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This Flight of Fancy Is a Crashing Bore

Ed Rampell: I’ve always been a believer in being true to one’s own self, to pursuing one’s aspirations, but Braun’s dream teeters on turning into a nightmare, his most dangerous stunt ever - physically and financially.

STUNTMAN LA FILM FESTIVAL 2018

Stuntman

One would think that a documentary titled Stuntman would be an action-packed look at an intriguing, exciting profession. 1978’s Hooper, co-starring the recently deceased Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, and 1980’s The Stunt Man with Peter O’Toole were both features inspired by these daredevils and their derring-do. But director Kurt Mattile’s (2018’s well-received Poly-pop doc Bosko and the Rebirth of Tiki, which sold out at the Egyptian Theatre during its annual Tiki Night) nonfiction film about Eddie Braun and his whimsical crusade to execute Evel Knievel’s botched 1974 effort to cross the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-like contraption is a plodding, poorly paced piece.

Braun broke into stunt work back in 1980 and now claims more than 250 credits surviving car crashes and the like in productions such as The Transformers and Rush Hour film franchises. There’s certainly plenty of material here, but there aren’t too many clips depicting Braun’s death defying onscreen missions impossible. This may be for budgetary reasons - Braun put his own money into the doc and has a producer’s credit, while The Rock executive produced what looks and feels like a very cheap film.

I’ve always been a believer in being true to one’s own self, to pursuing one’s aspirations, but Braun’s dream teeters on turning into a nightmare, his most dangerous stunt ever - physically and financially.

There is footage of Knievel and his failure to make it across Snake River Canyon that’s interwoven throughout this doc. The famed daredevil inspired Braun, who met him as a boy. Now that Eddie is in his fifties, he’s decided to retire from his incredibly dangerous career while he’s still able to walk - and, for that matter, remains among the living. But before Braun fades out he wants to go out with one final blaze of glory - fulfilling Knievel’s ambition to successfully zoom to the other side of the Canyon in another craft based on the design of the original Brainiac, Scott Truax. Using his rocket scientist dad’s rocket plans and blueprints Truax’s son recalibrates the flying vehicle that malfunctioned in the 1970s. Evel’s family members are also seen onscreen as Braun tries to redeem their relative’s flawed flight of fancy.

Braun’s rocket crusade likewise threatens to turn into a fiasco. Sponsors drop out of the project like flies, frightened off by its prospects of what seems like near certain death. Braun’s hope for a televised launch that will presumably enrich him and help ensure a prosperous retirement are scrubbed. Indeed, the spacey mission turns into the opposite - in addition to pouring his own money into this woebegone documentary, he finances the construction of the rocket with his life savings, like a poor man’s version of NASA or Elon Musk gone mad.

I’ve always been a believer in being true to one’s own self, to pursuing one’s aspirations, but Braun’s dream teeters on turning into a nightmare, his most dangerous stunt ever - physically and financially. There’s a difference between pursuing dreams and the folly of following flights of whimsy and cockamamie crackpot notions. Sometimes idolatry approaches idiocy (see: Trump devotees). To tell you the truth, Braun comes across like a jerk taking unnecessary risks because he isn’t smart enough to make a living doing anything else that would pay decently. And squandering the nut he’d accumulated over his entire career risking life and limb on this improbable project seems, well, nutty.

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Some may think Braun’s brave for putting his money where his mouth is and placing himself in harm’s way. Others may find him to be foolhardy and even too cowardly to back out of his fool’s errand. Is he digging his own grave?

All this is actually compelling, potentially gripping subject matter but Braun’s vanity project only occasionally lives up to its potential. The uninspired, sluggish music, much of it original, is part of the problem. The song “Rocket Man” is heard live - but not performed by Sir Elton John, which likely would have been too expensive for this low budge doc. Instead, Slash of Guns N’ Roses performs it in a lackluster studio session.

But the main problem is that what could have made for an excellent short subject was expanded to 81 minutes. To do so, in between the stimulating moments is lots of filler: Braun’s family fretting for him, Eddie in the hospital or interacting with a cadre of fellow stuntmen and so on. Most if not all of Mattila’s other docs have been shorts, and perhaps feature-length filmmaking is beyond his capability - he should have stayed true to his filmic forte. But as said, the subject was footing the bill and this nonfiction vanity film in no way presents a balanced, impartial picture.

Overall, Stuntman is a crashing bore. If one wants to see truly thrilling movies, instead of watching this largely self-financed portrait of Eddie Braun, head up to Eddie Brandt’s Saturday Matinee in North Hollywood, one of the world’s greatest rental repositories of cult, classic, specialty cinema, etc., and take out one of the movie masterpieces such as 1939’s Stagecoach featuring the stunts staged and coordinated by arguably the greatest stuntman of all time, Yakima Canutt. Now that’s a biopic I’d love to see!

The LA Film Festival presents Stuntman 6:00 p.m., Sept. 23 and 9:15 p.m., Sept. 27 at ArcLight Culver City, 9500 Culver Blvd., Culver City, CA 90232. Q&A with cast and crew will immediately follow this screening, schedules permitting. For more info see: www.LAFilmfest.com.

Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell

L.A.-based film historian/criticEd Rampell is co-author/author of four movie film history books, including “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” (see: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ ). At 7:00 p.m., Sept. 27 Rampell is co-presenting a screening of Neruda and a poetry reading to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Pinocht coup in Chile.