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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Stunt Man (Blu-ray)
The Stunt Man (Blu-ray)
Severin // R // June 7, 2011 // Region Free
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Adam Tyner | posted June 7, 2011 | E-mail the Author
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Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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"If God could do the tricks that we can do, he'd be a happy man."

Cameron (Steve Railsback) didn't exactly have stars in his eyes when he broke into the film industry. No, he was instead simply
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on the run from the cops. Why...? That's a story for later, seeing as how he's too busy darting through the woods to talk about that quite yet. Just when Cameron thinks he's in the clear, some sixty-something-year-old sedan -- what is that, a relic from World War I? -- tries to run him down. In a fit of desperation, Cameron sends the car careening off the bridge, and both it and the driver trapped inside plummet deep, deep, deep into the water below. When a helicopter soars upward a fraction of a second later, Cameron fully expects that the police have caught up to him, but...no. Inside are a smartly dressed British director and a massive 35mm camera. Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole) is in town filming his WWI epic, and completely fascinated by this wild young man, he sees an opportunity. Eli knows this fugitive wants to keep out of sight, and what better place to hide than among a sprawling film crew? A quick shave, a job title, and the word of an authoritarian director ought to silence any suspicions. Of course, Cameron's going to have to earn his keep. The shoot is down one stunt man, thanks to him, so who better to fill the vacancy than Cam? At first, everything appears to be going swimmingly. Cameron ducked tracer fire in Vietnam for two years straight, so squibs and jumps and rolls don't have him breaking a sweat. Cameron is clearly the teacher's pet, he has a gorgeous starlet by the name of Nina Franklin (Barbara Hershey) writhing all over him, and he gets $600 a pop for every stunt he pulls off. The only thing is that he starts to feel less like a stunt man on the set of a multimillion motion picture and more like a guinea pig being nudged through some deranged scientist's maze. As the lines between reality and illusion continue to blur, Cameron can't quite shake the feeling that Eli is trying to capture his death on film...

The Stunt Man defies description. Like so many of the greatest films hailing from the 1970s, it's a collision of the commercial and wildly artistic. Someone who was only halfway paying attention could still take The Stunt Man as a popcorn movie: soldiers frantically exchanging gunfire, dogfights mid-air, dizzyingly acrobatic leaps, cars careening off bridges, a couple of sex scenes, even more explosions, and an honest-to-God love interest for good measure. It's a film at least in part about the stuntmen who risk life and limb to make movies feel like such an adrenaline rush -- jumping open drawbridges, Tarzan-ing from a vine...you know the song -- so of course it's thrilling in its own right. The Stunt Man is infused with a manic energy that never relents, propelled further by an outstanding score, a wicked sense of humor, a brilliant cast led by the legendary Peter O'Toole, and endlessly quotable dialogue. Nothing about The Stunt Man fits cleanly into any
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prefabricated box. Is it a comedy? A drama? An action flick? Well...yes. It's all and none of those things.

Virtually every moment throughout The Stunt Man unfolds through Cameron's eyes -- someone from the outside who's thrust in the middle of this insanity -- and the audience is right there with him, every bit as disoriented as he is. There is no clear distinction between illusion and reality. Cameron never knows if his life is truly in danger or if it's all part of the show. Perspectives shift wildly. One moment, Cameron may be doing the Charleston however many thousands of feet in the air on the wing of a biplane, with the full ascent documented and Eli following close behind in a helicopter, and then the camera will pull back to show he's on a carefully wired rig a dozen or so feet off the ground. Reality is so fluid throughout The Stunt Man that it's not possible to get a firm grasp on it, and that's one of the most incredible things about the film. You're never ahead of the movie. You, the audience, are also at the mercy of a masterfully manipulative storyteller. Richard Rush bombards the screen with one strange, surreal, hyperkinetic, explosive setpiece after another, and the many allusions drawn to Alice in Wonderland throughout are wholly deserved. Simply put, The Stunt Man stands strong as one of the most ambitious,
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uncompromising, and devilishly clever films ever made.

