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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

Clint Worthington (@alcohollywood), Consequence of Sound, Alcohollywood

When it comes to stunts, no one does it better than Jackie Chan — sifting through a lifetime of broken bones and spilled blood to find his greatest stunt is no easy task, but for my money Chan has never done anything crazier than his pole slide from “Police Story”. Seeing no faster way to get from the roof of a shopping mall to the bad guys below, Chan gamely grabs onto this large metal pole running through the middle of the mall, wrapped throughout with Christmas lights. What follows is a dazzling sight: Chan sliding down the yards-long pole while hundreds of Christmas lights shatter, snap and sparkle around him, then falling through a sheet of glass at the bottom of the pole – all without wearing gloves. Jackie Chan’s done plenty of death-defying feats over the decades, but this one might just stand above them all.

Carl Broughton II (@Carlislegendary), Editor-in-chief @ thefilmera.com

One of the most impressive and downright effective stunts in recent cinema is the car chase scene in “The Raid 2.” This particular stunt is a high octane car chase mixed with rapid martial arts and a destructive conclusion. The way the scene is shot is done with surgical precision and practical effects. Every time the camera cuts away and re focuses you feel it was for a reason instead of hiding something. It wasn’t till I watched the behind the scene video that I realized the sheer genius of it all. The actors were highly involved in the stunts, the car speeds were real, and the camera crew had to get in numerous positions to capture the overtop shots. “The Raid 2″is one of my favorite action films and being able to write about the stunts and the work that went into them is an honor. I recommend watching the behind the scenes video after you watch the car chase clip.

Daniel Joyaux (@thirdmanmovies), Freelance contributor for Vanity Fair, The Verge, MovieMaker, The Independent

My summer has been spent in beautiful Northern Michigan working at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, and I walk by the giant poster pictured above almost every day—hanging on the back of the State Theatre, overlooking Grand Traverse Bay. I had never seen a Harold Lloyd film until last summer, when the festival showed his great 1928 feature, “Speedy,” accompanied by live music from The Alloy Orchestra. Since that great experience, I’ve gone back and watched several other Lloyd classics over the past year, including “Safety Last,” his 1923 masterpiece that culminates in this famous image of a man hanging from a clock hand on the side of a building.

Modern movie stunts are certainly more visually impressive endeavors than anything that happened in the silent era. It’s hard to not be more wowed at the sight of Tom Cruise hanging off the side of the Burj Khalifa than Harold Lloyd hanging off a clock five or six stories above the street. But context is everything, and stunts today are typically done with infinitely more preparation, safety precautions, training, failsafes, and insurance dollars at work. The great silent clowns—Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd—were far more reliant on their natural balance, agility, athleticism, and grace. Within the films, they weren’t doing these stunts to save the world; they were usually just trying to get the girl. And in real life, the stunts weren’t merely to amaze and dazzle, but also to make us laugh. That’s why they have so much staying power.

And for “Safety Last,” we’re not merely talking about him hanging off the clock. The entirety of the movie’s last 15 minutes is Lloyd scaling that building, encountering every possible obstacle along the way. My two favorite sub-gags in the whole sequence are the wood board that pushes him out a window, and the mouse that crawls up his pant leg.

Robert Daniels (@812filmreviews), 812 Film Reviews

How can it not be Harold Lloyd’s climbing scene in “Safety Last!”? The combination of Lloyd and his stunt doubles: Harvey Parry and Bill Strother is the gold standard of stunts. Back in the silent era, and in an American era when stunts were more bold and dangerous by the day, studios had to be creative.

For Lloyd’s climbing scene, there’s no back projection. It’s live footage of the area on location. But ingeniously, the building that Lloyd is climbing is 100ft. above ground. And when I say above ground, I literally mean above ground. The facade he’s climbing is a fake wall on top of a roof set 20 ft. from the ledge. Zoom in on that wall, with the cityscape in the background, and it looks as though Lloyd and co. have climbed that treacherous 100ft. tall building with ease.

