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Greatest stunts
Photograph: Time Out

The 18 greatest stunts in movie history

As picked by Hollywood’s greatest stunt professionals

Written by
Phil de Semlyen
Contributors
Helen O’Hara
,
Matthew Singer
&
James Balmont
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Stunt professionals put their bodies, and sometimes even their lives, on the line daily to pull off the coolest action beats in massive blockbusters. There’s no Oscar for it and they rarely get to walk the red carpet taking the plaudits, but make no mistake, they’re the lifeblood of many of our favourite movies. And if you sell ice packs, they’re probably your number one customers. 

Thanks to VFX, the way action movies are made has changed radically since the madcap silent era days of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd clinging precariously to buildings. But one thing has stayed the same: it’s still a job for tough, daring and visually inventive people seeking new ways to keep audiences slack-jawed and on the edge of their seats.

There is one more thing that unites them: they’re passionate movielovers, to a man and woman, who regularly look to cinema’s past for inspiration. To celebrate their work – and kick off Time Out’s Action Month – we asked some of the most respected, experienced stunt people in cinema, including bona fide legends like Vic Armstrong and Simon Crane, to pick a stunt or sequence that they love above all others, and give an expert’s view of how it was pulled off. And guess what? They love Jackie Chan even more than the rest of us.

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The best movie stunts of all time

1. The chariot race in ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959) – picked by Vic Armstrong

Not only do they not make them like stunt legend Vic Armstrong anymore, they rarely make movies like the ones he made his name on. Take An American Werewolf in London, in which he helped orchestrate an improbable 24-car pile-up in Piccadilly Circus. Or the daredevil leap from horse to tank as Harrison Ford's stunt double in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He's been in the business as a stuntman, second unit director and filmmaker since the ‘60s, working on historical epics (Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood), sci-fis (Starship Troopers), Bond films (loads of them) and more recently, the fantasy mega-series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. 

Fittingly, the one-time amateur jockey’s choice of action sequence is Charlton Heston's chariot race in William Wyler’s 1959 epic Ben-Hur. ‘It came out in 1960 when I was 14 and starting out as a jockey,’ he remembers. ‘I was in awe of it.’

‘If I could do what they did with this sequence, I’d happily retire tomorrow. The grandeur, scale, the knowledge, how long it took to shoot… it might be the greatest second-unit shoot of all time. You couldn’t do it today – although they tried it [in the 2016 remake] and it didn't work. I grew up as a horseman – it’s what got me into the business – and I’m in awe of what (second unit directors) Bundy Marton and Yakima Canutt achieved. I'm a great devotee of rehearsal but there are always happy accidents and here it's when (stuntman) Joe Canutt, Yak’s son, is fired over the front of the chariot. I feel for Yak in that moment, because I have four kids in the business and it's nerve-racking to send them off [to do a stunt].’

2. The car chase in ‘Ronin’ (1997) – picked by Jim Dowdall

An OG of the stunt world, Jim Dowdall started off as an armourer on big Hollywood war films like The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare. Since then, he’s done stunt work on everything from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Tenet. He was a stormtrooper in Star Wars, died several times in Saving Private Ryan’s end battle, has doubled for 007, and helped oversee The Bourne Supremacy’s breakneck Moscow car chase. The Brit’s pick of sequence is the eight-minute chase in John Frankenheimer’s 1998 action-thriller Ronin.

‘To shoot a sequence like this in a city like Paris, where the population don't care what a film crew is doing, is a nightmare. But there are lots of little details that make this sequence great: the low camera; the way the guy is suddenly knocked off his moped; how the car window is open and Natascha McElhone's hair is fluttering around – they all add to the feeling of speed. Ronin makes very early use of a pod car – where the driver is sitting on the roof and you can shoot the actors inside the car – and there are times you can see that Robert De Niro is bricking it. How dangerous is it when the cars are driving into oncoming traffic? It’s very dangerous. One person gets it wrong and you've got a head-on.’

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3. The bathroom fight in ‘Mission: Impossible – Fallout’ (2018) – picked by Greg Powell 

If you cut British stuntman Greg Powell in half – and a few film productions have tried – he’d probably bleed fake movie blood. ‘My father and uncle were both stuntmen,’ he says. 'There was nothing else I was going to do.’ His earliest filmmaking memory was as an eight-year-old on the Pinewood set of From Russia With Love. In the 60 years since, he's seen stunt filmmaking change hugely. ‘I used to use copies of The Daily Mirror as elbow padding in the early days,’ he remembers. His CV since then includes Bond movies, Band of Brothers, the Harry Potter franchise and The Bourne Ultimatum.