The Stunt Man approaches a career best for O'Toole, which, for an actor of his stature, is saying something. He portrays Eli Cross as a god of sorts. The film set is a world of his creation, and to the cast and crew that march in lockstep with his every command, Eli's word is holy scripture. He's often in a different plane than the rest of the cast of The Stunt Man, often descending from the heavens in a crane that doesn't appear to be attached to anything. Every utterance of O'Toole's is unforgettable, and the balance he strikes between impishly charming and understatedly terrifying is outstanding. Steve Railsback is inspired casting in the part of a man being driven mad by Eli's machinations. Just a couple years before cameras rolled, Railsback had starred as Charles Manson in Helter Skelter, and few actors can play raving and unhinged as skillfully as he can. Barbara Hershey is alluring and elusive as an actress who's spent so much of her young life pretending to be other people that she doesn't know who she is or what she wants. The list goes on from there.

In the same way that Cameron is never really sure he can trust what he's seeing, I'm having a hard time believing that The Stunt Man truly has found its way to Blu-ray. For a film with three key Academy Award nominations, endless critical praise, and a rabidly fierce fanbase, The Stunt Man isn't the easiest movie to wrap one's hands around. It never escaped into more than a handful of theaters on these shores. Even close to a full decade after the film finally hit DVD, Anchor Bay's limited edition set was still routinely going for obscene amounts of money on eBay, and that's with a hundred thousand copies in circulation. Severin Films knows how much hunger there is for The Stunt Man, and not only have they brought this brilliant film to Blu-ray, but they've put together a definitive release to go along with it. Essentially all of the extras from the limited edition DVD set have been carried over, including an audio commentary and a feature-length documentary, and Severin has also assembled close to two hours' worth of new extras as well. Very, very Highly Recommended.

Fair warning: The Stunt Man isn't glossy, gleaming high definition eye candy, but if it were, that'd mean something went terribly wrong. This Blu-ray disc is gloriously grainy, just as it should be. Aside from a few scattered soft shots that date back to the original photography, the presentation is so much sharper and more teeming with detail than I waltzed in expecting to see. There's some speckling, sure, but it's light enough not to distract all that much. There's no trace of edge enhancement or excessive noise reduction. Its palette is punchier than that faded DVD from a decade back, and contrast is more robust as well, not looking quite so soupy and thin. Severin's Blu-ray disc also exposes a little bit more information while it's at it too. Instead of me just talking about how much better The Stunt Man looks in high definition compared to Anchor Bay's limited edition DVD, I can go ahead and show you. Obviously it'll take a click to open these up to full-size and really see what I mean:

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The significant change in color timing could be a little controversial, but for whatever my vote's worth, the saturation on the Blu-ray disc looks better to my eyes. The disc's packaging confirms that the transfer was supervised by Richard Rush as well, so clearly it has the director's thumbs-up.

If there's one misstep that Severin has made here, it's upconverting a couple hours' worth of standard definition extras to 1080i. That needlessly gobbles up a lot of space that a film this gritty and grainy really needs. To make room for the pointlessly upconverted extras, the 131 minute film is crammed down to just 21 gigs, and the rendering of the film grain suffers as a result. I can't help but think more adept compression may have brought out at least a little more detail as well. For a case-in-point, look at how the grain clumps together and looks so excessively digital in the screenshot below:

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...or look at all the ugly artifacting on Barbara Hershey's otherwise drop-dead gorgeous face. If you're watching the film on a smaller HD display, chances are you won't notice, but the larger you go, the more grating this is certain to be. Again too, these are PNGs snapped straight from the disc; I'm not accidentally heaping on any JPEG compression or anything, so what you see is what you'll get.

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Though I am obviously disappointed with the compression, everything about this presentation exceeded my expectations so greatly that I won't pretend the artifacting is any kind of dealbreaker. We're definitely not talking about a reference quality presentation here, but that's not the kind of movie The Stunt Man is either. There's a definite ceiling to how great a film like this can realistically look on Blu-ray, and I think Severin has come very close to hitting that mark. Aside from the sputters and stutters in the compression, which I'm probably making a slightly bigger deal about than I really should, this is very solid work.

