Thursday, May 30, 2024

“The Fall Guy” Is Gravity-Defying Fun, in Every Sense

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In the art of filmmaking, there’s a special place for movies by directors who know whereof they film. When a baseball movie is made by a former professional baseball player—for instance, Ron Shelton’s “Bull Durham” (1988)—or when, as with Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” (1986), a Vietnam War movie is made by a decorated and twice-wounded veteran of that war, there’s an implied assurance of something deeper than just research. The assurance is of a personal stake, of having the story in one’s blood, and maybe vice versa. Such movies fit within a larger genre, what one could call the lid-lifter—fact-based fictions that offer behind-the-scenes glimpses into realms that are usually inaccessible. Ava DuVernay’s “Origin” (2023) reveals how a nonfiction writer goes about her research; David Fincher’s “The Social Network” (2010) shines a light on the hectic maneuvering of the tech-startup scene. Another subset of this larger genre is the movie-business movie: Robert Altman’s “The Player” (1992), say, or Robert Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987). These films have an extra layer of built-in reflexivity: set in a world that the directors inherently know, they go behind their own scenes, via sly allusions and bold metafictions.

“The Fall Guy” fits snugly into all of these categories. A playful action-comedy about a stuntman, it’s directed by David Leitch, a longtime stuntman and stunt coördinator whose career as a director (which started with “John Wick”) revolves around action films. It’s loosely based on a nineteen-eighties TV series of the same title, in which Lee Majors played an underemployed stuntman named Colt Seavers, who moonlighted as a bounty hunter. But in the new movie, written by Drew Pearce, Colt Seavers (Ryan Gosling) needs no side gig. He’s been working for years as the stunt double of one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who consistently proclaims to the press (and even to colleagues who know better) that he does all his own stunts. Regardless of any disclaimers about resemblances being purely coincidental, it’s pretty obvious who Tom is meant to satirize.

On a shoot with Tom, Colt embarks on a romance with a camera operator, Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt). After a jump from high up in a building’s atrium goes badly wrong, a long recovery ensues during which he turns his back on the business, and on Jody. Eighteen months later, he gets a call from Tom’s producer, Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham). She offers him a job on a new film directed by Jody, who is finally getting her big break. Yet, after arriving at the shoot, in Australia, Colt finds Jody far from welcoming, embittered by what she took as his rejection of her. He also gets a secret assignment from Gail: Tom has disappeared, and she needs Colt to locate him, and quickly. If the studio discovers its star is missing, it will pull the plug on the movie, jeopardizing Jody’s directorial career. Colt soon comes across a corpse and learns that he’s the prime suspect in a murder case. So he strives to find Tom for Jody’s sake, and to catch the actual killers for his own sake—and, of course, in the process, to regain Jody’s trust and love.

The story of “The Fall Guy” is even more closely linked to the idiosyncrasies of film shoots than that other recent movie about an actor and his stunt double, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” (2019), in which myths overwhelm realities. Tarantino’s counterfactual ingenuity in linking the two fictional performers to the real-life story of the Manson family was weighed down by the sediment of movie-world references, which seemed mostly designed to gratify his swoony fascination with cinematic history and his own place in it. Leitch, who doubled Brad Pitt for three years, keeps the action focussed on the events at hand, liberally adorning it with insider details. The first stunt that Colt has to execute in Sydney is a cannon roll, in which a vehicle flies through the air and takes a tumble when landing. Leitch emphasizes Colt’s assessment of the stunt site’s physical conditions (the texture of the sand where he’ll be driving), the producers’ disregard for his safety-related doubts, the explosive hardware that makes the stunt possible, and the kinds of trouble that can result.

Once Colt dashes off to track down Tom—who is said to be involved with some “shady” people, including a drug dealer with a leopard-spot tattoo on his shaved head—his fanatical attention to detail turns out to have real-world applications, whether he’s breaking through a hotel-room door when a key card proves recalcitrant or timing a roll down a hill to land on a moving vehicle. His skills at passing through flames and holding his breath underwater, his agility in evading swords and feigning gunplay all come in handy in actual fights for his life. When a pistol loaded with blanks shows up in the first act, you can bet that it will fool someone in the third.

