Color, 1980, 134 mins. / Directed by Richard Rush / Starring Peter O'Toole, Steve Railsback, Barbara Hershey, Allen Garfield/Goorwitz, Alex Rocco, Sharon Farrell / Music by Dominic Frontiere / Cinematography by Mario Tosi

Format: DVD - Anchor Bay (MSRP $19.98/$34.98) / Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1


Outside of Fellini films, The Stunt Man is arguably the final word on illusion vs. reality storytelling on the big screen, and its audacious twisting of genres has made it one of the most critically respected example of that slippery category, the cult film. In fact, director Richard Rush has built nearly an entire reputation on this single film alone, with only one subsequent feature (1994's outrageous Color of Night) even attempting to outdo this wild balancing act. Over twenty years later, The Stunt Man has lost little of its power and remains a good example of how quality product can sometimes slip through the Hollywood system, though the deluxe Anchor Bay presentation contains a bit more of Rush than many viewers may be able to take.

Pursued by the police for an unspecified crime, paranoid and scruffy Vietnam vet Cameron (Steve Railsback, fresh off his TV stint as Charlie Manson in Helter Skelter) accidentally stumbles onto a bridge where he inadvertently causes a stuntman to swerve off to his death during the filming of a movie. The director, Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole, firing on all thrusters), conveniently avoids a nest of potential disasters by passing off Cameron as the dead stuntman, Burt, who now lies at the bottom of the river. During the shooting of the film Cameron's stunts become increasingly dangerous and bizarre, while Eli's attempts to wring some meaning of his cinematic war story begin to have eerie ramifications on the entire cast and crew. Complicating matters even further is the production's luscious star, commercial actress Nina (Barbara Hershey), who begins an affair with Cameron but may or may not have a few secrets of her own. Finally the day comes when Cameron must reenact the deadly stunt that started it all... and he and Eli reach a crossroads.

Freely adapted from a much darker novel by Paul Brodeur (whose nasty conclusion hits about ten minutes before the end of the film counterpart), The Stunt Man obviously grabbed a great deal of attention for O'Toole's flamboyant performance and the sheer gutsiness of its approach, which constantly knocks viewers from one "stunt" to the next where the transition from reality to "movie reality" is often impossible to discern. Even the finale leaves the events open to some interpretation, but regardless of how one reads the film, the characters are all etched quite skillfully and reach their own logical conclusions. Rush's drive-in roots (including such fare as Psych-Out and Thunder Alley) serve him well, as he proves his efficiency with telling a good, complicated story in the most direct filmic terms. Even running over two hours, the film features no real slow spots and rewards immensely upon repeated viewings.

A somewhat visually unsteady film, The Stunt Man lurches from freewheeling handheld shots to carefully modulated romantic visuals; naturally this means a DVD of uneven but generally satisfying visual quality. The leap isn't too substantial over the previous full frame laserdisc, but the element is in better condition and colors are generally more pleasing to the eye. More dramatically improved is the soundtrack, a carefully tweaked 5.1 remix which naturally integrates sound effects and Dominic Frontiere's playful score into a fully directional mix. Music remains mostly confined to the front speakers, while the explosions and flying objects swirl around the room with great regularity. The dialogue still sounds a little pinched in keeping with the original audio recording, but overall the results are fine and surprisingly natural. The disc for the movie itself includes a wealth of bonus material including the U.S. theatrical trailer, a thorough gallery of stills and promotional art (including some nice preliminary drawings), filmographies, and a choppy but interesting commentary track which alternates between Rush (who gets the bulk of the running time), O'Toole (who sounds very subdued but offers a couple of good bits), Hershey, Railsback, Rocco, and real life stuntman Phil Bruns, who plays Railsback's mentor in the film. It's a good track overall, but perhaps splitting it into two could have resulted in a more consistent, immersive experience.

A two-disc limited edition also includes Rush's 2000 documentary, The Sinister Saga of Making 'The Stunt Man' (available on its own disc as well). After Fox declined to release the film with this 110 minute companion piece, Rush and Anchor Bay took up the reigns and saw that justice was done to this title. However, the documentary can be extremely difficult to take, especially with such a protracted running time. Rush is certainly enthusiastic and has a lot to say about the film, but like Cameron's own battle against windmills in the film, he seems to build an awful lot of drama where there doesn't really seem to be any. Shot on digital video, Sinister Saga also suffers from a huge overabundance of distracting video trickery which presumably intends to reinforce the theme of the film but instead comes off looking really tacky. Interview footage with all of the principals is seemingly edited with a Cuisinart, resulting in a constant state of narrative whiplash. Die hard fans will undoubtedly find some nuggets of information here, but be sure to keep some Dramamine handy. For those who are mainly curious about the film itself, the single disc may be the way to go. The opening five minutes of Sinister Saga have also been apended to the movie itself, along with a note on the printed chapter listings stating that "The director urges you to watch the introduction before the film." Actually, first time viewers at least would do well to bypass it entirely, as Rush spells out the entire message of the film with a sledgehammer before viewers have a chance to discover it for themselves.


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