A man's conscience still haunts the thick jungles of his past, his identity drowned in ice cream. Director Richard Rush vivisects the sacred body of the film industry, exposing the secret hidden mechanics of this celluloid organism, an inflammable admixture of not only nitrate and camphor but deific egos perfecting illusion and chasing the almighty dollar.
Cameron is the fugitive kind, a pinball life desperately close to tilting. After escaping from the cops (and telephone company repairmen) he stumbles into a World War and assumes a dead man's persona, an illusion within an illusion, where love and death carry both the weight of absolute reality and the ethereal quanta of Schrodinger's theorem. Floating above the chaos is the deific overlord Eli Cross who shouts truth in barbed words, a cruel manipulator who seeks to create this fictitious world, a Genesis in silver and nitrate. The film is his end and justifies the means, to birth the story in his own image and imagination. He embraces the rugged integrity of Cameron, allowing the fugitive to replace Bert, the stunt man who just died during a dangerous stunt. And Cameron struggles not to drown in the guilt of Bert's accidental death, a burden that may see him die doing the very same stunt!
Richard Rush imbues his film (as Eli Cross does) with an absurd post modern realism that obscures audience expectations: he makes the viewer believe, if only for the run time of the film, in his insane and impossible constructed reality. Eli Cross redacts the script on a whim, adding a fornicating musical bear during a pivotal scene or asks his protagonist to dance on the wing of a plane: as the creator, he makes the audience believe in his vision as the ultimate power and control. But Rush does the same thing with the basic narrative: Why does no one question the death of Bert? Why is there no police investigation? Why doesn't anyone take this tragedy seriously? Rush answers these questions by deflecting them with banal situations such as a drunken cohort, bumbling police, and redacted dailies, then laughs behind his hand as the form overwhelms the substance.
Peter O'Toole is a wonderfully Lean-ish caricature who presides over his people like a messiah, his harsh utterances orthodoxy. His performance is ripe with vainglory and vanity, yet betraying an utter contradiction of a kind man. O'Toole makes Eli Cross despicable at times but never unlikable. His comic timing is genius too. Steve Railsback as Cameron is also a conundrum, both gentle and furious, his soft eyes expressive and understanding yet humid like the jungles that birthed his fear. Railsback falters a bit in his romantic role but Barbara Hershey balances the scales. Her performance is more nuanced and sublime, expressing emotion on two distinct levels of understanding. Rush’s frenetic camerawork with lens flare transitions captures a film on the run, a runaway narrative of impartial intentions and ulterior motives. THE STUNT MAN is a very funny film but he who laughs first probably doesn't get the joke.
Final Grade: (B+)