THE STUNT MAN Directed by Richard Rush Screenplay by Lawrence B. Marcus
The best thing about this film is that it has the courage of its own pretentiousness. This may seem dim praise, but it is not. The Stunt Man is not so much sophomoric, with its implications of false sophistication, as it is freshmanic: the movie delights in the play of ideas and in its own unsuspected ability to play fast, loose and funny with them. It is refreshing to see a movie that sends ideas instead of autos crashing headon.
The story concerns Lucky Cameron (Steve Railsback), on the run from the police, who stumbles upon a movie company on location. Eli Cross (Peter O'Toole) is a fine parody of an energetic, egomaniacal director. He offers Lucky a change of identity on high-risk terms: take over the stunt man's job recently vacated by a chap who may or may not have been sent to his doom by the director's pursuit of a terrific death scene. In return the young man will get protection from the police. Cross is as good as his word in the matter, but before the happy denouement he puts Lucky through a sort of Berlitz course in existentialism. In his Godlike role. Cross redefines the stunt man's reality for him every day, thus forcing the youth into a perpetual state of imbalance, where he must constantly re-examine his own premises. Is the leading lady (Barbara Hershey) falling in love with him, or is she playing with him on cue? Is Cross really protecting him, or is he just a conveniently anonymous, expendable bit of cannon fodder in Cross's battle to make a masterpiece? Is the filmallegedly an antiwar tracta serious enterprise or just a moviemaker's ego trip?
Who knows? Who cares, finally? The fun lies in the journey. It is a trip of constantly shifting perceptions and sharply etched satirical sketches of movie types (the anxious writer, the stars in constant need of reassurances and some good lighting, the crew members variously laconic, envious and nymphomaniacal). It is also a carnival of bang-up stunt scenes. which Richard Rush presents with marvelous subtlety. They do not look like the finished product, but neither are they like raw footage: they have the half-polished air of a rough cut. Above all, there is Peter O'Toole, doing his John Huston imitation, but putting a lacy edging of the fey around it. Daring and hilarious, he perfectly sets the tone of this antic, artfully paced piece.
For reasons best understood by the wee ones who make these decisions. The Stunt Man has languished on the shelf for more than a year, passed by all the major distributors. Now, it is being booked catch-as-catch-can across the country by its makers, and it deserves to be caught. It reminds one not so much of other movies about moviemaking as it does of those blends of action and philosophy that the French intellectual adventurers used to put out. It may not be André Malraux, but it certainly is on the level of Remain Gary and all the more remarkable and amusing for bearing a MADE IN U.S.A. stamp. By Richard Schickel