World-class stuntman Vic Armstrong has lived as Indiana Jones, James Bond, Superman, and other epic cinema heroes throughout his career. He’s worked closely with the action icons many of us grew up with on the big screen, and the stuntman has risked his life countless times to perfect the unforgettable scenes that have replayed in our collective movie memory for decades.
Armstrong’s new book — The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman , a wild ride through the death-defying maestro’s career — hits shelves on May 29. It’s a reminder that some of the greatest talents in Hollywood are those behind the scenes and not mugging for the camera.
We wanted Armstrong’s expert input on some of cinema’s most exciting action stunts, and he was kind enough to share his thoughts about 10 different scenes. Head past the break where we dig up a few thrilling moments in action movie history, and drop your favorites below.
Vic Armstrong: “Supercop is a very well shot piece of action… it is superbly shot, edited, and performed, and quite a risk looks to have been taken by the stunt rider.”
Before Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider or Salt, Michelle Yeoh proved women could be incredible action performers in 1992’s Supercop. The actress played a police officer who matches action icon Jackie Chan note for note and steals the show during one impressive scene where she rides a motorcycle up a ramp, into the air, and onto the roof of a moving train. Yeoh performed all her own stunts in the film, all of them extremely dangerous.
While we don’t think it’s worth risking life and limb for a great shot, there’s something to be admired about Hong Kong stuntworkers and coordinators who perform perilous acts, that while often absolutely thrilling and stunning, could cost them their life. That’s dedication — and something you don’t really see in Hollywood due to strict regulations and union codes.
Vic Armstrong: “This stunt on Raiders of the Lost Ark is superbly performed by Terry Leonard and directed by action unit director Mickey Moore. Terry had tried to perform this stunt before on the Legend of the Lone Ranger and it went badly wrong, and Terry’s legs were run over by the stage coach. I used to run every day in Tunisia as part of Terry’s rehab when we were working on Raiders. The original, though, is still the most amazingly dangerous stunt of them all performed by Yakima Canutt on Stagecoach.”
As Vic shares, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders modeled this famous scene after a stunt performed in the 1939 film Stagecoach starring John Wayne. It remains one of the greatest ever performed.
Vic Armstrong: “Jackie Chan is the master of comedy and action superbly mixed, and is the most original choreographer in the business today. I don’t think this clip of Police Story does justice to his athletic ability and originality.”
The 1985 Hong Kong martial arts comedy features many grand action scenes, but the most remembered is the climactic mall chase. After Jackie Chan’s character defeats everyone around him inside a shopping mall, he leaps off the top floor and latches onto a pole wrapped in light bulbs. Then, he slides down, smashing them along the way, crashing through a glass ceiling, and eventually reaches the floor below. Chan suffered real-life burns on his hands, hurt his back, and dislocated his pelvis for the scene.
Vic Armstrong: “Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill (and many, many other movies) is one of my favourite stunts. It was so original and extremely dangerous, and marked for me the beginning of carefully planned, calculated, original stunts that were performed with a lot of imagination and trust. They combined efforts and many departments on the film set, which is what the stunt business has become nowadays.”
Although not as showy as some of the stunts featured on our list, the precision and danger involved in Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. feat make it a standout. He performed the stunt alone with no hidden tricks. The building façade is full-size and all real. Had Keaton stood an inch off his mark, he would have been crushed.
Vic Armstrong: “For me Ben-Hur is the ultimate action sequence, superbly conceived and directed by Yakima Canutt, incredible stunts performed by [his son] Joe Canutt, and many others. The forethought and preparation that went into this sequence is monumental. Someone had tried to shoot the sequence before Yak for less money, and it was a disaster. Yak had to rebuild the whole track surface, then he had to buy all the horses and train them and the actors to drive them, and then he had to shoot it — the ultimate “putting the money where his mouth was.” It is a fantastic sequence that could never be repeated.”
The famous stunt in question pops up around halfway through the chariot race, where Ben-Hur is practically crushed against the wall, headed straight for the wreckage of a fallen chariot. Stunt performer Joe Canutt had to leap over the smashed vehicle, which propels him over the front of his chariot. He barely makes it, but manages to climb back up in his seat. The entire scene was unplanned and near fatal. Watch it here.
Vic Artmstrong: “This sequence in The Spy Who Loved Me is the best opening sequence ever in a Bond film. I saw it when I was shooting a movie in Israel and will never forget the effect it had on me and the audience. It is an extremely dangerous stunt to perform and an extremely difficult stunt to photograph, and needed patience and nerves of steel from everyone involved to achieve — but most of all it was original.”
Stuntman Rick Sylvester almost didn’t survive his ski jump stunt in 1977 Bond classic The Spy Who Loved Me. After a chase down the hill, Sylvester made the epic leap, but a disengaged ski prevented his parachute from opening. Luckily it all turned out ok and brings a lot of nail-biting tension to the scene.
Vic Armstrong: “Death Proof is a nice car chase with an original, sexy edge to it performed by the ‘real people’ acting in it. It has a great double car jump and T-bone crash at the end. There are better car chases out there, though.”
We agree that there are more classic car chases out there, but Zoë Bell is one of the best stuntpeople working today, and her ongoing collaboration with Quentin Tarantino is always highly anticipated.
Everything Tony Jaa does in Ong-bak
Vic Armstrong: “Ong-bak is one of my favorite fight movies. Tony Jaa is a friend of mine as is his stunt coordinator Kawee Sirikhanerut (Seng). In fact, I took Seng to New York to work on Salt with me. Muay Thai is a brilliant style of fighting for the movie business and these boys do it better than anybody. They are very close behind Jackie Chan in originality. More successes and bigger budgets will allow them to overtake Jackie in that respect.”
Master fighter Tony Jaa gets chased by gangsters throughout Bangkok performing incredibly dangerous feats — including the insane fire fight, which burned his face. He also jumps through a mass of barbed wire without falling into the vats of hot oil below — or spearing himself — before leaping over cars and finishing with one of his gymnastic splits.
Vic Armstrong: “I am in awe of all these Parkour guys, and the chase in District B13 is exceptionally great. What Dave Belle does defies gravity and human abilities, and to be able to perform it on command as it were on a film shoot is brilliant. The risk is tremendous and it is almost stunt work going the full circle back to the early silent film days with people relying on their personal ability to entertain.”
Belle is the leader of the parkour movement and performed his stunts without wires or special effects.
Vic Armstrong: “The sequence around the Burj Khalifa in Mission Impossible 4: Ghost Protocol is an amazing sequence that was shot at the real location and performed by Tom Cruise for real. Having worked with Tom many times, I know he has this amazing, fearless approach to working at heights that terrify most mortals. Tom also has huge trust in his crew that rig it all for him, and their work together has achieved a breathtaking sequence.”
It should be noted that the Burj Khalifa is the tallest tower in the world. Applause.