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The Greatest Movie Stunts of All-Time — IndieWire Critics Survey

Tom Cruise isn't the first person who's ever risked their life for that one perfect shot.

“Mission: Impossible — Fallout”

Paramount Pictures

(Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics a question pertaining to the contemporary movie landscape.)

July 27th will see the release of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout,” a movie that Tom Cruise has improbably survived to promote. Of course, this is hardly the first time that a performer has put their life on the line for our amusement.

This week’s question: What is the best stunt you’ve ever seen in a film?

Luke Hicks (@lou_kicks), Film School Rejects, Birth.Movies.Death., Chicago Reader

It’s difficult to award the most incredible stunt to anyone but the master of all stunts: Jackie Chan. And when it comes to narrowing down the best of his best, why wouldn’t we listen to Chan himself? He is the expert after all. In his 1998 memoir “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action,” he cites what he believes to be his best/most impressive stunt. In “Armour of God II: Operation Condor,” he manages to escape a gaggle of bad guys on a dirt bike by driving it off the ramp of a pier while simultaneously leaping from his seat to snatch hold of a large net carrying an industrial-sized package held up by a crane over the water.

If this isn’t good enough, almost every point preceding the final jump will reduce the distance between your jaw and the floor, whether it is a bike stunt or Chan channeling his inner gymnast to flip over some bars to avoid getting decapitated by a car flying through the air. Perhaps the eternal question is thus: how is Jackie Chan still alive? You can find this stunt at the 7:02 mark of the video above.

Chris Feil (@chrisvfeil), Freelance, The Film Experience, This Had Oscar Buzz podcast

Charlize Theron is one of our most dependable action stars for hard-hitting acts of daring, none more convincingly real than “Atomic Blonde”. In a one-take fake-out sequence, her Lorraine Broughton dispatches of several men in a Berlin apartment building for a wild feat of hyper-violent fight choreography matched with Theron’s visceral physical performance. This set piece looks a hell of a lot like actual combat and is paced for maximum impact, allowing space for us to catch our breath before it knocks the wind out of us again. Convince me we didn’t actually watch Theron kill a man.

Courtney Howard (@Lulamaybelle), Freelance for FreshFiction, SassyMamaInLA

Though there are many examples I could cite, the one that combines everything I love about cinema, female empowerment and killer stunt choreography is the stairwell fight in “Atomic Blonde.” The seven-minute-long sequence is a love letter to the kickass women and men in the stunt industry and the filmmakers who showcase their feats. A former stunt player himself, director David Leitch put Charlize Theron through the wringer training for this unrelenting, show-stopping all-timer. He keeps the action character-driven, and utilizes every inch of the challenging physical location to its full potential.

Not only that, he enlisted a stunt coordinator to man the camera, helping to fully realize this ballet of sorts. Unlike in the rest of the movie where fights are timed to 80’s new wave songs, the hard punches and primal grunts provide the soundtrack for this well-stitched long take. I get a second-hand high seeing Theron, a highly-skilled, consummate performer, beat her way through a gang of male thugs. What’s a more fitting metaphor for women during these times? It’s bruising, bloody and badass.

Sarah Marrs (@Cinesnark), LaineyGossip.com

Stunts involving horses are always extra impressive to me, because you’ve introduced an independent thinker who can’t hash out direction, so I’m going with the match race in “The Black Stallion”. It starts with a skirmish between The Black and another horse, includes working The Black through a fit at the start of the race, and then a break-neck run featuring a pass that is staged well enough to look like real race footage, and the whole thing looks BEAUTIFUL thanks to Caleb Deschanel’s photography (bonus point to sound editor Alan Splet for putting microphones on the horses to capture their authentic hoofbeats and breathing.) And unlike some other famous horse stunts, no animal was injured and/or killed to get the shot (AHEM, “STAGECOACH”).

You can totally tell when they’re cutting between a stunt rider and actor Kelly Reno, but there is no mistaking that whole sequence is done with actual horses running what is, to them, an actual race. And again, they did it without injuring a single animal. It’s an incredible feat of planning, execution, and stunt riding.

Millicent Thomas (@MillicentOnFilm), Freelance for Screen Queens, Heroes Direct

The first thing that came to mind, and something I could watch over and over again, is when Bucky takes the motorbike (whilst a man is riding it) during the highway chase scene of “Captain America: Civil War”. As if the chase weren’t intense enough, the shot cleverly provides a brief break in the sense that it slips into slow-motion for just a second. As I watched the original rider fly off and Bucky’s leg flip around as he steers it his way, all I could think was “damn”, and quietly high-five my dad who was with me in the cinema.