The result, through acute camera angles and Hollywood magic, is one of the most nerve racking scenes in history. As Lloyd “scales” the building, often slipping and pulling himself up, as he hangs from the hand of a clock, as he stupidly waltzes on a building’s ledge and swings through the air on a rope, we’re enthralled. In fact, we’re more than enthralled, we’re down-right scared. Every time I watch that scene, the choreography, timing, and placement sticks out to me. When Lloyd does his ledge dance, there’s a rope positioned perfectly to be a knot for his leg to wrap around. The steps and choreography could rival Gene Kelly splashing in his mapped-out puddles during the Singin’ in the Rain sequence.

And with each movement, with each slip, with each step, these shots are interspersed with the camera capturing the crowd on the ground. That crowd is us. Even with the presence CGI and large budgets today, we are still as scared for Lloyd as those from 95 years ago, still as triggered by heights, still able to put ourselves in his position and feel abject fear. It’s by far the best and most iconic stunt I, and the world, have ever seen.

Rosalie Kicks @BonjourOldSport), Moviejawn, CC2K

Tommy C. may do his own stunts, but before him there was Buster Keaton. Buster became famous for performing some of the most elaborate and daring feats. Most of his films are filled with memorable scenes, that quite possibly may leave you questioning his sanity. One of my favorite Keaton capers is from his flick, “Sherlock Jr”. I’ve seen this movie a bunch of times but still get a kick out of watching him ride atop the motorcycle. There is no doubt about it, Keaton had guts.

Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Freelance for /Film, Vulture and Thrillist

I’m not really an action junkie so I’m sure there are plenty of large-scale stunts that I simply haven’t seen. But the first thing that comes to mind is Keanu Reeves’ jump from a moving car to the bus in “Speed.” I miss these sort of smaller, simple concept action films that were so big in the ’90s, and “Speeds” remains the best of the best. I didn’t know until recently that this stunt was 100% Keanu, which makes it even more impressive, and honestly terrifying to think about. It may not be on the same level as Tom Cruise hanging out of a helicopter, but it’s still wild and insanely memorable.

Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@chrisreedfilm), Hammer to Nail, Film Festival Today

Other than every stunt ever done by Buster Keaton and his cinematic heir, Jackie Chan (technically cheating to mention more than one stunt, I know), I would have to go with the opening ski jump in the 1977 James Bond “The Spy Who Loved Me.” Not only is skier Rick Sylvester’s plunge off of Canada’s Mount Asgard (on Baffin Island) impressive on its own, but the single take used in the film, following him down until the parachute opens, is so beautifully framed that it adds a balletic grace to the stunt, elevating it to high art. The fact that this camera angle was not the one initially intended by the producers (other cameras and operators failed to capture the jump) makes it all the more special. A happy accident has never looked so stunning.

Ken Bakely (@kbake_99), Freelance for Film Pulse

Though the Academy remains steadfast in its bizarre refusal to create an Oscar for stunt professionals, they have bestowed honorary awards to individuals within the field. Among those is Yakima Canutt, a pioneer of movie stunt coordination and performance. While you could pick numerous moments from his career as awe-inspiring, there are few more famous or flat-out remarkable than those from John Ford’s “Stagecoach.” In the film’s climactic chase scene, Canutt leaps from moving horse to moving horse, then drops down under the horses, below and through the titular stagecoach. It’s a modified, extended, and improved version of a stunt he had performed in prior films, and is not only amazing for the pure spectacle of it, but the vital work he did in spearheading the techniques and equipment to make such sequences even possible.

Canutt was an invaluable presence in the evolution of movie stunt work. For a dynamic and innovative craft with such immense technical complexities, high visibility, and dramatic dangers for the performers involved—yet almost no official recognition—the least we can do is appreciate the people who shaped that history.

