Falling Hard for The Fall Guy

I don’t usually include personal anecdotes in film reviews, lest they detract from the critical discussion at hand, but I’d just like to open this review by saying that I brought my 87-year-old Croatian grandmother with me to my advance screening of The Fall Guy in IMAX, and after we got her situated in her ADA seat and watched the trailers and the movie itself started rolling, revealing a medley of impressive stunts, she leaned over and said, in a very matter-of-fact way, “this is an action movie!”

The Fall Guy has a lot going on, but the most important thing about it (indeed, the thing about itself that it most wants you to know) is that it is an action movie and that action movies are made not merely with actors and directors, but entire teams of stunt performers who risk their lives and limbs for movie magic, and do so for comparatively minuscule credit. The film is directed by David Leitch, who, prior to his career directing many memorable blockbuster action movies, including John Wick, Hobbs & Shaw, Deadpool 2, and Bullet Train, was a stunt performer and coordinator, himself.

Most action movies have the feel of being driven by narrative, with stuntwork bolstering and buttressing and filling out the story. The Fall Guy, which was written by Drew Pearce and Glen A. Larson (based on the 80s TV series of the same name), feels like the opposite kind of affair: one in which the narrative exists to connect stunt setpiece to stunt setpiece to stunt setpiece. This isn’t to say that the narrative of The Fall Guy isn’t enjoyable or doesn’t make sense (because it is, and it does), but to underscore that The Fall Guy is, first and foremost, a passionate, high-octane, two-hour love letter to movie stunts and the people who make them. And more! So much more.

Here’s some of the more. Our story follows Colt Seavers (Ryan Gosling, locked and loaded and endearing as ever), a stuntman of many talents who falls off the map after an on-set accident results in a grievous injury. But he finds himself back in the game when he’s given the chance to help out on his ex-girlfriend Jody’s new sci-fi film, Metalstorm, a sandy, outer-space spectacle billed as “High Noon at the edge of the galaxy.” Jody (Emily Blunt) is still mad that Colt broke contact during his convalescence and resulting depression; he is still carrying a burning torch for her, upset that he didn’t do more to hold on to her during their relationship, so he is determined to be there for her, professionally, as she directs her first feature film.

But he’s not simply going to help out with stunts; the film’s producer Gail (Hannah Waddingham) has called Colt to set because the film’s star, Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), has apparently gone missing. No one on set knows this yet; they’re filming the action stuff and Tom doesn’t do his own stunts, so he’s not supposed to be around anyway. Gail promises Colt that he’ll be saving Jody’s movie if he finds Tom, and all Colt wants is a chance to make things up to Jody, so he agrees.

But he gets more than he bargained for when mysterious, armed bruisers start coming after him, leading to a series of dazzling, jaw-dropping chase, fight, and stunt sequences—sequences which only get more and more fun as Colt starts assembling a team of helpers, including Metalstorm’s stunt director Dan Tucker (Winston Duke), Tom’s plucky assistant Alma (Stephanie Hsu), and a well-trained, French-speaking attack dog named Jean-Claude (played, seemingly, by a dog named Jean-Claude and his puppet stunt double).

Meanwhile, Jody is happy to have Colt back in her life; his supportive energy provides her the inspiration to fix the film’s difficult third act. She doesn’t know that, by night, he’s taking punches and getting the stuffing kicked out of him to try to save her movie; but he’s committed to her and her work all the way, and she values this. That’s the thing about The Fall Guy; it becomes more than a movie about the undersung, hidden stunt-makers; it becomes a movie about movie-makers, writ-large. The film balances its face-value, hyper-kinetic, thoroughly cinematic diegetic action bits with other sequences that are solely, reflexively devoted to the behind-the-scenes ecosystem of film shoots.

The film offers multiple peeks behind the curtain, so to speak, of making a movie like this; not only do we see the stunt performers with their cables on and watch the giant puffy landing mats get unrolled, but we also watch Jody literally direct her movie. We watch her design the shots and operate the camera, we go inside the editing room with Jody and the editor, looking through takes, we meet the writers, visual effects artists, DPs, ADs, and PAs who make the film possible.

Thus, even though The Fall Guy technically gives us a single action hero (and a single romantic couple) to root for, it also effectively conveys a sense of ensemble achievement. We go with the crew to an after-work karaoke outing. We see crew members proudly wear their souvenir production jackets. The Fall Guy is about being on a team and loving that team.

Movies like this (smart, funny blockbusters with wide theatrical releases) don’t get made like they used to, but they should. Much like the Mission: Impossible franchise’s commitment to impressive practical effects and denunciation of creepy human-replacing, AI technologies, The Fall Guy has a lot to say about how films are (and should be) personal. Not only do movies mean things to the characters in the film, but movies are also (the film argues) at their best when they are made by people, people who put in the hard work to make something as entertaining as possible. After the fallout from Tom’s disappearance starts hitting Jody’s set, she is given the out of leaving the shoot early to go rest on a beach, letting the producer call the rest of the shots, and letting the VFX crew take care of the rest of the stunts, and she balks at the very idea. Right on!

The Fall Guy is a valuable exhibit in the case for bringing back fun movies—bringing them to theaters, and to fruition, more generally. And it’s great to watch a movie where you can sense star power. These days, we don’t have a lot of compelling movie stars holding down the fort of commercial film, but Ryan Gosling is a good choice for a movie like this. He, fresh off Barbie, is just as delightful a romantic comedy lead as he is a convincing action heavy. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, has natural comic timing, and can unleash a very good scream.

The Fall Guy is good at balancing different kinds of “funny,” from recurring gags to witty banter to quality throwaway jokes. I laughed very hard, at one point, when Colt is mistaken as an intruder by Tom’s girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) while he is in Tom’s house, investigating his disappearance. “I’m on Metalstorm too,” he tells her, trying to get her to lower her weapon. “Liar!” she screams. “We’re on Metalstorm ONE.” Gosling yells back at her, with palpable frustration, “I MEANT ‘ALSO!’”

I should also add that Gosling and Blunt have charming chemistry, building a movie-inspired, movie-adjacent love story that works on its own, too. I genuinely wanted them to be able to work things out.

I have few slight issues with some aspects, but I don’t want to spoil anything in listing them. I will say that, when the villain of the movie appears, we don’t get to feel their threat as powerfully or ride that actor’s charisma as much as we should. It’s always a little bit of a letdown when the heroes are so lovable and the villains turn out not to match them in intensity. But this is a quibble. The whole thing is a rollicking good time, pure cinema.

“I love when I get to call a movie ‘pure cinema,’” I said, as I left the theater, pausing to ask my grandmother, “Did you like it?”

She responded, “it was entertainment!”

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