08 May 2024

Fall Guys


We went to see The Fall Guy, and it’s terrific.  Not what you’d call deep, by any means, but enormously entertaining.  Some thoughts about that.

John Wayne made The Big Trail, directed by Raoul Walsh, in 1930.  It did not, however, to Walsh’s surprise, make Wayne a star.  Watching it, you can see why.  The Big Trail is a good picture, shot in any early version of ‘scope, and by most any yardstick, pretty spectacular.  Wayne, on the other hand, is pretty callow.  He hasn’t really grown into his own shoes.  This doesn’t happen until 1939, and the release of Stagecoach.  In between, over about ten years, Wayne cranked out some sixty movies for Republic Pictures, most of them hour-long B-westerns, made for the bottom half of a double bill at a kids’ matinee. 

They were shot very fast and loose – in a typical year, 1934, Wayne appeared in nine of them, and Randy Rides Alone is probably the only one still worth watching – and they followed a formula: the trick was in the stunts.  The scripts were lame, the characters were cardboard, but Wayne and Yakima Canutt staged their fight scenes together, and Yakima doubled for Wayne in the more dangerous gags.  (You can see Wayne riding a shovel down a plume of water in a spillway, in Randy, but it’s Yakima who jumps off a running horse, onto a bridge railing, and into a river.  There’s also a great jump, off a moving train into a river, in The Trail Beyond.)  There were, on average, three of these stunts per picture, and at least one knock-down, drag-out brawl – one of the best is Wayne and Ward Bond (doing an uncharacteristic turn as a crooked lawyer, defrauding a widder woman), in Tall in the Saddle.  You weren’t going to these pictures for uplift, you went to hold your breath.

Yakima Canutt famously doubled
Wayne in Stagecoach, too.  He jumps from the box down between the team of runaway horses pulling the stage, and dances along the doubletrees to mount the lead horse and gather up the reins.  Wayne later remarked, Canutt did the stunt, I got the close-up.  Canutt’s the Apache that gets shot off the horses, too, does the fall under their hooves, and then lies flat between the stagecoach wheels, going by on either side.  I think it’s the first time that was ever done.  And he’s most famously second unit on Ben-Hur, stunt coordinator for the chariot race.  He won them those eleven Oscars.

All this in aid of why
The Fall Guy is so good.  Stunt guys have gotten screen time before; Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham collaborated on half a dozen pictures - Needham reportedly punctured a lung and broke his back along the way, invented the cannon roll and the airbag, and essentially established the category of stunt designer.  David Leitch, who directed The Fall Guy (his previous credits include Bullet Train and Atomic Blonde) started his career in stunts: Fight Club, Buffy, Ghosts of Mars, Troy, Ocean’s Eleven, he’s doubled Brad Pitt a lot.  The Fall Guy is very much an homage, then.

It’s not so much an homage to the Lee Majors television series, though, which ran from 1981 to 1986, as it is inspired by it.  And one of the cooler conceits of the movie is a sort of meta narrative.  Not just the inside baseball, and Easter eggs, which abound, and which are used to terrific comic effect, but a sense that you’re drawing on the physicality of movies themselves, the real in service of the pretend: it hurts to fall off a building.  (Or the alternative, to see Buster Keaton miss being hit by a collapsing building; the earth moves, he remains still.)  I briefly had some fanboy letters back and forth with Peter Breck before he died, and he said Lee Majors was a real gent.  This was when I asked Peter about his guest shots on Fall Guy, the series.  He pointed out that he wasn’t the only one, that there was Doug McClure, and Jock Mahoney, and Clu Gulager, and a host of others.  Not that there weren’t a lot of terrific character actors guesting on the show, but these guys in particular had all been regulars on older TV series, the era of The Big Valley and before.

This is what I’m driving at with
The Fall Guy, the movie.  It has a respectful sense of itself.  Yes, it’s a series of set pieces.  Yes, the plot’s nothing to write home about.  Yes, the leads are hugely charming, Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt bring their A-game, without being self-consciously cute.  (Although they are indeed cute.)  And the way that the stunt gags are deployed are, yes, breathtaking - but something else.  You’re both in on the game, yet ready to be astonished, at the audacity of it all, the suspension of disbelief.  It’s magic.  It’s sleight of hand, or eye.  We know it’s a trick, and that simply adds to our delight.  We go to the show to be fooled. 


  1. I don't remember his name, but a stunt man who was Yvonne De Carlo's husband was horribly injured during the flat car full of logs sequence in How the West Was Won. She took the role in The Munsters to help pay the hospital bills.

  2. One of the characters in the TV series "Mom" was Adam (played by William Fichtner), Bonnie's (Allison Janney) love interest, an ex-stuntman who's paralyzed from the waist down. And there's also the 1980 "The Stunt Man" starring Peter O'Toole as a deranged director (is there any other kind?) and Steve Railsbeck as a fugitive who hides by become the stunt man for O'Toole's latest movie. Loved that movie.


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