After a long festival road, Kurt Mattila’s 2018 film Stuntman is finally upon us, released as a Disney+ original documentary. The film, which chronicles professional stuntman Eddie Braun’s quest to reenact Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon Jump, in which a rocket would jump across the canyon, is a rather impassioned and personal look at one person’s goal to step in the shoes of his hero to bid farewell to a 30+ year career in stunt work. Still, something desperately feels missing.
What feels missing, you may ask? For starters, the film spends way too much time talking about the stunt itself instead of talking about why Braun is doing the stunt. The only two reasons he incessantly repeats are to leave behind a legacy for his children and to follow Evel Knievel’s footsteps and prove the failed launch could’ve worked if the parachute hadn’t malfunctioned. Yes, these are valid reasons, but surely there must be more to his quest than just that. The stunt in itself is absolutely crazy: who in their right mind would ever attempt something like this? A high-speed rocket jumping across a steep canyon with no concrete chances of survival? Even the most professional daredevils of the world wouldn’t dare. Most of them would rather stretch the limits of what they can do versus attempt something that sounds so dangerous only a select *two* people would do it. That’s why when Braun says he wants to do something his kids would be proud of, it doesn’t feel necessarily genuine, nor does it comes across as legitimate leverage for him to say: yes, I want to do this! On the other hand, their kids don’t want to think about their dad doing the stunt. What if it goes wrong? He dies. What if there’s a malfunction? He dies. If you don’t think about it, maybe it’s gonna go well. And his wife, who seems to be the biggest supporter of Braun’s work, doesn’t want him to go through with this, and with reason.
Of course, if the stunt does go well, he will leave a legacy for his kids to be proud of. But, again, what if it doesn’t go well? Those questions aren’t really asked, as the film continuously presupposes that everything will be fine. Is there a moment in which Braun thinks to himself, “what the hell am I doing?” as he reads the newspaper and sips his coffee on the morning of the stunt? Maybe it’s me who’s freaking out at seeing a rocket go through a canyon and would never dare attempt even thinking of doing it, but Braun seems too cool to the fact that the stunt could not only end his career but his life as well. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like we’re exploring that aspect of the stunt, and we’re focusing too much on hyping it up as the “jump of the century” and touching upon its mechanics as well.
Though Stuntman fails to develop trust between the audience and its main subject, it also succeeds at showcasing how admirable and daring the profession of stuntwork is whilst maintaining a beautifully cinematic look. Stuntmen and women risk their lives for our entertainment. So when we collectively yell “WHOA!” during an action film with meticulously choreographed stuntwork (think of the work of Jackie Chan and Tom Cruise, who quite literally put their life on the line to provoke catharsis to the viewer), remember the people that make this reaction possible. And there are many instances where Mattila showcases how car crashes (and explosions) are staged and how Braun never fully knows what will happen, even if he is a trained professional.
The helicopter crash story should make audiences’ spines tingle alone. Braun gets in a helicopter crash that could’ve ended his career and life, but is left completely unharmed, gets up, and wants to finish the day. He doesn’t even think about the mere fact that he could’ve died here and there or suffered major injuries and/or trauma. He wants to keep going. That’s highly resilient, yes, but also incredibly dangerous. If you continue to stress-test yourself and push the limits of gravity, at some point, it’s bound to bounce back and could end everything you hold dear. As one of the film’s diverse talking heads says, “You don’t ever retire from this business. This business retires you.” It’s also a good thing that the film’s central stunt is a cinematic marvel. Even if you know the outcome of what happened, you’re still going to get thrilled at the sight of seeing the cross the canyon, with marvelously sleek cinematography and dizzyingly vertiginous GoPro footage. I’ll admit it would’ve played much better on a massive IMAX screen, but the sheer execution of the stunt is still exhilarating to witness no matter in which format you watch it.
Even with many flaws preventing Stuntman from being a legitimately great documentary, it’s still a rather enjoyable watch nonetheless. It could’ve brought deeper insight into Braun’s quest to leave a legacy for his children, as everything feels terribly surface-level there. Still, I couldn’t help being in total awe of just how daring that quest may be, even if it’s missing some emotional leverage. The Snake River Canyon Jump has been replicated once and will never be done again. Now, where’s that Oscar for Best Stuntwork, Academy?
Stuntman is now streaming on Disney+