‘The Fall Guy’ lands on its feet but breaks its legs

Image: Universal Pictures.

Cinema is an illusion. Every bit of it. Stepping back, all art, from drawing and painting to any form of narrative fiction to video games to music to every film ever made, is an illusion. At no time does the audience, whether staring at a painting, reading a text, or sitting in front of a screen, believe that what they are seeing actually is the thing that they imagine it is. Even works which attempt to skew as close to reality as possible – non-fiction and documentaries – are still edited, paced, and interpreted in ways through which the artist wishes to transfer their experience to the audience. It’s this very illusion, and the intention behind it, which makes art a worthwhile endeavor for both artist and audience. It is also this very illusion, and the intention behind it, which makes art a uniquely human experience. Anything which attempts to remove the human from the creation can no longer be called “art.”

In the case of cinema, the audience knows that nothing which happens on screen is real. Actors are playing characters. Stories, even those based on real events, are not really happening. The characters don’t exist and therefore aren’t in danger or in love. Most people on screen don’t really look like that off screen. Few stars do their own stunts and those stunts, dangerous and spectacular as they may be, are aided by trampolines, ramps, wires, crash pads, and every other piece of equipment necessary to make sure that the shots are controlled and safe. The obligation of a film is to make the audience forget that what they’re seeing isn’t real, or, to use Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s brilliant phrasing, to bring the audience into “willing suspension of disbelief.” A film, or any other piece of art, doesn’t fail when it looks bad or when it doesn’t make money or even when most people find it distasteful or disturbing. It fails when the audience is no longer willing to suspend its disbelief. While The Fall Guy is far from a failure in that it offers enough enjoyment to sustain belief, its own structure, plot, and script calls attention to just how much illusion is on screen.

Let’s get this out of the way now: Fall Guy is a fun action comedy with charismatic leads, a couple of laughs, and neat action sequences. It’s an enjoyable way to spend two hours that likely won’t extend much further than that. The movie wants very much to be both a salute to the unsung heroes of cinema (stunt peformers) and a clever meta-commentary on filmmaking in general. Or that’s what I assume the intent is, otherwise it seems created solely to make Ryan Gosling look really cool. He’s already a millionaire Oscar-nominated heartthrob so how much cooler does he need to be? Yet beyond making Gosling even cooler, the film never commits enough to either of its other assumed purposes to become anything more than a decent two-hour distraction.

Nice to know that a career of crashing, falling, and burning has left Colt with no scars.
Image: Universal Pictures

After a brief montage of historic cinema stunts, Fall Guy introduces its main character, stunt performer and cool-protagonist-name-bearer Colt Seaver, through first person narration and a single-shot sequence culminating in an impressive fall which leaves our cool guy hero broken. A text card then informs us that years of brutal stunt work, eighteen months of rehab, a new job as a parking lot attendant, and unlimited burritos have left Colt with no scars, a medical device on his back (which he uses once), and the type of body only those with personal trainers and nutritionists can afford to maintain. But we are meant to let such details slide because Fall Guy is light and breezy entertainment. Pretty people doing impossible things. Movie magic. The film even winks at its own script issues through an early conversation in which film producer Gail Meyer (Hannah Waddingham) reminds first-time director Jodie Moreno (Emily Blunt) of the third act issues in their film-within-a-film production “Metalstorm” (a sort of Mad Max/Cowboys vs Alien/Romeo & Juliet pastiche with Dune-style vocalizations thrown in for, I assume, humor). The problem with this approach is at this point a film acknowledging its own flaws is less clever than lazy, as though we in the audience are required to forgive the film’s contrivances simply because the film points them out to us before they happen. Yet, Fall Guy goes beyond merely stating its third act flaws by using the entire film-within-a-film structure as a parallel to the division left between Colt and Jodie after his tragic injury. Numerous conversations unfold with Jodie complaining about studio demands that the film’s two leads, obvious stand-ins for our two leads, overcome all personal issues and physical peril for a hackneyed love-conquers-all ending that never once convinces the real audience that Fall Guy won’t contrive its characters into their own Hollywood ending. This tacit, along with much of Drew Pearce’s screenplay, is not nearly as clever as it thinks it is. In fact, upon any amount of examination, the screenplay reveals itself as completely nonsensical.