The Stunt Man is encoded with AVC and has been slightly matted to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film and its extras take up the better part of the capacity of this BD-50 disc.

Though the only lossless soundtrack on this Blu-ray disc is a 5.1 remix, it's respectful to the original sound design. The mix is weighted towards the front speakers, with effects like police sirens, whirring helicopter blades, biplanes soaring overhead, a sudden rush of water, and -- why not? -- Nazi-era chanting spilling into the surrounds. The pans across the soundstage aren't completely silky smooth, but they're effective enough. Bass response is solid when called for, such as the rumble of a motorcade and more than a couple of explosions. The score by Dominic Frontiere sounds particularly impressive, rendered with a fidelity and robustness that I never would've expected to hear. Dialogue and other sound effects don't pack quite as much of a wallop, but they emerge well enough. It does seem that the dialogue is dialed a touch lower in the mix than I would've liked, although I can't say I ever missed a line. This is a worthy remix and a strong showing overall.

Also included is a Dolby Digital stereo track.

Severin's Blu-ray release of The Stunt Man carries over almost all of the extras from Anchor Bay's two-disc DVD set from 2001. The still galleries, screenplay, and director's notes didn't make the cut, so completists may still want to hold onto their limited editions. Those tiny few omissions are, of course, more than made up for with all of the new extras that Severin has assembled.

New to Blu-ray
  • The Stunt Man at the New Beverly (17 min.; HD): Following a screening of the film, Richard Rush, Steve Railsback, and Barbara Hershey field questions from the audience. The
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    three of them speak about how faithful the finished film is to the original screenplay, whether or not Richard Rush and Eli Cross have all that much in common, the excruciatingly long process of lining up a distributor, what it's like to work alongside a living legend like Peter O'Toole, and how warmly European audiences received the film. The casting of The Stunt Man and the structure of its story are also discussed.

  • Barbara Hershey on Nina Franklin (14 min.; HD): This terrific conversation with Barbara Hershey begins with a discussion about what makes The Stunt Man in general and the character of Nina in particular so uniquely intriguing. Hershey dissects Nina as best anyone can for a character who in so many ways is elusive, and she also marvels about working alongside Peter O'Toole, particularly a genuine burst of emotion that was captured on film.

  • The Devil's Squadron (19 min.; HD): Real-life best friends Steve Railsback and Alex Rocco met on the set of The Stunt Man, and the two of them tell stories of Peter O'Toole reciting hypervulgar renditions of Shakespeare to ducks, a symphony of dicks that once caught Railsback offguard on the other side of the camera, the huge names that Richard Rush turned down in favor of his preferred cast, a prank Rush pulled on the producers to show how serious he was about keeping his final cut, and the incredible critical reception of the film. Being such close friends and all, Rocco and Railsback also poke a lot of good-hearted fun at each other and talk about what their friendship has meant over the years.

  • Peter O'Toole Recounts The Stunt Man (19 min.; HD): I'm sure it goes without saying that by far the highlight of the newly-produced extras is this interview with Peter O'Toole. He weaves a number of tremendous stories while looking back on The Stunt Man, including how getting the boot from his girlfriend put him on the path to starring in Richard Rush's film, the crossroads he was at as a middle-aged actor, mimicking an oblivious Rush on the set while bringing the character of Eli Cross to life, pulling a prank on an actor who dozed off in the middle of the shoot, and how torrential rain and impatient producers threatened the filming of the movie's bookending sequences.

