jerry Bruckheimer. "It's giving movies much more spectacle."

Helping to fuel this shift in the way stunts are handled is American audiences' growing taste for Hong Kong-style martial arts action. That has resulted in mainstream Hollywood courting Chinese action experts such as actors Jackie Chan and Chow-Yun Fat, director John Woo ("M:I-2") and fight choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping ("The Matrix"). Director Ang Lee, who called on Wo-Ping to choreograph the fights for his upcoming "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which was filmed entirely in China, goes so far as to call the Hong Kong style "an almost perfect form of filmmaking, where the images and editing are like dance and music."

Within the stunt community, however, these new and rapidly spreading developments are viewed as a double-edged sword. While no one argues that the use of wires to support a performer for a fall, a leap or a fight greatly increases safety, some fear it is also putting "stunt guys" (to use the fraternal vernacular) out of work.

"It will take away a lot of stuntmen's jobs," says Loren Janes, co-founder of the Stuntman's Assn. of Motion Pictures, and a man who has spent nearly 50 years in the industry as a stuntman, stunt coordinator and second unit director. "Nowadays you get hooked up to a wire and you're just a passenger, and anybody can do that. You don't need the skills that stuntmen used to have as much now."

Others, though, maintain that wire work requires more than just a ticket to ride.

"It's gotten to the point where the wire work requires a certain level of talent that you really need to have," says Eddie Perez, vice president of the International Stuntman's Assn. and a stunt coordinator for the TV shows "The Jersey" and "Special Unit 2." "To me it's exciting, to some people it's frightening, but it's going to the next level and making us work a little harder and think more."


Some of that hard work is making the performer, whether it is the actor or a stunt person, not appear suspiciously weightless. "The danger of wires is that you don't actually get a true flight line because you are suspended," notes veteran stuntman Vic Armstrong, who served as stunt coordinator and second unit director for Columbia's upcoming big-screen version of "Charlie's Angels." "Don't kid yourself that because she's completed the somersault that you've got the shot. I'll say, 'No, there was a millisecond hesitation before she completed it, she was hanging time, and we have to do it again.' You have to put blinkers on and look at it as a focused cinema-goer, and they're not fools."

Because stunt players still have to rig, rehearse and test the stunts before a film's star can attempt them, Armstrong believes that the new techniques are actually creating work for stunters. On "Charlie's Angels," stars Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu had three sets of doubles, although Armstrong says a good deal of the rough-and-tumble action on screen was gamely performed by the actresses themselves. In particular, he says, Diaz proved to be an amazingly adept stunt driver.

"She was very, very handy in a car, she has a genuine love of it," says Andy Armstrong, Vic's brother, who served as co-stunt coordinator on the film. "We put a radar gun on her going 42 miles an hour in reverse, changing lanes, and she did a reverse 180-degree spin and a forward 180 into a parking space. We joked about it, because if I ever had a job with a lot of car stuff and we needed an expert driver, and she's not doing anything, I'd certainly call her up."

Car stunts remain one area of action work that is largely handled in the traditional way, with minimal digital encroachment. Even the effects people seem to prefer it that way.

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