Jen Johans (@FilmIntuition), FilmIntuition.com

Zoë Bell vs. Kurt Russell in “Death Proof.” A 21st century evolution of the classic “Stagecoach” stunt sequence in which a stuntman was dragged by a stampede of wild horses, Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof” finds “Kill Bill” stunt woman Zoë Bell substituting a car for horses and taking things even further on the hood of a speeding 1970 Dodge Challenger (also known as the “Vanishing Point” car).

A car chase and a fight scene in one, in Tarantino’s otherwise uneven “Grindhouse” entry, the director fuses two of my favorite action movie staples together to create one of his most iconic moments post “Kill Bill.” What begins as an impressive feat of carefree hood-surfing among daredevil friends (including driver Tracie Thoms and passenger Rosario Dawson) soon escalates into a full-on car fight when Kurt Russell’s murderous misogynistic stuntman slams his phallus substitute death proof car into the women’s Challenger.

With her makeshift belt buckle car-surfing reins long gone, in the first half of an extended multi-stage conclusion, Bell flails acrobatically to and fro, clinging to the hood for dear life. Playing a fictionalized version of herself, Zoë Bell becomes a superhero before our very eyes and proves that – in stark contrast to Kurt Russell’s gleefully scenery-chewing villain – she doesn’t need a car in order to be death proof.

Don Shanahan (@casablancadon), Every Movie Has a Lesson

The stunts that make the most eye-opening impression with me are the ones that linger longer than a quick gasp.  Give me a steadily accelerating heart rate of crushing nerves from a full sequence over one really good trick.  For that, I have to go with the extended “Ship’s Mast” scene and ensuing car chase from Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 grindhouse homage “Death Proof.”  That’s a scene where any blinking by an audience member is replaced by shouted expletives and beads of sweat.  Watching Zoë Bell cling to the hood of that throbbing 1970 Dodge Challenger while being whipped and twisted by the marauding strikes of Kurt Russell’s 1969 Dodge Charger was witnessing a feat of strength, fortitude, and talent.  Shot by Tarantino himself (his first credit as a cinematographer) with zero CGI and later edited by Sally Menke, the camera sweeps through a wild variety of angles, in-and-around, high-and-low, leading-and-trailing, to capture the startling speed and narrow proximity of all the motoring threats and flailing risks.  Bell’s bravery is the centerpiece, but construction and sheer length of the scene is really something.

Lee Jutton (@leiladaisyj), Film Inquiry

One film with awesome stunts that have stuck with me long after my first viewing is Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” Sure, Tarantino’s attempt to write dialogue for a group of girlfriends hanging out is positively cringe-worthy, but the car stunts as executed by notorious badass Zoe Bell are crazy enough for me to feel a little forgiving. The most famous stunt from the film is when Zoe (playing herself) decides to attempt a move called “Ship’s Mast” on the roof of the 1970 Dodge Challenger that she and her friends have taken for a test drive. Looping her friends’ belts through the windows of the car, Zoe climbs up on the roof and then slides onto the hood, her sprawled legs dangling off the front of the car, as Kim (Tracie Thoms) drives full speed ahead down the Tenessee highway.

It’s a positively exhilarating stunt to watch — and let’s be real, how often to do you get to see a woman do a stunt like that instead of your usual male action stars? Of course, the girls don’t know that serial killer Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is watching them and planning to try and run them off the road; once he does, the film spirals into a female-fueled revenge saga as the three women set out to show Stuntman Mike what happens when you mess with them. (Spoiler alert: you die.) What starts out feeling like a parody of female empowerment ends up actually feeling incredibly empowering — and a large part of that is due to the stunts in the film.

Carly Lane (@carlylane), Contributing Editor for SYFY Fangrrls

The ship’s mast sequence from Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” I’ve sung the praises of stuntwoman and actress Zoe Bell for a long time – most recently, she was Cate Blanchett’s stunt double in “Thor: Ragnarok,” and has starred in other films like “Raze” and “The Hateful Eight.” In “Death Proof” she plays a somewhat fictionalized version of herself who reunites up with longtime friends (Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms) to play a game called Ship’s Mast. It’s a scene that takes a more dangerous turn when Kurt Russell’s psychotic Stuntman Mike shows up to try and crash the party, but before that happens it’s just plain, pure fun to watch Bell dangle from the hood of a 1970s Dodge Challenger, screaming and whooping with delight.