Powell’s choice is Fallout’s brutal encounter between IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and CIA spook August Walker (Henry Cavill), duking it out in a bathroom with Liang Yang's assassin. 

‘This scene has so much style and energy: it looks like a real fight. Nine times out of ten a street fight ends up with people kicking the shit out of each other on the floor, and that's what you’re aiming for. They’ve built a “soft set”, replacing glass with special effects glass and using polystyrene for the sinks. The key is always to get the actors rather than stunt doubles to do as much as possible. I’d guess that most or all of what you're seeing is Tom Cruise – he has the best stunt CV in the business – and over three-quarters is Henry Cavill. People do get hit for real during filming. I remember being punched in the face twice by David Essex. I had to tell him if he did it again, I’d hit him back.’

4. ‘The Princess Bride’ sword fight (1987) – picked by Monique Ganderton

If it had worked out differently, one-time wannabe journalism student and part-time model Monique Ganderton might have been hitting nothing more ferocious than deadlines or catwalks. Instead, the Canadian stunt superstar has been out there trading blows with other stunt performers on Hollywood blockbusters for 20 years. Ganderton has punched through a few barriers, too, becoming the first female stunt coordinator on a Marvel movie with Avengers: Endgame. ‘When I moved to the States, it was weird that there were so few female stunt coordinators,’ she tells Time Out. ‘But now people are realising that you can have a female voice and still get the job done.’

‘I’ve always loved The Princess Bride – I had, like, ten VHS copies of it when I was little – and this scene is one of the reasons. I love it for the same reason people love Jackie Chan fight scenes: you see the actors and you're feeling every moment with them. Hollywood was leaning heavily on stunt doubles at the time, but this was just Mandy Patinkin and Cary Elwes – aside from a gymnast popping in for a couple of shots. They trained for months with some of the best sword guys in the business. I haven’t done a sword movie like this one and I couldn't do what they do, but the sword fighting beats aren’t complicated – it’s more about the rhythm of the action and the characters. I try to take those things into my work. The script will say “they fight”, but I love unpeeling that onion. People will remember one punch to the face at the right moment.’

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5. The staircase fight in ‘Atomic Blonde’ (2017) – picked by Melissa Stubbs

She’s fresh from being the second unit director on one of 2023’s buzziest films in Cocaine Bear, but Melissa Stubbs’s schedule has been unrelenting for years. She has 200 credits to her name and similar numbers of bumps and bruises to show for it. ‘If you haven't broken something, you weren’t trying hard enough,’ she laughs. Her pick of sequence sees Charlize Theron battling a stairwell full of bad guys in her old mucker David Leitch’s action-thriller. ‘I worked with David on Mr and Mrs Smith – he doubled Brad, I doubled Angie – and I'm a big fan.’

‘This fight is pretty damn great, mainly because they rehearsed with Charlize for months and it’s all one shot. I prefer practical stunts, doing it for real. Sam Hargrave, the fight choreographer, also operated the camera – he knew the beats of the fight, the actors knew the beats and it’s just so snappy. Nowadays, [producers] want to do a scene like this and give you eight days with the actor to prepare. But to avoid injury, you have to train the actor properly – and that takes six months. It’s time and preparation – and permission from the insurance company!’

6. The bridge jump in ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ (1977) – picked by Jack Gill

‘I’ve broken my back twice, my neck once, 23 broken bones, cut a finger off, punctured some lungs…’ Stunt driving royalty Jack Gill’s career-long collection of injuries hurts just to listen to. He cut his teeth under the tutelage of Smokey and the Bandit director and stunt legend Hal Needham. ‘When Hal got me in the business, he told me I should carry around a fifth of Jack Daniels in my stunt bag,’ he recalls. ‘We don’t do it that way now.’ Gill’s breakthrough came driving the General Lee on The Dukes of Hazzard (shocking revelation: those car doors were never really welded shut). Nowadays, he’s busy pushing the action envelope on Fast X. Fittingly, his pick comes from his own mentor’s greatest hit – a movie he caught as a teenage motocross racer in Atlanta. 

