A few years ago I reviewed ACTION U.S.A., an indie action movie from 1989, filmed in Waco, Texas. It was the directorial debut of stuntman John Stewart, a veteran of FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, THE HIDDEN and PHANTASM II. It was clearly designed as a showcase for stunts – all kinds of hanging off of moving cars and helicopters, falling off of buildings, cars crashing and exploding, a guy’s motorcycle catching on fire and falling off a bridge. Tons of fun.
At the time it only existed as a super rare VHS tape, but beginning this week Alamo On Demand are playing a new 4K restoration in drive-ins and virtual cinemas (tickets here), which I imagine (hope) means there will be a blu-ray too at some point. Here’s the trailer Alamo made for it:
Stewart directed three more movies in the early ‘90s (CLICK: THE CALENDAR GIRL KILLER, CARTEL and HIDDEN OBSESSION) before doing 14 episodes in the first two seasons of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. He continued to work in stunts (including as stunt coordinator for LEPRECHAUN 3 and CHILDREN OF THE CORN 666: ISAAC’S RETURN) but didn’t direct another feature until 2007, when he made FALL GUY: THE JOHN STEWART STORY. Yes, an autobiopic. He’s played by Jason David Frank, the Green/White Power Ranger.
I’m fascinated by the lives of stunt people, and the topic has made for some good semi-autobiographical stories (HOOPER), fiction (THE STUNTWOMAN, DEATH PROOF) and documentaries (DOUBLE DARE, STUNTWOMEN). FALL GUY touches on some of the same themes as those (the toll of a dangerous profession on one’s relationships, guilt and grief over stunts gone wrong, getting into bar fights with local tough guys, macho stubbornness, addiction to danger), but I think it’s fair to say that it’s ham-stringed by a miniscule budget. It’s generally less polished than the worst scene in ACTION U.S.A. but without the added production value of the crazy stunts or film grain. Whatever charm it manages to exude is from its combination of subject matter, amateurishness and sincerity.
It opens in “BOSTON – A LIFETIME AGO” with a spiky haired little boy wearing an adult’s leather jacket, hot-wiring an El Camino (with flames and blower) and leading police on an unconvincing chase (you know how kids think you just randomly spin the wheel left and right when you drive?) that leads to a goofy green screen/explosion/title transition that I can totally get behind. (Young John Stewart in that scene is played by Jesse Jacobs, a son of a colleague, I think, who grew up to perform stunts in THE PURGE, JOHN WICK and more.)
The next scene shows you what you’re in for. Frank as Stewart is injured doing a car stunt. This is portrayed by intercutting the actual stunt (so, clearly shot on film in the ’80s) with some closeups of Frank-as-Stewart being pulled out of the car, shot in closeup so as not to show that it’s not the same car or location or on a film set and that there aren’t other people there. When his friends carry him out before he’s discharged to do a dangerous fire stunt I don’t know but I’m thinking maybe this building is not really a hospital:
Later they use an urgent care clinic as a hospital, so they’re getting closer. But a doctor does a procedure on his leg using a Black and Decker drill! Doesn’t even put anything under it. Just pulls his leg out and starts going at it with the power tools. Yeah, I’m worried about his leg, but also the sheets.
When he does the fire stunt we see that again they just use a clip from the real movie and some unconvincing inserts to represent the film crew shooting it. At this point we must accept that this is not a showcase for stunts like ACTION U.S.A. was, except maybe in the sense of a clip show. One of the few newly shot action scenes is a bar fight that seems to have been quickly whipped together, uses distractingly over-the-top sound effects and ends abruptly. So this is not a stunt reel, it’s intended as an account of Stewart’s rise from stuntman to director, and his relationships and tragedies in between. There are a few parts where he says he doesn’t want to be typecast as a director of action movies, so I guess this is his chance to do a drama.
I can’t say Frank gives a great acting performance, and other than one scene where he practices some kicks in his backyard they don’t take much advantage of his other talents. One of his weaknesses is an early-Mark-Wahlberg-esque whining that I think sometimes makes him come across less likable than he’s supposed to. Between his complaining in the hospital, his yelling on set and especially how he handles the Hollywood Movie Stuntman’s Association’s concerns about an injury on his set, he comes across as kind of a dick in his own autobiography! But that union scene is worth it for a fellow stuntman saying, “He’s a renegade!” and Jake saying, “Yeah, so what? He gets the job done.”
Part of the appeal of a stunt story is obviously seeing the nuts and bolts of the job dramatized, but the low budget makes that pretty minimal here other than in dialogue – little tidbits talking about fire gel or rubber cement, or the ramp used for a car jump. There are anecdotes I’m sure based on true life John Stewart adventures, like hitting on a bartender he likes by waiting for her to leave work and pretending to get hit by her car, or giving the mayor of Waco a cameo to butter him up for helicopter permits. There are little references to things that are probly real but I couldn’t find more about: complimenting a guy on the “nice burn you did on Halloween” (I couldn’t pinpoint one of his friends working on the HALLOWEEN movie series, if that’s what it means), a fatal helicopter crash on a stunt he was originally supposed to do.