Andrea Thompson (@areelofonesown), The Young Folks

Sure, Quentin Tarantino has gotten problematic, but he’s also responsible for one of the best stunts I’ve ever seen, both visually and emotionally. I grew up in the era of CGI, where cars crashed into each other in the slickest of fashions, surrounded by beautiful women who dated the guys who did the crashing. Then I saw “Death Proof,” Tarantino’s grindhouse throwback.

The whole thing is a tribute, not just to the genres the movie is obviously meant to pay homage to, but the people behind the scenes who rarely get credit for the work they do. “Death Proof” has its big moment when stuntwoman Zoë Bell, playing a version of herself, and her friends (played by Rosario Dawson and Tracie Thoms) decide to play Ship’s Mast, which has Bell hanging on the front of a car as it’s driving. And that’s when Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike shows up in his car and decides to try to run them on the road. There’s no frills, no CG, just Bell hanging on for dear life in this crazy chase scene.

The women are allowed to show strength even as they react realistically, weeping, screaming, and openly admitting they’re frightened. Since we’ve gotten to know them beforehand, we feel and fear for them, especially since another group of ladies didn’t survive their own encounter with Mike. But these ladies are luckier, not only surviving, but chasing down Mike and giving even better than they got. It showed that women could do these crazy stunts too rather than just being arm candy. And Bell has gone on to have a fantastic career as an actress.

Lara Zarum (@larazarum), Village Voice

I could watch stuntwoman Zoë Bell, who plays herself in the 2007 Quentin Tarantino movie “Death Proof,” ride the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger (with a white paint job!) all day, any day.

Carlos Aguilar (@Carlos_Film), Freelance

The Echo Game scene from “House of Flying Daggers.”

Wuxia cinema found one of its greatest proponents in director Zhang Yimou, whose lavish epics revel in elegantly choreographed battle sequences, opulent sets, and dramatic gravitas. An impressively effective sample of his visual grandeur is “The Echo Game Scene” in 2004’s “House of Flying Daggers,” where blind courtesan Mei (played by Ziyi Zhang, one of the filmmakers recurring stars) is challenged by constable Leo (Andy Lau) to remember and replicate the order in which the beans he is throwing hit a circle of ornate drums. To do so, Mei uses her outfit’s elongated sleeves as seamless extensions of her limbs. Although Ziyi Zhang is trained as an a dancer, which is absolutely helpful in this scene, the feat also involved acrobatic stunts that required a double to be accomplished in a safe and stunning manner. The result is spectacular as it combines the actress’ gracious dance movements blended with a stunt performance of gymnastic agility, and digital effects that enhance the heightened reality tone particular to the genre.

Siddhant Adlakha (@SidizenKane), Freelance for The Village Voice and /Film

It’s hard to pick just one stunt that fits this criteria — just one from the “Jackass” trilogy, that is. The Jackass crew are the modern successors to greats like Buster Keaton (sans the air of melancholy), putting their bodies on the line for our entertainment. Though in their MTV series and first two films they made it clear that we, the audience, could and should bear witness to the process. In their third film in 2010, “Jackass 3D,” they went a step further and used evolving film technology to deliver a visual experience that zeroes in on the fundamental way we perceive images in the modern world, something only Jean-Luc Godard has managed to rival with “Goodbye to Language,” which won the Jury Prize at Cannes. Anyway, my pick is the Poo Cocktail Supreme.

“Oh shit,” begins Steve-O, as the film proceeds to makes literal the effect of studios adopting 3D as the new norm: shit flying at you. The man with a tattoo of himself is strapped in to a portable toilet filled with human waste and catapulted repeatedly until the feces surrounding him hits Zero G, floating untethered just long enough for our eyes to focus on it from behind our 3D glasses, making the extra cost of admission seem worth it. It’s a stunt so stomach-churning that not only Steve-O, but fellow cast member Bam Margera begins vomiting profusely, despite having only witnessed it from the sidelines.

Hannah Woodhead (@goodjobliz), Little White Lies

It was Leonardo da Vinci who said ‘Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.’ I could plump for the lot fight with swarms of Hugo Weavings in The Matrix: Reloaded, or…anything from John Wick, but instead, I’ll go with the stunt that never fails to make me laugh: the ‘High Five’ from Jackass 3D. Such a simple premise: set up a giant spring-loaded hand, wait for an unsuspecting victim, profit. Is it juvenile? Yes. Is it a brilliant feat of physical comedy? Also yes.