Leitch is a pioneer in using digital technology to pre-visualize stunts, a technique that allows for a more aestheticized approach to filming them. In “The Fall Guy,” as in his other features, images are crafted to frame the action in cleverly eye-catching ways (if only for fractions of seconds), and even comic and romantic banter has the suspense of action brewing just beneath the surface. Leitch knows where the explosives are buried and when they’re going to go off, and the looming likelihood of physical feats lends every interaction a restless urgency.

For all the movie’s kinetic thrills, “The Fall Guy” is a romantic comedy, and it succeeds in delivering that genre’s patterned gratifications in a fashion that does more than reheat them. The story is held together by the force of attraction that binds Colt and Jody even as circumstances conspire to keep them apart, and Leitch finds witty methods of heightening both the attraction and the distance. Early on, before the fateful atrium jump, the couple keeps up their playful love talk on a busy set by murmuring spicy nothings to each other on their walkie-talkies. Later, when they are discussing some revisions to Jody’s movie over the phone, Colt suggests using a split screen, and Leitch immediately switches to split screen for the rest of the call—a rom-com trick made famous in the Rock Hudson–Doris Day vehicle “Pillow Talk” (1959) which brings to the fore the sympathetic similarities of their gestures and postures. While preparing for a battle scene in which Colt gets set on fire, the pair have an argument via megaphones; ostensibly a technical consultation, the conversation lets Jody air a litany of grievances and humiliate Colt in front of the assembled cast and crew.

As a movie that takes place in the world of movies, “The Fall Guy” displays a palpable joy in craft, revelling in the deftness of its comedy, the inventiveness of its stunts, and a generous sprinkling of Easter eggs. Leitch’s self-referential mode has none of Tarantino’s portentous mythologizing, but it’s also true that Tarantino’s approach does at least present a Hollywood that is connected to politics and history. Such matters don’t play to Leitch’s strengths, as shown by his Cold War spy thriller, “Atomic Blonde” (2017), in which the sensory excitement of choreographed action obscured any sense of historical moment. With “The Fall Guy,” he’s back in his comfort zone, but the movie suffers from a thinness of personal backstory. The characters exhibit no traits that aren’t required by the plot, and even some of those are left vague. (Does Colt have a martial-arts background? A military one? Or are all good fake fighters also good in real fights?) Colt’s leading trait is his desire for a cup of coffee—and Leitch delights in his many ways of frustrating Colt’s desire so that, whenever the stuntman gets near a cup, it signals trouble ahead.

As winning and vigorous as Gosling and Blunt are, Leitch gives them little leeway. Dialogue scenes are as tightly plotted as the stunts, leaving no room for chemistry to develop. Failing to unleash the actors’ resourcefulness, the movie seems merely to capture their faces and voices, as if Leitch used digital pre-visualization for the story’s romance. Any warmth is undercut by the chilly efficiency of an equation being solved. As the movie presses to its climax, virtuosic action sequences astonish as they are meant to, but they render the inevitable happy ending anticlimactic.

To be fair, the effacement of character is itself one of Leitch’s dramatic points. Colt and Jody, along with the skilled crew working with them—including the stunt coördinator, Dan Tucker (Winston Duke), and a technician named Venti Kushner (Zara Michales)—embody another kind of Hollywood myth, one in which people arrive from nowhere and leave all personal baggage behind in the service of exacting professionalism. By contrast with these team players, the needy star Tom and his manager, Gail, are odious with self-centered swagger. Tom compares his value in the national economy with the insignificance of an instantly replaceable stuntman. When Colt derides the “nihilism” of Gail’s blockbusters, she describes their entertainment value as “sexy bacon,” wrapped around a nutritious message in order to get dogs to eat it. Colt calls her out for likening viewers to dogs, but, for Leitch, the bacon is the message. ♦



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