‘I don’t know that anyone has ever done a jump this beautiful. I don't know that I’d do it in today's world: if you’re short, you're dead, and if you’re long, the car is going end-over-end. I’ve talked to [director] Hal Needham and the stunt driver, Alan Gibbs, about the jump: there was no cage in the car, just an itty-bitty roll bar, which wouldn't have done anything at 80mph, and Alan was wearing a cowboy hat, no helmet. If I were replicating it now, I'd test jump it with a remote controlled car until we got it exactly right and then I'd put a guy in it, but back then you couldn’t do that. A lot of things could have gone wrong, but Alan did it anyway – and it’s history.’

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7. The mall fight in ‘Police Story’ (1985) – picked by Nick Powell

If RRR rocketed to the top of your Netflix watchlist thanks to its off-the-chain action scenes, British stuntman Nick Powell is someone to thank. His rep in the industry since he broke his movie duck orchestrating Braveheart’s fight sequences is such that he’s in demand worldwide. His secret sauce is a lifelong love of Asian action cinema, the techniques and styles of which he helped introduce to Hollywood blockbusters.

It’s an absolutely amazing sequence set in a shopping mall. It’s Jackie Chan jumping 20 feet from one escalator to another; jumping onto the poles; smashing through so much fake glass. It’s a whole different style to anything that was being done in the west at the time and it had a big influence on me. There's no trickery here – it’s Jackie really doing this stuff and if his timing’s wrong, he's gonna get hurt. No one else could do what he was doing. You sometimes hear about the next big thing in action – Tony Jaa, etc – but he took it to a whole new level. Obviously, there’s Bruce Lee and it was amazing what he was doing, but he couldn't have done the stuff that Jackie Chan was doing. 

8. Buster Keaton’s building leap in ‘Three Ages’ (1923) – picked by Wade Eastwood

South African stunt maestro Wade Eastwood is currently living his boyhood dream conjuring up with ever-more-extreme action beats in the Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning. He grew up glued to The Fall Guy and The A-Team, later discovering that the stunt world could satisfy his itch to become a racing driver. There’s three things he wants you to know: yes, Tom Cruise does all his own stunts and no, stunt people aren’t daredevils. ‘We rehearse to death,’ he says. Oh, and that he worships at the altar of Buster Keaton. ‘Silent movies are a huge inspiration for me.’

‘This film was the start of the oner that everyone loves in Hollywood now: it follows Buster Keaton as he dives across from one building to the other, hits a wall, drops through the awnings, grabs a drainpipe, swings in through the window, goes down the fireman’s pole and gets onto the fire engine and drives out – and we’re with him on his entire journey. It’s super dangerous – if he fell, he’d be landing in nets, not airbags, and could easily break his neck or a limb. He only ever used a stunt double once in his life, when he needed a US pole vault champion to pole vault through a window. He used to tell a story about getting injured, going to a co-worker’s house, drinking whisky and lying in bed for three days and then going back to work. It was that kind of era.’

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9. The skyscraper fall in ‘Stick’ (1985) – picked by Simon Crane

A stunt performer that other stunt people talk about in reverential tones, the one-time law student is probably best known for executing that incredible high-altitude plane swap in Cliffhanger and well as doubling for 007 in The Living Daylights. ‘I hated heights,’ he admits. ‘All my action was heights but I hated that aspect of it.’ His favourite stunt comes from a gritty Burt Reynolds crime thriller and a skyscraper fall executed by legendary stuntman Dar Robinson.

‘The bad guy, played by Dar, is hanging onto the edge of a building, he pulls out a gun and falls backwards as he starts to fire. It’s a very, very long fall, and I used to wonder how the hell they did it – especially with the camera shooting from above so you can see the ground throughout. They used a descender for it, a device that coils up this very thin wire cable in a drum, which slows you down before you hit the ground. Nowadays you’d have a thicker cable and use VFX to rub it out, with a big airbag at bottom. Dar was a very brave man, because if it'd snapped he would have been dead.’

10. The parachute jump in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) – picked by Gary Powell

Highly respected stunt coordinator Gary Powell counts Titanic as his tougher assignment to date. ‘It was five months of night shoots with 1800 extras,’ the Londoner recalls. ‘It was a great experience but a hard film.' A boyhood model-maker and special effects geek born into a family of stunt people (his brother Greg also features on this list), Powell used to bunk off school to sneak onto the Pinewood set of The Spy Who Loved Me, fetching teas for the stunt team. Four decades later he was overseeing Casino Royale’s opening chase scene. His pick is another heartstopping Bond curtain-raiser.

