' ' Cinema Romantico: The Fall Guy

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

The Fall Guy

There’s a sequence from “The Great Waldo Pepper” (1975) in which Robert Redford’s eponymous Depression-era aviator briefly moonlights as a stuntman in Hollywood, taking hard falls turning him punch drunk, all rendered at a comic pitch. Rather than set the record straight about the stunt people that make so many movies go, 2024’s first big tentpole “The Fall Guy” just wants to give them their due by opting for a comic tone too. The eponymous stuntman Colt Seavers (Ryan Gosling) might get bumped and bruised, even attain one significant injury, but nothing truly hurts, epitomized in a scene where upon crashing through a window, he shakes the broken glass from his hood, drolly waits a beat, and then shakes out some more. No, in concluding with an end credits sequence showing the real-life stuntmen for the movie’s star who is playing the stuntman for a movie star (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), director David Leitch, a former stuntman and stunt coordinator himself, has composed a meta love letter to his chosen profession, and fine by me. What “The Fall Guy” lacks in levity, it more than makes up for with liveliness, like “Bowfinger” but if rather than being a movie about making an action movie “Bowfinger” had just been an action movie.

A prologue introduces Colt doing the dirty work for Tom Ryder (Johnson), and in a happy relationship with camera operator Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), at the top, meaning he can only fall, literally and figuratively when a stunt goes wrong, leaving him severely injured, and struggling to recover emotionally as much as physically. Eventually, he is re-enlisted by producer Gail Meyer, played with great glee by Hannah Waddingham in the key of the recurring Diet Coke in her hand, overcaffeinated and high-strung, to help Jody finish her first movie as a director, a western horror sci-fi hybrid Metalstorm, on location in Australia. Colt helps by getting back behind the wheel of a stunt car, yes, but also by masquerading as a gumshoe to find Metalstorm’s leading man, Tom, who has gone missing, his disappearance threatening to derail the production.

That is considerable plot, two movies at once, almost, and though “The Fall Guy” was written by one person, Drew Pearce, it still emits a by-committee feel, not confusing, exactly, but patchy, not inexorably building bit by bit but feeling both made up on the fly and threatening to unravel. In its way, though, this ragged and wild sensation becomes reflective of the movie within a movie, which is all the time threatening to come undone, not just from Tom going MIA but from various moviemaking snaggles. There is a bravura single take in which the camera circles and tracks with Jody as all manner of people on the Metalstorm production come to her with questions, a comic portrait of a movie director as a kind of trail guide keeping the expedition on task, ultimately as deft in negotiating her own task as Colt is at making a speedboat escape with his hands literally tied behind his back.

Though Colt and Jody can feel underwritten, their impeccable wardrobes more thought out than their backstories, these two gifted performers, nevertheless, provide just enough immediacy to individual moments and their overall relationship to make it work. Gosling deploys his skill for self-deprecation into a quiet commentary on a guy who can’t quite bring himself to confess his own pain. Blunt’s own flair for indignant deadpan, meanwhile, goes a long way in helping sell the push and pull. When Colt cries along to Taylor Swift in his truck one night, it might be a concession to the zeitgeist, but man, when Jody appears at his window, Blunt’s unamused facial expression seems to dress down the zeitgeist as much as it dresses down Colt. And though “The Fall Guy” leans a little too heavily on montages to convey their rekindling romance, these montages tend to go together with making the movie, portraying them as collaborators as much as romantic partners, artistic expression and love going hand-in-hand.

What Pearce’s script lacks, it ameliorates with how its main character’s very particular set of professional skills amusingly intertwines with his improvisatory private investigative work, essentially taking the old critic aphorism about a plot existing to string stunts get together and making it come cheekily alive. “The Fall Guy” sets up myriad tools of the trade and then pays them off, none more ingeniously or hilariously than a prop gun, which for all the winning special effects, just goes to show that sometimes it’s the littlest tricks that resonate the loudest. Leitch honors his own “John Wick” rule by repeatedly allowing us to see stunts in full frames rather than chopped up in the editing room, and though there are some set pieces at night, there are just as many in the light of day, rejoicing in what it has been dreamt up rather than obfuscating. And speaking of collaboration, “The Fall Guy” concludes with a stunt that brings in the entire stunt team and ties the whole movie together, action-oriented proof that one man cannot do it all on his own. 

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