Author: Vic Armstrong (with Robert Sellers)
Publisher: Titan Books.
Think you don’t know Vic Armstrong? You’ve seen his work in countless films. He’s been stunt double for James Bond and Indiana Jones, and he’s directed action scenes for 3 Bond movies, Mission Impossible 3 and Thor, to name but a few. He’s got a lot of amazing stories to tell, and they’re all here in this acclaimed memoir, now updated with Vic’s work on The Amazing Spider-Man!
There are many subtle nuances to the definition of the word “badass” in movie culture and iconography. “Badassness” can be conveyed in many ways, from simply giving a character a beard (Kurt Russell is pretty badass with a hairless chin, but can you imagine a beardless R.J. MacReady fighting shape shifting aliens? No. No you can’t) or through creating a myth around a character, elevating them to legendary figures. I’m thinking Keyser Söze, and not the over memed badass Chuck Norris who seems to only exist in popular culture for unfunny people to wank their humour muscle. An actor can create a lot of presence and intimidation through a good performance and good direction, for example the famous restaurant scene in The Godfather.
In more action driven movies, however, the audience would not run with a character being simply described as badass. How disappointing would it have been to have been simply told that Inspector Tequila Yuen and Tony shot up a hospital full of bad guys in Hard Boiled rather than being shown one of the most amazing action sequences in film history?
Action scenes allow the stuntman, stunt co-ordinator and 2nd Unit Director the chance to show off. I don’t think that any action film fan could underplay the work of a stuntman. They might even be considered the truest performers on screen. Unless an actor performs their own stunts, we are watching an entirely different performer take on the role.
For the sake of argument, take for example the famous bridge scene in The Temple of Doom. In that scene, the audience does not see Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones fighting Mola Ram and then slicing the bridge ropes, falling into the chasm beneath him. That was two stuntmen (including the author of this book, Vic Armstrong, who interestingly stepped in to perform many of Harrison Ford’s more intense scenes due to Ford injuring his back), dummies, set design, and clever camera technique.
The personality of characters such as James Bond or Indiana Jones, can be projected by an actor’s skill, to a certain extent. But without some great set pieces, or at least some demonstration of how the character reacts to danger or peril, the audience may ultimately lose interest. This is when badass men like Vic Armstrong are needed.
Wanted: One Badass…
The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman, published by Titan Books, is a comprehensive autobiography that details what it takes to become a successful stuntman and, in Armstrong’s case, a highly successful 2nd Unit director. It seems that good luck, determination, hard work, a lot of broken bones and, as Armstrong claims, the ability to “do everything against your better nature or judgement” are the key ingredients.
Armstrong’s filmography and career is hugely impressive. After his beginnings as a jockey and apprenticing for his father, the man moved into the movie industry and has worked with almost every significant name in the film business since the 1960s. A quick list of the directors he has collaborated with includes Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Paul Verhoeven, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Roman Polanski, John Landis and Kenneth Branagh.
There is an even longer list of actors and film producers peppered throughout the book along with short contributions written by collaborators. The book is saturated with anecdotes and stories of film making and celebrities. Some of these are fantastic. The accounts of being mistaken for Harrison Ford by the Spanish press, Steven Spielberg and Ford’s own children are very entertaining.
And the descriptions of interferences from the local drug barons on the set of The Mission, and the disappearances of Chinese workers on the set of Empire of the Sun are very intriguing. The book also details meeting legendary and controversial figures, such as Richard Todd, David Niven, Gaddafi (believe it or not) and Stanley Kubrick (who, as a story involving locked gates supports, seems to be as eccentric as you’ve probably heard) among many others, are fun to read.
However, the celebrity anecdotes reveal my most significant criticism of the book. After almost every celebrity story, Armstrong finishes with variations of “wonderful guy”, “I like them”, “fantastic guy,” or “nice bloke.” This occurs every few pages, and is in danger of descending the book into a wallowing luvvie fest. It becomes very grating.
When Armstrong does reveal that there are, in fact, some undesirable figures working in the film business (Michael Winner is a prick, but that’s hardly a surprise) it leaves your appetite for some bitchy gossip thoroughly unsatisfied. But movie making is a political environment, and it makes sense that Armstrong does not appear over critical or gossipy as he may end up isolated and with no work. But you do not need to be told that everybody is wonderful so often.
Stunts: Past, Present And Future
However, despite this, there are many great insights into working on film. The advancements in stunt technology since the 1960s, especially the shocking stories of animal abuse in the early films, are fascinating to read. And Armstrong’s refinements to the fan descender that changed the stunt industry, and later won Armstrong his Oscar, are genuinely interesting.
There are also some harrowing insights into the sometimes fatal risks that stunt performers take, including the accidental death of Dar Robinson on Million Dollar Mystery, and the grisly accidents of co workers such as John Souter and a nameless man, both decapitated on set. Armstrong also offers his views on the changing visual techniques in the movie industry.
He is keen to assert that he is not against computer-generated imagery and repeatedly claims he believes it is an extremely valuable tool but he does argue that over dependence on it is a poor creative practise, “there isn’t the same style or magic, or the same kind of fun and craziness we used to have in the ‘70s and ‘80s.”. He likens CGI to “morphine”, that it “is an incredible drug if you use it for what it was intended for, used sparingly, in the right amounts. But when it’s used too much, you get addicted and it’s a killer.” Armstrong manages to state and argue his case without seeming overly nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ or too damning of modern filming techniques.
His unfussy writing style aids him fantastically in these instances, however, at other points his style can completely deflate a story. Funny stories are nearly always followed by the sentence “it was hysterical”, and there is a tendency for repetition when he describes working with the same people on more than one occasion. For example, we are told twice that Cameron Diaz’s nickname on Charlie’s Angels was “Lead Boot” due to her fearless driving style within a few chapters, besides other repetitious stories.
The many laddish stories involving getting drunk and working with sexy actresses with “big tits” are also irritating and make Armstrong seem a bit of a sleaze in some respects and are fairly jarring. These sections end up feeling like you have been cornered by some older bloke at a party who insists on telling you of the “mad times” he had with his mates when he was 18.
The writing is over linear, to the point the book feels like you are reading a procedural report or a step by step guide through Armstrong’s life. That said, Armstrong never makes any claims to being a strong writer and for the most part the stripped back style works for the book.
The True Adventures of the World’s Greatest Stuntman is well worth reading for some good information about stunt performance from one of the pioneers of modern stunt work. Armstrong provides some great stories on working as a 2nd Unit director, including revealing some iconic film scenes that he himself directed.
These include the Battle of Agincourt scene in Henry V, the Piccadilly Circus scene in An American Werewolf in London, and the Thames River boat chase in The World is Not Enough. However, my criticisms still stand and the book would have been served well with some trimming or at least some more refining.
At 350 pages, the writing becomes fairly annoying and the constant reiteration of the author’s “good friends” and “fabulous guys” (don’t get me wrong, I don’t doubt some of these people are decent and respectable) becomes very tiring and annoying. In conclusion, the book provides some great insights into an often overlooked aspect of film making. But the repetitious nature of the writing and the apparent need to placate the celebrity contributors, unfortunately, underplays Armstrong’s amazing career.Tags: harrison ford, indiana jones, steven spielberg, the true adventures of the world’s greatest stuntman, vic armstrong