Ally Johnson (@AllysonAJ), TheYoungFolks,CambridgeDay.com, ThePlaylist

Simple in terms of how it looks when executed yet jaw-droppingly ludicrous when you truly sit and think of everything that could’ve gone wrong, Buster Keaton’s stunt where a house falls on top of him may still be one of the most breathtaking. Innovative, impressive and insane all describe many of Keaton’s wilder stunts but what remains so noteworthy with this one (beyond the basic triumph of surviving) is how stripped down he makes it seem in comparison to some of his more intricate stunt work. “Steamboat Bill Jr.” is far from the filmmaker’s more memorable works but this scene alone has risen to be synonymous with his name. With a window just big enough to not catch onto his frame as the front wall of the two story building came crashing down around him and with his trademarked, slightly dazed, stoicism with only a small mark in the ground to ensure his possible safety, it took the idea of what a performer will do and endure to get a laugh to new heights.

Quinn Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the big-budget stunts of modern films, but I’m truly fascinated by old-timers that risked everything in the name of independent cinema. For the 1928 film “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” Buster Keaton dropped one of the craziest stunts by literally dropping a two-ton wall himself. It happens quick, and it’s classic Keaton, but the backstory makes it even more crazy/beautiful, and sad, as Keaton had just lost his studio and apparently gave no fucks whatsoever about getting hurt. To be a fly on the wall in that production meeting…

Kambole Campbell, (@kambolecampbell), Freelance Birth Movies Death, Little White Lies, Features Editor at One Room With A View

A house falling on Buster Keaton in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” William Canfield Jr., the son of a down-on-his-luck owner of a paddle steamer, haplessly makes his way through town in search of his girlfriend and his father during a vicious cyclone. He is blown into the path of a house that is quite literally splitting in two, but he doesn’t notice, after taking shelter under the hospital bed he rode in on. The bed blows away, he dusts himself off, and then the whole damn facade collapses around him; Canfield Jr. only survives because of a very fortunately placed open window. This stunt was performed with no camera trickery, no doubles, and just a few inches between a successful 10 second gag, and Buster Keaton being crushed by a 2 ton building facade.

Poorly received on release and a box office failure, “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” probably has Keaton’s most famous stunt, and the greatest film stunt of all time for its simplicity, technical accomplishment and sheer audacity. This specific stunt inspired the work of Jackie Chan, has been recreated numerous times (with far more safety measures in place), and generally just set an extremely high bar for everything that came after.

If you wanted a modern day comparison, you could probably call him the Tom Cruise of the silent era, if only for his commitment to nearly killing himself for the sake of entertaining cinema audiences – just 4 years before, in “Sherlock Jr”, he broke his neck performing a stunt where he fell from a water tower. There’s a lot of stunts that Keaton did during his career that could also take this title, but none are so memorable, nor required so much precision as this. Here’s to the OG.

Aaron (@FeelinFilmAaron), Feelin’ Film

Big Hollywood stunts can create a huge sense of astonishment in viewers that make blockbusters memorable. But one of the most incredible stunts I’ve ever seen actually comes from the silent film era and comedic genius Buster Keaton. No other actors of the period so routinely put himself in the dangerous situations that Keaton would just to garner a laugh. Though many examples of Keaton’s risk-taking exist, perhaps the most famous and unbelievable is a scene from “Steamboat Bill Jr.” in which Keaton stands beneath a house and allows it to fall on top of him, just hoping that he is properly aligned with a window in order to avoid being crushed. Had the house fallen inches differently, Keaton would have been crushed and died.

What makes this stunt ever more amazing is that Keaton acts it with a straight face, managing to continue the performance without hesitation despite the rush that must have occurred from surviving the house’s fall. It also was accomplished in an age where safety procedures were fairly non-existent, giving this stunt a level of danger that most likely will never be repeated. Seeing an artist put his life on the line for his work is something worth admiring, even if it is what most of us would consider insane.

Pedro Strazza (@pedrosazevedo), B9

I’ll pick the moment in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” when Sally (Marilyn Burns) encounters Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen) for the first time, a meeting that becomes a chase scene that ends with Sally jumping from a window after being cornered in a house.

