Why are stunt professionals so invisible in Hollywood? Is it because it’s the writers who dream up those action scenarios in the first place?
The new Iron Man movie is, thankfully, less about Iron Man than Tony Stark, the man inside the metal. Choosing to showcase a human being over a superhero is always a risky enterprise, but unlike Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, whose dour selves extinguish all the joy around, Stark comes across as a buoyant adolescent who’s just had every toy in the world dumped at his doorstep.
Early on, at a scientific conference in Bern, an inventor desperate for funding hounds Stark and hands him a couple of business cards. Stark says he’ll take both, “one to throw away and one to... not call.” Downey Jr. owns the part so thoroughly now that we laugh at his imperiousness instead of sympathising with the snubbed inventor. And his trusted robot is imbued with an equal amount of attitude, intoning to its master, “I’ve also prepared a safety briefing for you to completely ignore.”
The film is as fun as you can hope a third instalment will be, which means that quips and stunts (and a neat twist regarding the villain) apart, it’s the same old saga — but what quips, what stunts. When Iron Man tumbles into the sea and lies trapped amidst wreckage, his own arm detaches itself and offers a helping hand. (If I could whistle, I would have.)
An action sequence involving a sabotaged Air Force One threatens to end with the five-thousandth instance of hero and villains grabbing at seats to prevent being sucked out of the depressurised aircraft, but Iron Man jumps out to execute a superbly conceived stunt. (Again, if I could whistle, I would have.)
People like to blame Hollywood for many things that are wrong with the movies today, but which other film industry is capable of executing these eye-popping stunts so smoothly that we buy into the illusion without a second’s hesitation?
And watching the film, I was struck by the thought that even in the days of extensive opening credits, Hollywood movies rarely listed the name(s) of the stunt coordinator(s). (These days, of course, all names appear at the end of the movie.) Even the costume designer would find a place in the credits, as would the special effects company, but the Bond movies apart — where the titles mention a “stunt coordinator” — not one mention of the head of the team responsible for the action sequences.
And here, in our films that have such elementary action in comparison (your basic dishoom-dishoom stuff), the action coordinator’s names are always listed under “stunts” or “thrills.” Why this omission in the Hollywood movies? Is it because these stunts are conceived as part of the screenplay — “Iron Man falls into the sea… He lies there, trapped... His metal hand detaches itself and rescues him…” — and, therefore, owe more to the imagination of the writer(s), and the stunt people merely execute these visions?
I wonder if this is the reason stunt professionals aren’t more visible in Hollywood — as I said, the new Iron Man movie is less about Iron Man than Tony Stark, and you need a writer for the latter. This contention is bolstered by the excellent new Star Trek movie, which hits the ground running with an action stretch set on a foliage-cloaked planet whose leaves are such a shade of crimson that the surface appears to be bathed in blood. (And the film keeps getting better. As a fan of the TV series and the earlier films, even the bad ones, I was entertained and moved beyond all expectation.)
The smaller action sequences consist of gunfights and hand-to-hand combats — what we’d call dishoom-dishoom — and these are fairly routine. But the big set pieces — a massacre in a high rise, reminiscent of the mob-assassination sequence in The Godfather: Part III; a tense flight through space filled with dangerous debris; a dogfight at warp speed — are predictably jaw-dropping, with top-grade contributions from both the stunt and the special effects teams.
But the drama comes from the characters, from the writing. Without characters to care about, without strong dramatic motivation, we’d see these action scenes as just popcorn entertainment — but with strong writing, we care also about the outcome of the action.
We enjoy the action stretch as it unfolds, we enjoy the rush of adrenalin, but we’re kept hanging because of what the result of this action means to Kirk and Spock and to the villain, played by Benedict Cumberbatch with thrilling Shakespearean intensity.
The interplay between these characters lays the ground for the action sequences, and this writing is why we care. Then again, it’s the stunt team that makes us believe the writer’s words, and watching these films, I felt sorry for the great numbers of people who’ve toiled away in anonymity, aware that there isn’t even a category in the Academy Awards for the work that they do, while there is one for Best Makeup and Hairstyling.