‘I remember seeing The Spy Who Loved Me’s parachute jump as a kid and being like: “Wow!” It was 40 years ahead of its time… [American stuntman] Rick Sylvester skiing off Canada's Asgard Peak and opening that parachute. It was dangerous because they were open to the elements and the weather can change so quickly, and they had to be helicoptered up the rock. For me, it’s by far the best opening to any film and the benchmark for Casino Royale’s opening. I thought that if we could come second, I'd have done a really good job.’

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11. The final battle in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) – picked by Tiger Rudge 

Since entering the stunt industry aged 23 – an outgrowth of her background as a horse trainer, gymnast and MMA fighter – 35-year-old Tiger Rudge has racked up IMDb credits on Edge of Tomorrow, John Wick: Chapter 3, Rogue One and The Last Jedi. But while her CV is heavy on fantasy and sci-fi, her favourite sequence stems from a true story: World War II movie, Hacksaw Ridge. In it Andrew Garfield’s conscientious objector and medic, Desmond Doss, saves lives on Okinawa as all hell breaks loose.

‘When I watch it, I feel like I’m in this battle scene. I’m feeling everything [Andrew Garfield as Doss] is feeling. When we hear about the war – and I had grandparents in the war – you kind of switch off because you can’t quite grasp the words. But this was almost like being in a simulator. I was physically exhausted at the end of it. There’s a lot of stuff going on at one time – first it’s here and then it’s there. It’s almost like a dance. And nothing was amiss. It's gritty without being shaky and rave-like, but you still feel like it’s really happening.’

12. The Burj Khalifa climb in ‘Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol’ (2011) – picked by Kimberly Shannon Murphy

Kimberly Shannon Murphy got her start doubling for Uma Thurman in My Super Ex-Girlfriend after training as an acrobat. Since then she’s worked on superhero films for both DC (Wonder Woman) and Marvel (Agent Carter), as well as real-world epics like Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood. Her own powerful story is charted in a memoir, ‘Glimmer’, that comes out in May. Murphy’s pick sees Tom Cruise scampering up a 3000-foot tower in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

All of Tom’s action films are top-notch, because he’s such a huge part of creating them. I worked with him on Knight and Day and he likes to do things that no one has done before – it’s amazing to watch his dedication and hard work. But my pick is Ethan Hunt’s climb up Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It took them a month to set up this shot, and an hour just to climb up the tower with all the rigging. There were massive amounts of testing and planning so that every question Tom might have, they had an answer to. Because when you’re jumping off an 3000 foot building, you’re going to have questions.’ 

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13. The car chase ‘Big Hero 6‘ (2014) – picked by Jeremy Fry

A Hollywood stunt driver par excellence, Jeremy Fry has sped away from crime scenes in Baby Driver and Drive, hauled ass around a racetrack in Ford vs Ferrari, and even driven Dwight Schrute’s Trans Am into a ditch on The Office. The guy knows car chases – which makes it a bit surprising that his pick doesn’t involve Steve McQueen or Ryan Gosling, but an animated boy and his robot.

‘I happened to walk into the room when my kids were watching Big Hero 6 and I just stood there watching this car chase and thinking how good it was. It has this move where the car slides sideways and as it hits something, it jumps through the air sideways and lands on an elevated road of some sort. And I called [stunt coordinator] Darren Prescott, and said: “We’ve got to do that someday.” Cut to a couple years later, I’m working on John Wick 2 and Darren’s directing the second unit. And we did it, and it came out really good. I wish I could say I was inspired by [Big Hero 6], but frankly, I just completely ripped it off.’

14. The limo fight in ‘True Lies’ (1994) – picked by Jénel Stevens 



Part of a new generation of stunt professionals, Jénel Stevens has packed a tonne of big shows, and bumps and bruises into her seven-year career to date – including Black Panther and Avengers: Endgame, and doubling for Viola Davis in The Woman King. She credits an earlier generation of female stunt professional, like Mam Smith, Zoë Bell and Dee Bryant for blazing a trail for women in action movies – and notes a long-overdue shift in Hollywood blockbusters. ‘I’ve seen more black and brown performers coming up,’ she says. ‘I came into the profession at something of a turning point.’ Her pick comes from a bygone era of action filmmaking – the limo chase in James Cameron’s True Lies

'The rawness and practical nature of this blows my mind. A lot of this stuff we do on green screen now – and I don't know of anything that moves at 70mph anymore, like the limo and helicopter here. What’s the main challenge fighting in a confined space? Safety. The risk of someone getting clipped is much higher. This scene shows the kind of things female stunt performers have to do while wearing a dress. Costumes can add protection and padding, but you’ll sometimes have to do car hits in outfits like this. I look up to a lot of these OG stunt women and the things they had to go through. I tip my hat to (Jamie Lee Curtis’s stunt double) Donna Keegan for what she achieved here.’