The reason why this situation is remarkable for me in terms of stunts is because, while these are ridiculously easy maneuvers to be made, the whole filming of that scene was way riskier than it should. In interviews for “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Companion”, Stefan Jaworzyn’s book about the franchise, Burns and Hansen say that not only the actress started limping after the jump through the window because she made the move without a matress to cushion the fall and hours after her stunt double (Mary Church) already broke the fake glass used for the scene — all the sugar used on the making of the window was already crystalized and stiff — but  Hansen was high on weed when he was chasing her on the house, running up the stairs with a turned on chain saw! According to them, the production baked some brownies with the drug and did not warn the crew about the content, so after each take they would eat a piece. After some various repetitions, everyone was so drugged that when Leatherface entered the house for the forty and something time one of the cameramen run away with despair because he thought Hansen’s character was real.

It’s a fun story to read, but I remember I got to revisit the movie after finishing the book and the whole sequence for me became something even more terrifying to watch. I think It was a moment that taught me about the value of the stunt on the horror genre: if in action it is the complexity of the moves that gives us those moments of fascination, here the easiest of scenes can be the most creepy ones because of the vulnerability implied by via information. I mean, to this day I keep imagining what would happen to everyone involved on the production (and to film History, in a way) if something happened to Burns or any other member of the crew while Hansen was high and steering that chain saw – this thought itself is able to make scarier an already intense horror film.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics, Film School Rejects, Thrillist

As a Buster Keaton junkie, I have to ignore all the crazy stunts performed by Tom Cruise and Jackie Chan and all the non-actor stunt performers and go for something that’s not recognized enough. No, not the classic bit in “Steamboat Bill Jr.” where he stands in just the right spot as a heavy facade of a house falls around him. Or the waterfall rescue in “Our Hospitality,” though that still amazes me even with knowledge that it’s a well-planned set and involves a dummy in the shot where Keaton actually catches Natalie Talmadge’s character. Instead I’m going with the building jump in “Three Ages.” I cringe every time, always expecting him to make the jump. And especially since the first shot of him missing the building is in fact an accident. He built the rest of the gag stunt around that mishap very effectively. Stunts involving improvisation rather than careful planning are always more incredible for me.

Mike McGranaghan (@AisleSeat), The Aisle Seat, Screen Rant


I suppose it’s technically a series of stunts, but I’d have to pick the whole car chase sequence in William Friedkin’s “To Live and Die in L.A.” particularly the part where William Petersen’s character drives in the wrong direction on the freeway.

I went to see the movie when I was 17, and it was the first time I became consciously aware of the power of stunt work. You see cars narrowly missing each other and occasionally colliding, as well as the lead car weaving into head-on traffic at a high rate of speed. Even watching the clip again today before answering this question, I’m struck by how scary the stunt performers made it all look. The logistics of pulling off this scene must have been insane. For my money, it’s the best car chase ever captured on film. And while I can think of other stunts that might technically be showier, the ones here combine to create something that adds immeasurably to the overall suspense of the film.

Matt Zoller Seitz (@MattZollerSeitz), RogerEbert.com


I like the moment in the John Frankenheimer movie “The Train” where Burt Lancaster, who plays a French railway inspector, leaves his tower, slides down a tall ladder, runs across the railyard and jumps onto a train, all in one shot. It’s not a spectacular as some other film stunts, but it’s filmed in a way that lets us know Burt Lancaster is actually doing all that stuff, and it is really graceful.

Emily Sears (@emily_dawn), Birth.Movies.Death., Fandor

When most people talk about “Wonder Woman” they talk about the “No Man’s Land” sequence, but it’s this moment where a sniper is positioned in the bell tower taking out local villagers that I find most effective. Steve Trevor and his crew quite literally make themselves a launching pad to lift Diana into the air to save the day. It’s a stunt that is not only satisfying to watch, it’s also symbolic of what it truly means for men to be allies to women in the fight against adversity. Diana may be powerful enough to incite change on her own, but she needs all the help she can get to reach her destination.

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