  • The Maverick Career of Richard Rush (34 min.; HD): Director Richard Rush delves in impressive detail into every one of the movies in his filmography, including making his debut with the teen abortion film Too Soon to Love, calling in the Hell's Angels to fend off vengeful San Franciscan hippies during the production of Psych-Out, mashing together a biker flick and cowboys-and-Indians with The Savage Seven, and his press war that spun out of the debacle with The Color of Night. It's not a straightahead career retrospective, and Rush has a knack for finding at least one fascinating, completely unexpected story to tell about each of the films he's helmed over the years.
Carried Over from the DVD
  • The Sinister Saga of the Making of The Stunt Man (114 min.; SD upconvert): Don't think of The Sinister Saga as an extra; instead, look at this Blu-ray disc as a double feature. A lot of making-of docs are content to just aim cameras at talking heads, but Richard Rush is too visually inventive and has far too keen a sense of humor to settle for that. Rush is very much the star of his own film this time around, and he's constantly on the move as he tells the story of how The Stunt Man came together, be it zooming up a towering glass elevator, running 35mm film through the projector in his screening room, revisiting the resort where so much of the movie was shot, or soaring however many tens of thousands of feet up in the air. The
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    doc is teeming with cacklingly clever transitions, and rather than just cut away to an excerpt from The Stunt Man, he'll...oh, I don't know, overlay it on the wing of an airplane. The Sinister Saga is just such a blast to watch, and it's made even better by the fact that the story that the doc tells is every bit as fascinating.

    Rush does a tremendous job setting the stage: an era where the concept of making a movie about a stunt man was unfathomable (and where no studio in town wanted to bite on a project as uncommercial as that novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest he'd also gotten the rights to produce). Screenwriting, financing, casting, and the score are all explored in great detail...and always with several intriguingly insane stories to go along with them. Those walls being knocked down by the WWI-era tank...? That's the MGM backlot as it was prepped for demolition. All of the key members of the cast get a chance to contribute too, including Peter O'Toole who notes that a madman like Eli Cross wouldn't last a minute in this industry. Rush delves into how he pioneered what'd go on to be known as rack focus, his struggles with producers hellbent on sabotaging The Stunt Man, how changes in the business made lining up a distributor so nightmarish, and how he ultimately had to shoulder so much of the film's promotion himself. The Sinister Saga might have been the first feature-length making-of documentary I'd ever watched when I first saw it ten years ago, and even with the thousand or so reviews I've churned out in the decade since, I don't think I've ever come across another one that can touch it. Essential viewing.

  • Audio Commentary: The Stunt Man's commentary track is a little easy to miss since it's only listed under "Audio Setup" and isn't mentioned at all under "Extras". It's well-worth those extra couple of clicks, though, showcasing a massive array of talent: Richard Rush, Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell, and Chuck Bail. The commentary is pieced together from several different sessions, but there's still a good bit of interaction between the different speakers. There are no shortage of highlights here, including why the bookending classic car footage is sped up, Rush filming other people filming (unbeknownst to them), which of the many directors O'Toole has worked with over the years bears the greatest similarity to Eli Cross, director Rush doubling as a hairdresser, the title of the film-within-a-film, and paying guests staying at the resort where planes were swooping down from overhead and WWI soldiers were shooting everything to holy hell. This commentary is overflowing with personality, and it's such an infectiously fun listen. Well-worth setting aside the time.

  • Deleted Scenes (6 min.; SD upconvert): The first of The Stunt Man's two deleted scenes sees Eli slumping down on a pile of sand, his thumb in his mouth, while Sam gabs about how the once-brilliant screenplay he'd penned is losing its relevancy over time. The second scene has a gaggle of the film's crew turning a police station into a hornball version of the Keystone Kops. It's worth noting that a third deleted scene is included exclusively as a part of The Sinister Saga of Making The Stunt Man.

  • Trailers (5 min.; SD upconvert): Last up are a minute-long teaser, a domestic theatrical trailer, and a Spanish trailer. Elsewhere on the disc are trailers for Inglorious Bastards, Shopping, and Santa Sangre.

The Final Word
"I'm always delighted by the preface to William Shakespeare's folio...in the preface, they say, 'say anything you like about the plays, whether they're bad or good or indifferent, but whatever else you do, buy the bloody things'. So, all I can say to anyone about The Stunt Man is to go see it! Pay for your ticket. It's well-worth it. You won't be disappointed."
- Peter O'Toole

Couldn't have said it better myself. Highly Recommended.

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