At one point we’re informed that Colt’s first stunt job was jumping a boat through a ring of fire at the Miami Vice Stunt Show. After numerous other instances of something mentioned in passing later appearing on screen we eventually reach the point where Colt is put into a “real” situation paralleling that of his Miami Vice shot. Yet instead of letting the audience put that thought together, a riff on the iconic Miami Vice theme starts playing before the set up is even completed, thus depriving both audience and film of a big payoff. In another instance, Colt and Jodie discuss the merit of split-screen as a way of showing the “divide” between the characters while a split-screen shows the divide between the characters. Perhaps this would’ve been better if the topic had been mentioned at some other time, or perhaps it would have been better if the intention weren’t so blatantly spelled out. Instead of the obvious split-screen, perhaps subvert the scene by having one super-imposed over the other, or any of the myriad other cinematic gimmicks which wouldn’t be exactly the one they are talking about. It doesn’t help that this sequence occurs during what we’re told is a hallucinogenic trip but doesn’t seem to have any effect other than seeing random unicorns. Admittedly, the unicorns are funny, if inconsistently positioned in places the affected person isn’t looking, but no other behavior in the scene indicates any impairment. As with much of Fall Guy, it’s surface level clever.

Emily Blunt makes a likeable, if not entirely believable, filmmaker who can perform her own fight scenes.
Image: Universal Pictures

Sadly the same can be said for much of Fall Guy’s approach to stunt work. There are spectacular sequences: the opening fall, a chase through the streets of Sydney, and a record-setting car roll among them. Yet even in these there are times when the CGI makes them unbelievable. Worse yet, the end credits of behind-the-scenes footage show that these stunts were real. People actually did them. And they look amazing. So it’s baffling that director David Leitch felt it necessary to augment stuntpeople being awesome in a movie about stuntpeople being awesome. There’s even a brief subplot in which Jodie decides not to use CGI in favor of practical effects. If Fall Guy really wanted to be a salute to stunt work, as well as a meta-commentary on Hollywood filmmaking, it could have eschewed CGI close-ups and let the magic happen on-set, even if that means not showing Ryan Gosling plow through a bunch of CGI flowers on his – or his stunt double’s – while actually jumping a car. There could have been so much humor in seeing the difference between the Hollywood approach to stunts – flying through windows without getting a scratch, being repeatedly punched in the face, jumping a boat through fire – and the real life consequences of slamming into the window, broken noses, and the boat just sort of skidding along.

Where Fall Guy becomes frustrating is that there is a lot of acting talent and technical wizardry on-screen and good attempts at cleverness on the page. The cast’s charm alone would be enough to cover the film’s admitted flaws if not for the film pointing out those flaws. Yet rather than make something truly memorable, the filmmakers employed every cliché – sad music cues right when the lead talks about his feelings, badass hero shots when he puts on his leather jacket, cross-cutting an action sequence with shots of mundane activities, scoring said action sequencing with a mismatched pop song – to manipulate the audience in a film that wants to examine how Hollywood manipulates the audience. One character even refers to film audiences as “dogs” who are easily manipulated. Get it? Because that’s what it’s doing to us? Haha… ha?

Winston Duke is an excellent addition to ‘The Fall Guy.’
Image: Universal Pictures

In my head, I envision Fall Guy as a Charlie Kaufman-esque surrealist action comedy in which Ryan Gosling plays Ryan Gosling investigating a disappearance while filming Emily Blunt’s directorial debut. This would of course require the cast to perform their own stunts, which would make them less spectacular, but feel all the more authentic. It would blur the lines of real and fake and call attention to its own absurdities without needing to state them aloud in a script which collapses under its own weight. We could then see the more spectacular stunts through the film-within-a-film, thus contrasting the mundane actions of its fragile leads and the skills of the stunt performers the film wants to highlight. The cleverness would then be in juxtaposing the image of an action movie with the reality of making an action movie, similar to the opening of such films as Tropic Thunder and JCVD but never letting its real world elements cross into the unreality of its film world. The result may not be the easily-pleasing, pretty people doing impossible things Hollywood fantasy, but would at least be memorable beyond its runtime and give us a reason to suspend our disbelief. At least there would be intention beneath its surface.

There are some great stunts in ‘The Fall Guy.’ Pity we can’t see their unaltered glory.
Image: Universal Pictures

As is, Fall Guy is largely fine. Audiences looking for easy Hollywood fare will have fun whole those inclined toward analysis can still laugh a few times, enjoy the stunts, and bob along to the repeated use of YungBlud’s cover of “I Was Made for Loving You” until it gets very, very tired. Yet for a film that wants so badly to be a clever meta-commentary tribute to stunt performers, The Fall Guy seems intent on sabotaging its own rigs. It’s a film that wants you to know that it knows its flaws without making an effort to fix those flaws. An illusion isn’t any less of an illusion for calling itself an illusion. We know that film and all other arts are illusion. We choose to accept them because we like what we see. Without that, the only illusion is the one the artist places upon themself.

Rating 2.5 / 5

About Jess Kroll

Jess Kroll
Jess Kroll is a novelist and university professor born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and based in Daegu, South Korea. He has been writing film reviews since 2004 and has been exclusive to Pop Mythology since 2012. His novels include 'Land of Smiles' from Monsoon Books and young adult series 'The One' and 'Werewolf Council' from Epic Press.