Knoxville’s child-like glee as he lies in wait, production staff wandering through who don’t even bat an eyelid, Bam Margera lying defeated on the floor covered in flour…there’s so much going on in this small segment, which is easily lost among the most gross-out skits in the film. Jackass has always been one of those things that divide audiences, but there’s such a sense of camaraderie amid all the pranks, and that’s what comes through most here. These guys love each other. Pushing the limits of good taste and human decency have always come secondary to making each other laugh.

Sarah Welch (@dodgyboffin), Bright Wall/Dark Room, Think Christian

Of all the stunts in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” I’d have to say that the very first “Witness me!” scene is the one that stands out the most. We’ve gotten a decent amount of action in the movie already at this point, but this is the scene where the movie really starts to let its freak flag fly. Seeing “Fury Road” for the first time was one of the most memorable theater experiences I’ve ever had—I hadn’t seen any of the other Mad Max movies in their entirety, and I was a little nervous going into the theater because I knew it was going to be frenetic and grotesque—but this scene really won me over. It lays out the ethos of the War Boys with half a dozen words, silver paint, and primarily physical performances, not to mention Margaret Sixel’s stunning editing.

There are at least four vehicles involved in the shot, all moving (the speed doesn’t matter too much because just adding an element of movement adds another dimension of danger to the stunt—but they do look like they’re going at a pretty respectable clip). There’s a crane rigged up with lines for the stuntman to drop from. And there’s no net and no cushioning. The stuntman is hurling himself from a moving vehicle towards another moving vehicle, the latter of which is covered in metal spikes. He doesn’t even have the use of his hands: each one is holding a long lance. Every piece of this scene pulls together like clockwork. If even one of the pieces didn’t work—the stuntman’s lines stop him too high from the car, the speed is off, the timing comes undone—it wouldn’t be nearly as effective a stunt. It’s over in just a few seconds, but what a rush. Witness me, indeed.

Aaron Neuwirth (@AaronsPS4), We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu

There are so many examples from the silent film era that make regular folks look like insane people that happened to find a camera, and yet I’m still going with a modern example. “Mad Max: Fury Road” is perhaps the best action film of the past twenty years, at least, and a lot of that had to do with the hundreds of hours filmed by director George Miller and his team and whittled down to a 2-hour stunt spectacular.

One scene that truly stands out, however, is the point at which War Boys are swinging back and forth on long poles during the final car chase. It’s as if Miller calculated just how much amazing action he knew audiences could hand and then decided, “What if I got a bunch of circus performers to dress up as maniacs and hang off poles in the desert while moving at high speeds?” The result is an added level of amazement, as we watch Max, Furiosa and the rest of the group on the War Rig deal with their latest adversaries. Having this all correspond with a high-speed car chase, full of a variety of other actions taking place, and keeping it all clear and understandable makes it as impressive as anything I’ve seen from the early days of film or other, more recent innovative ideas for action.

Hoai-Tran Bui (@htranbui), /Film

When I think of the best cinematic stunt I’ve seen in recent memory, it has to be the Polecats sequence in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” When I look further back — yeah, no it’s still the Polecats. A stunt that sprung out of the wild imaginings of director George Miller’s mind and a chance visit to a Cirque du Soleil show, the swinging Polecats is one of the greatest stunts to come out of this century. Consisting of several stunt actors perched atop long, flexible metal poles, the Polecats stunt was unbelievably performed while the actors swung between moving cars.

And in a classic case of “Mad Max”-style escalation, the stunt was originally intended to be done on still cars set to a green screen before Miller’s stunt coordinator Glenn Suter boldly proposed that they do the potentially deadly sequence on moving cars. It’s thanks to Suter and Miller’s no-holds-barred approach to this and all the “Fury Road” stunts that we got that indelible image of desert warriors swinging wildly across terrifying tanks that raced across an arid desert. It only lasts about 5 seconds, but oh man were those the most breathtaking 5 seconds of my life.

Ethan Warren (@ethanrawarren), Bright Wall/Dark Room

I have to vote for the pole cats in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” those masked figures swaying on enormous poles atop speeding vehicles, using their momentum to dip onto and attack our fleeing heroes. In addition to being a stunning physical and technical achievement (according to stunt coordinator Glenn Suter, the sequence was conceived and executed with the help of Cirque du Soleil veterans, and involved months of core strength training by the performers) the imagery is violently ecstatic visual poetry that’s unmatched even within this hyperactive bonanza of a movie.

