The Nitro Circus team in action. (Arc Entertainment )
It's impressive enough when Travis Pastrana hydroplanes his dirt bike across a swimming pool. But it's really something when, just like a motocross Jesus, the 28-year-old extreme sports superstar pushes the limits of his two-wheeled trajectory, crossing the pool, then jumping down a concrete wall, then a kiddie pool, before landing on an idyllic Panamanian beach.
Pastrana is one member of Nitro Circus, a collective of athletes from the motorcycle, bicycle and skateboard worlds who attempt seemingly impossible stunts and often succeed. Their exploits are documented in the new film, "Nitro Circus: The Movie 3D," which opened in theaters Wednesday.
Over the course of 80 minutes, Pastrana and his crew launch a turbocharged school bus 170 feet through the air. They intentionally roll a Ford Mustang seven times at high speed. And they demonstrate that the only thing crazier than jumping a tricycle between skyscrapers is doing a flip in mid-air in the 40-foot-gap between buildings.
"Fear is what keeps you alive," Pastrana said of his willingness to engage in dangerous behavior despite the obvious risks. "Action sports guys, the ones that are fearless and don't understand their ability level, they're hurt all the time."
Nitro Circus dates back to 2003, when Pastrana gathered together about 10 of his friends "to push their personal bounds further than they thought possible so others would believe it could be done." They captured their antics on video and released them on DVD.
After a brief stint on Fuel TV, "Nitro Circus" was picked up as a series by MTV in 2009, and the troupe now has its own reality show on MTV2 and regularly performs live.
Still, taking the act to movie theaters wasn't easy. The Hollywood studios that Nitro Circus approached about the project chose to steer clear, citing extreme liability.
Ultimately the $7-million film, which was directed by Gregg Godfrey and Jeremy Rawle, and features cameos from "Jackass" frontman Johnny Knoxville, actor Channing Tatum and skateboarding legend Ryan Sheckler, among others, was independently financed and is being released through ARC Entertainment.
Most of the budget went toward the 3-D camera equipment that lets viewers ride shotgun on stunts they should never attempt on their own.
"We were buying cars off the side of the road for $400 and jury-rigging the roll cages," said Pastrana, an 11-time X-Gamesgold medalist turned NASCAR driver, considered by many to be the modern-day answer to Evel Knievel. "Everyone on Nitro did it because they loved it and wanted to and they got paid minimum wage."
Rated PG-13, "Nitro Circus" opens with a warning that viewers should refrain from emulating the highflying maneuvers they see throttling toward them in 3-D. That sentiment is mirrored periodically throughout the film, mostly during interviews with extreme sportsmen: Skateboarder and DC Shoes founder Rob Dyrdek described Nitro's stunts as "mega sketchy."
Pastrana has dislocated his spine, torn various ligaments, broken his legs and had multiple surgeries for action-sports injuries through the years. Jolene Van Vugt, the only female member of Nitro Circus and the only woman in the world to ever back-flip on a motorcycle, was injured just before filming and executed only a single stunt in the movie: riding a tricycle through a Hot Wheels-style loop.
In the film, Jim DeChamp is wheeled away in an ambulance after being knocked unconscious and breaking his neck and back.
"We initially didn't plan on showing too much of the aftermath of that because this isn't the type of movie where you want to bring people down," said co-director Rawle, who like Godfrey, is billed as a Nitro Circus member though neither filmmaker performs a stunt in the movie.
"But then," Rawle continued, "we felt like we were unintentionally sweeping it under the rug. In the end, people really need to know the stuff these guys are doing really does have super heavy consequences. You can't do stunts for years and years and not have things like this happen."
As challenging as the stunts are, the camera work was equally tricky. In one early scene, 18 motorcycles, two monster trucks and a trophy truck fly through the air at the same time; the sequence had to be shot at least five times.
Godfrey and Rawle captured the film's dozens of tricks with a mix of in-the-driver-seat and from-the-helmet angles as well as wide-angle shots that show the speed and largesse of the jumps in real time and slow-mo.
"There's always the possibility you're going to miss the shot because the stunts could go a lot bigger and farther than you anticipate," Rawle said. "There's nothing more frustrating for our cast members than when they do something spectacular that the camera guy missed and you have to say, "Can you do that again?'"