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15. The beach scene in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ (1998) – picked by Eunice Huthart 

After getting her start as a champion on British TV’s Gladiators, Eunice Huthart began her stunt career doubling for Famke Janssen in GoldenEye, going on to double regularly for Angelina Jolie. She’s since worked as stunt coordinator on blockbusters like The Rise Of Skywalker and Justice League. Her pick is the famously bloody opening of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning war film.

‘A film that jumps out at me as feeling very real is Saving Private Ryan, the beach landings. I’m always critical – if I’ve worked on something I’ll be like: that was caught two frames too late or two frames too early. It’s very rare that I’m ever not taken out of it by knowing how it was done. But this sequence really captures how you would feel in that situation. Steven Spielberg and his stunt coordinator, Simon Crane, managed perfection there, because I felt how those soldiers would be feeling. I was attached to their journey.’

16. The sword fight in ‘The Young Master’ (1980) – picked by Oh Se-young 

As a boy, Korean action maven Oh Se-young figured that if he learnt kung fu he could be just like Jackie Chan. And so he did. By 17, he was a combat performer on Korean TV shows and has gone onto have a career that would have his idol nodding in approval. Bong Joon-ho sought his expertise on Snowpiercer, while his work on 2019 Bollywood actioner War helped it become one of India’s all-time highest-grossing movies. Fittingly, he picks a Jackie Chan sequence as his favourite. 

‘Fighting with so many people is difficult because, visually, every method of taking down an opponent has to be different. One thing that I really admire about the Jackie Chan films of this era is that there is no rapid editing of shots. Every take is very long, the camera is mostly static, and there is no VFX. So, to pull off something this complicated, involving multiple props, you have to have really good technique. And it’s not just the protagonist, it’s the people who have to react to the action as well. Action and reaction have to have the same rhythm; you all have to be playing the same melody. And that can only happen through long hours of training and practice.’

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17. The ‘Death Proof’ car chase (2007) – picked by Michaela McAllister 

She only began her stunt career in 2015, but former gymnast Michaela McAllister has already won a Taurus Award – for Once Upon A Time… in Hollywoodin which she was bitten by a pitbull, stabbed, knocked through a glass window and then flambéed with a flamethrower. She has since joined the MCU as stunt double for Florence Pugh’s Yelena Belova, aka Black Widow, and will soon appear in Marvel’s Madame Web.

The one stunt that springs to mind is Zoë Bell in Death Proof. She’s on top of this car, holding on, and the car is just going at like 80, 100 mph. You think maybe they’d put the car on a gimbal, but Quentin Tarantino doesn’t do that. They were going full speed. It’s just real. I know they hired the best people in the world for that film: Zoë, the best drivers. They did it all safely. But you feel the fear, you feel the speed. She had the dust blowing on her, she was probably blind. That’s what brings the stunts alive to me. I worked with Zoë on Once Upon A Time… – she’s like my stunt mom, she taught me so much.’

18. The final fight in 'Drunken Master II' (1994) – picked by Danny Hernandez

A fight specialist with Creed 2, John Wick and The Woman King on his CV, Danny Hernandez wears his Asian cinema influences on his sleeve. But his biggest inspiration came closer to home. 'I'd watch all the Shaw brothers films and I loved the fight sequences in the Lone Wolf and Cub films, but it was The Karate Kid that really inspired me,' he remembers. 'I wanted to be like Daniel LaRusso.' Like his Cobra Kai namesake, Hernandez runs his own MMA school, Orange County's Point of Impact, when he's not busy teaching A-listers how to throw a punch.

'I've always been a fan of Jackie Chan and the end fight in Drunken Master II is my favourite: the way he tells a story through the action, his fighting style and rhythm is second to none, and he's able to use wires for lean-backs and extreme motions without anyone noticing. He was so ahead of the curve: no one else was doing fight sequences and adding comedy to them at the time. He was also the first person doing parkour, the way he used the environment was unique. Tom Cruise is the closest to being able to do what Jackie Chan did in terms of being able to do these crazy gags.’

Stuntman is available now on Disney+

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