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG), Contributing Editor for Wicked Horror, freelance for Birth.Movies.Death, Vague Visages.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is pretty much just one, big extended stunt for two hours straight so the whole movie is the most impressive stunt I’ve ever seen. Picking just one moment is difficult, because once they hit that dirt road it’s non-stop action and can’t-believe-your-own-eyes stuff. The pole jumpers are death-defyingly brilliant — any time somebody is hanging off a vehicle, it’s heart stopping — and the War Rig flipping over is great, because it’s such a massive vehicle. In terms of scale, though, the tanker explosion is just unbelievable.

Miller’s insistence on doing everything for real seriously pays off here. The love, the attention to detail, the story-boarding, all of it combines to create this once in a lifetime moment that’s also really cool to look at (so much so that a character actually stops to have a good look as it happens). The explosion just keeps on going. In a movie full of awesome (in the true sense of the word) moments, this particular move is so seamless, so tactile, that it makes you stop breathing for a second. No computer effect could create that gut feeling.

Oralia Torres (@oraleia), Cinescopia, Malvestida

Honestly, all of “Mad Max: Fury Road.” The movie is a carefully constructed adrenaline shot, with a particular post-apocalyptic world building that hints at very plausible causes. The brilliant performances, insane costume design combined with a very colorful palette, the excellent edition and practical action sequences make it impossible to forget and, honestly, sets a very high standard of what to expect from new action movies.

Out of the whole movie, filled with practical effects that look fantastic, the best stunts of the movie are in the scene where Furiosa (Charlize Theron) figths Max (Tom Hardy), right after they’ve crossed a sand storm while fleeing Immortan Joe’s army. Theron’s impressive during this scene: All of Furiosa’s rage bottled up explodes with careful and determined calculation, while battling an anxious-ridden man who’s only instinct is to survive. The battle raises the expectations of what to expect for the rest of the movie.

Monique Jones (@moniqueblognet), Freelance for SlashFilm, Mediaversity Reviews, Shadow and Act, colorwebmag.com

It might be cheating to use another “Mission: Impossible” movie, but I’d have to say “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” has that unbelievable plane stunt. Even though every safety precaution was taken, it still looks like the most dangerous stunt ever. Aside from Tom Cruise literally hanging off the side of a plane, the second-scariest part to me is that his eyes had to be covered in a “protective coating” to keep them safe from debris, and foreign objects in my eyes is one of my biggest fears.

Joel Mayward (@joelmayward), Freelance for Cinemayward.com

Long before Tom Cruise was breaking his ankles, Buster Keaton was leaping from trains and buildings with his iconic stoic visage. One could list nearly any of his stunts from his oeuvre, but the one I love most is the waterfall rescue at the climax of his 1923 masterpiece, “Our Hospitality.” In the sequence Keaton saves his beau, played by his then-wife Natalie Talmudge, from plummeting over a waterfall by swinging from a rope tied to a jammed log hanging over the precipice. The suspense is heightened by the montage; previous scenes were clearly were shot on location in a rushing river and add to the sense of authentic danger, making the unbroken shot of the rescue absolutely thrilling.

Keaton’s physicality is simply astounding here, his commitment to the stunt exemplary as his body is contorted and twisted between rope, waterfall, and gravity. Even when you learn how he accomplished the feat on a Hollywood backlot using an enormous T-shaped pool and miniature set, that is still Keaton himself swinging like a pendulum into the rushing onslaught of water in a perfectly-timed catch. He nearly drowned. That’s commitment to the stunt, and Keaton deserves his place as one of the best action film stars in cinema history.

Anne McCarthy (@annemitchmcc), Bonjour Paris, Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine

Did you know that one of Jackie Chan’s role models was Charlie Chaplin? Neither did I, until recently. Chan once told The New York Times: “I wanted to be like Chaplin…” Most people don’t think of Charlie Chaplin when they think of stunt work and exciting stunt scenes in movies (instead, they often think of people like Jackie Chan), but in many ways, he was one of the early originators of stunts in film.

Take for instance the roller skating scene in Chaplin’s 1936 film,”Modern Times,” during which he comes terrifyingly close to plummeting to his death while skating around the fourth floor of a toy department with a blindfold over his eyes. Sure, in today’s CGI-saturated age with Herculean stuntwomen and stuntmen who are mindbogglingly brave and strong, it may not seem like much to skate around with a blindfold on. But in that scene, Chaplin was taking a risk. By today’s standards, it was a small stunt, but a stunt all the same. Chaplin was a trailblazer in so many regards, and this scene was one of countless ways in which he pushed the boundaries. What made that “Modern Times” scene extra special was its subsequent ripple effect. Among the ripple: One day in Hong Kong, a little boy, who would grow up to become Jackie Chan, saw that stunt scene and felt inspired.


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