Bite Size: Stunts (1977)

Add stuntpeople to the list of professions that 70s filmmakers trotted out in search of a viable alternative to fading Western film cowboy archetypes. Unlike some of the other lone wolf friendly, rough and ready occupations that also briefly filled that cinematic space, stunt crews also had the added bonus of an easy segue to mythologizing the process of moviemaking itself along the way. Everyone loves the chance to talk about themselves, and filmmakers are no exception.

A stuntman dies while shooting a helicopter sequence on an action film, despite having personally designed and double checked the gag himself. His brother, Glen (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown) replaces him on the film, with the reasoning that he’s the only one who could replicate the stunt for reshoots. In reality, he wants to investigate the circumstances of his brother’s death.

A beautiful journalist named B.J. (Fiona Lewis, Innerspace) has been assigned to cover the shoot for a magazine, and try to profile what it is that drives stunt performers to risk their lives on a daily basis. Reluctantly, the pair team up in trying to determine what caused the fatal fall.

As befits a Hollywood adjacent whodunit, the lot is filled with potentially suspicious characters. Stunt coordinator Pete (Richard Lynch, The Baron, God Told Me To) has been twitchy and secretive ever since the first accident. Libidinous nepotism fueled starlet Judy (a woefully under utilized Candice Rialson, Chatterbox) likes to cuckold her producer husband with various members of the crew. The film’s director openly ignores the safety concerns of the stuntpeople, and is only concerned with getting the shot, deaths and injuries be damned.

Given that the stunt community is a small one, Mark and his fellow stunt performers feel that it is their duty to seek justice for one of their own. There’s casually homophobic Italian womanizer Paulie (Ray Sharkey, Who’ll Stop The Rain), the steadfast and steely Patti (Joanna Cassidy, Blade Runner), and her affable husband, Chuck (Bruce Glover, Walking Tall). Glen’s suspicions of foul play are confirmed when the crew’s ranks are whittled down by equally questionable on set “accidents”.

Stunts‘ screenplay is more than a touch silly, and doesn’t trouble itself with any unduly sharp edged dialog or creative plot devices. Instead it relies on a solid cast of B film regulars to breathe life into its familiar stock types. Robert Forster carries the film with the necessary unflappable cool and Fiona Lewis’ performance has the right amount of prickly pluck to give a touch of credibility to the standard banter to bedmates subplot.

The perfunctory nature of the central mystery — the order of the murders makes the killer obvious from fairly early on— doesn’t do the cast any favors, but there’s fun to be had when Stunts embraces its exploitation roots and gives the ensemble something histrionic to do. The film livens up considerably when Judy comedically flubs her lines, Patti starts a grief fueled bar fight, and Glen melodramatically takes it upon himself to remove his friend from life support without bothering to discuss it with anyone.

This is an early effort from director Mark. L Lester (Commando, Showdown In Little Tokyo) and while the action and stunt scenes are not as confident as he would later become, they’re reliably competent. There’s a nice variety of old school stunt work, from simple car chases, to an impressive for the price point fire/explosion set piece. The film saves the best for last so audiences go home happy, with a climactic helicopter to moving car final showdown between Glen and the murderer. The rough edges of the film tend to happen in the narrative scenes, with an over reliance on golden hour light and long San Luis Obispo landscape shots that have a distinctly soapy, TV movie visual feel.

Stunts is an enthusiastic but ultimately unremarkable bit of 70s drive in cinema, a tentative training wheels trial run for the more distinct genre fare production company New Line Cinemas would churn out with regularity in the 1980s. While Stunts certainly doesn’t touch the manic smash up carsploitation of H. B. Halicki, fans of the time capsule Madonna Inn (where many of the film’s interiors were shot), Robert Forster, or shutting one’s brain off for 90 unchallenging minutes could do far worse than this particular game of B film stock player Bingo.

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