Blessed are the Stuntmen and Stuntwomen

Zachary Lee

Allegedly, the Apostle Paul did not have stuntwomen or stuntmen in mind when he wrote to the church in Corinth about beating one’s body to submission in pursuit of a greater goal. Yet after watching The Fall Guy, I’d like to think he would have found stunt work to be an apt metaphor for his illustration on self-discipline.

At the start of the movie—helmed by stunt coordinator-turned-director David Leitch and loosely based on the 1980s television series of the same name—we’re introduced to Ryan Gosling’s stuntman character Colt Seavers via voiceover, while being treated to a montage of cinema’s most jaw-dropping action set pieces. Films from the Fast and Furious franchise, as well as Leitch’s own Atomic Blonde, get their due, as we see stunt performers thrown off buildings and cars, tumble down canyons, and set on fire (more on that later). You can’t help but wince and be inspired in equal measure. It’s all part of the job, Colt assures us. He shares that although stunt performers are in almost every movie, if they’re doing their job correctly “you just don’t know they’re there.”

For stunt performers, the mark of a job well done is invisibility. Woven into their vocation is an innate understanding of the collaborative process of filmmaking. There’s certain magic in making an audience believe that another person (the actor or actress) is doing all these death-defying stunts. Colt is more than happy to take the hits in real life while his actor counterpart Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) appears to take them on-screen.

Cole’s idyllic (if perilous) situation takes a literal hit when he suffers a career-threatening injury. He quits the industry until he gets a call from producer Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham), who informs him that Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt)—a camerawoman-turned-director with whom Colt previously had a romantic relationship—wants his stunt expertise on the set of her directorial debut, Metalstorm. Eager for the chance to potentially rekindle their relationship, Colt agrees. But once he arrives on set, he realizes that Jody is surprised and livid; Gail confesses that she actually needs Colt to find Tom, the film’s star, who has gone missing. If he’s not returned, Metalstorm’s production will halt. In an ironic attempt to encourage Colt, Gail cheekily quips that he’s the perfect man for the job because he’s a stuntman: “No one’s going to notice if you’re here or not . . . no offense.”

The disregard for the stunt community at the hands of above-the-line talent (directors, producers, cast members) becomes the instigating action and conflict of the film. Throughout The Fall Guy, Leitch and screenwriter Drew Pearce comment on the ways below-the-line creatives such as camera operators and stuntpeople are often treated as lesser than, especially in comparison to the flashy stars. In particular, Leitch rebukes such attitudes through clever visual juxtapositions between Tom and Colt.

Tom boasts to an unimpressed Colt that Tom Ryder is “a global brand” and claims, “If I go down, the Dow goes down.” He is drunk on the fallacy of his own self-importance. Yet this is something the film itself rejects, especially with moments that demonstrate just how many people it takes to make one scene, let alone an entire film. As Colt is being directed by Jody on the Metalstorm set for a climactic action sequence, the best word to use is “organized chaos”—extras choreographing fight scenes, colorful explosions erupting, camerapeople weaving in and out to get close-ups, and assistants running around with fire extinguishers. While all of this is happening in the background, the shot Jody wants is that of Colt being lit on fire and then thrown violently against a rock. For such a short take that will undoubtedly only take up a few seconds of the finished film, we witness just how much work, coordination, and effort goes into it—to say nothing of the potential danger posed to Colt. (In an interview, Gosling shared that one of his stunt doubles, Ben Jenkin, braved the flames and was set on fire a total of eight times).

For stunt performers, the mark of a job well done is invisibility.

Scenes like this underscore the reality of collaboration on a film set, emphasizing how everyone’s role matters. A modified version of Paul’s words in another letter to the Corinthians came to mind: the actor cannot say to the stunt man “I don’t need you,” and vice versa. It’s telling to compare the way Leitch visually frames Tom and Colt. Unless Tom is getting ready to shoot a scene that requires some grime (all of which will be added cosmetically, of course), he spends a good portion of the film wearing a pristine robe, his exposed abs reflecting the size of his ego. Gosling’s Colt, on the other hand, is rarely portrayed without blemish and blood. Whether he’s doing a Metalstorm stunt or fighting against assailants, he’s frequently battered and bruised. It takes both of them to paint the portrait that appears on-screen.

Seeing how adamantly The Fall Guy celebrates the work of those who often go unnoticed made me think of stories in Scripture that not only spotlight the least of these and the overlooked, but also rebuke the notion that good deeds are the result of just one person. Sure, Hebrews 11 names heroes of the faith, yet that’s not the whole picture. I also think of the people that Scripture highlights who may not have “flashy” roles. In the Gospel story of the woman who anoints Jesus with an expensive jar of perfume (she is unnamed in most accounts and identified as Mary in John 12), the disciples critique her actions as wasteful. Yet Jesus commends this act of faith. He calls what she has done a “beautiful thing,” saying that “wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” It’s a testament that her act of devotion is embedded in the pages of Scripture.

The Fall Guy is an entertaining and incisive critique of the belief that the success of anything revolves around one person. It’s a love letter to the stunt community and a reminder that we ought not reduce a movie to its stars. In the same way, it’s an encouragement to Christians to be reminded of the beauty that in doing God’s kingdom-building work, we all have a part to play, no matter how big or small.

Topics: Movies