Since this is not a well financed studio biopic, don’t expect any period detail beyond maybe an older phone at some point. To me Frank’s hair, clothes and tattoos look more like a guy who would be into Sugar Ray than a stuntman in the ‘80s, and the music leans post-BLADE techno. Still, it’s pretty interesting to see this chintzy rendition of the major events in an obscure career. Usually a biopic is on somebody you know something about and you’re waiting for famous moments, like in DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY you think, “Ooh, this is when he’s the sidekick upstaging the hero on Green Hornet,” but in this the breakthroughs are being convinced to do an acting role in “a Debra Winger movie” (“Tough Guy #1” in MIKE’S MURDER) and direct second unit for COLD STEEL (the producers refer to that as “the Sharon Stone movie we’re doing” which seems unlikely – it was her followup to POLICE ACADEMY 4). Other movies depicted or referenced are AMERICAN DRIVE-IN, SAVAGE DAWN, CARTEL, HIDDEN OBSESSION and of course ACTION U.S.A. (which they use some good footage from).
In an expensive biopic you look for the stunt casting of known celebrities, or note that they deliberately don’t name them. In this context I was excited to spot them. Ross Hagen (“Drago” in ACTION U.S.A.) is good as James Bridges, director of THE CHINA SYNDROME and URBAN COWBOY. An unexpected part is when a studio executive at an ACTION U.S.A. screening turns to John’s girlfriend and says, “Linda Blair, nice to see you!” I wondered if I misheard until she told him, “Yeah. My life got crazy after THE EXORCIST.” There’s an actress (Jennifer Siebel, IN THE VALLEY OF ELAH) who kisses him on the cheek on set and it’s supposed to be Sharon Stone, and I don’t see her in the credits, but he’s on set with someone who’s supposed to be Heather Thomas. She makes his lady jealous by practicing “the love scene” with him.
Apparently at some point a director (David Alan Graf, BIG STAN) is supposed to be Fred Olen Ray. And most meta of all there’s a scene where Jason David Frank playing John Stewart is directing an episode of Power Rangers, with “Power Ranger #1” (Todd Senofonte, stunt double for JCVD in eight movies including DOUBLE TEAM and KNOCK OFF) clearly intended to be Jason David Frank. (They of course look for humor in having Frank-as-Stewart saying the show is “the stupidest idea I’ve ever seen.”)
This movie’s director of photography Gary Graver (also a prolific porn director) is in the movie playing himself. Stuntman Bobby Bragg is an extra, but is also portrayed by actor/stuntman David “Shark” Fralick (FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, UNCLE SAM, DESERT HEAT). But most of the time John does everything with his manager Vinnie (co-writer Damian Templar) and best friend and fellow stuntman Jake (Paul Logan, VAMPIRE IN VEGAS, SNIPER SPECIAL OPS, COBRAGATOR). I like Logan in this, he seems like some hybrid of Paul Walker and Lou Ferrigno.
Vinnie and Jake remain steady in John’s life through a procession of love interests including a wife who has two scenes:
1) angry that he works too much
2) crying while writing a goodbye letter in a spiral notebook
He comes home from the bar to find all the furniture gone and the letter taped to the wall. His mouth moves while he reads it. There’s a stretch of the movie where the tragedies pile up like crazy (SPOILERS): right before his wedding his mom dies, then he skips out of a high fall gig the day after his honeymoon, and Jake takes over and is killed, then his new wife (Gloria Carmona, ROSE’S GARDEN) has a mental breakdown and slits her wrists in front of him. It would seem like too much if it was fiction, but I found something moving about watching this crudely executed melodrama knowing that the person who suffered through it is behind the camera wanting to share his experience with us.
A dedication at the end reveals that Jake is based on Jay Currin, whose credits include SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT II, GET CRAZY, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., I COME IN PEACE, THE EXORCIST III and STONE COLD. His fatal accident was on a practice jump for a 1991 movie called BIKINI ISLAND. That pretty much sums up how surreal this line of work must be. They willingly risk that being their epitaph. I’m sorry it didn’t turn out differently.
Honestly I wish FALL GUY could be remade with real production value. It would need a way better script, but there’s interesting drama there to dig into. I’m sure there’s plenty more to say about the filming of ACTION U.S.A., and it would be so cool to see a real cinematic depiction of that world of ‘80s tough guys who set themselves on fire and jump off buildings for movies that most people will never hear of. Also you could have some good scenes on the Power Rangers set. But until then, we have this one – not as good, but straight from the horse’s mouth. I wish the MIAMI CONNECTION guy would do one of these.
P.S. The DVD cover quotes The Boston Globe as saying, “FALL GUY is one of the most impressive action-adventure films to be released this year.” I couldn’t find the actual review. Other “action-adventure” movies from 2006 include CASINO ROYALE, 300, APOCALYPTO, UNDISPUTED II, FEARLESS, ULTRAVIOLET, MIAMI VICE, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III and RUNNING SCARED. So congratz!
VERN has a new action-horror novel out called WORM ON A HOOK! He has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the film criticism books Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal and Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics as well as the crime novel Niketown.