Review: In 'The Fall Guy' with Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, what's a stuntman to do? Shake it off

I must confess that before seeing the crowd-pleasing “The Fall Guy,” I had no idea that the movie takes its title from the niche of stunt performers who specialize in leaping from great heights and was only dimly aware that it was based on an ’80s TV series that I didn’t see because I was in college and spent most of my free time sipping watery beer in the left-field pavilion of Dodger Stadium, wondering why Tommy Lasorda would let Tom Niedenfuer pitch to Jack Clark with an open base.

“The Fall Guy” has a much happier outcome than that 1985 playoff series, but not for the reasons you might imagine. Being that director David Leitch is a former stuntman, doubling for A-listers like Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, you expect that the film will boast exceptional stunt work — and it does. At its best, though, it’s a romantic comedy that coasts on the charisma between its two appealing leads, Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt. You may come for the cannon rolls. But afterward, you’ll remember Blunt‘s character calling out Gosling‘s for crying to Taylor Swift.

Why is Gosling sobbing? He’s playing a stuntman. They don’t usually get up in their feelings. But Gosling’s Colt Seavers has good reason for shedding some tears. For years, he worked as a stunt double for prima donna action star Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, offering an amusing amalgam of Tom Cruise and Matthew McConaughey) until a high fall goes horribly wrong. Embarrassed, he turns his back on Hollywood and the woman he loves, camera operator Jody Moreno (Blunt).

Eighteen months later, Colt gets a call from Ryder’s meddling producing partner, Gail (“Ted Lasso’s” Hannah Waddingham), begging him to come to the Sydney set of the star’s latest movie, a silly sci-fi epic called “Metalstorm,” which just happens to be Jody’s directorial debut. Ryder has gone missing. Gail needs Cole’s help to find him and, as long as he’s there, maybe execute a few stunts and, who knows, win back Jody’s love.

The movie’s screenwriter, Drew Pearce, knows a thing or two about action flicks (and, quite likely, action divas and studio interference), with credits that include “Iron Man 3” and Leitch’s “Hobbs & Shaw”). He fills the breezy first hour of “The Fall Guy” with clever, self-referential riffs on big-budget filmmaking, the proper use of split screens and the curious lack of an Oscar category for stunt work. (If there was one — and there should be — this movie’s stunt designer, Chris O’Hara, would win it in a walk.)

In one of the movie’s most inspired sequences, Jody makes Colt explain why he ghosted her, through the guise of explaining “Metalstorm’s” love story, all while putting him through take after take of a stunt where he’s set afire and slammed against a boulder. Who needs a revenge song when you can just repeatedly call out, “Action”?

It’s one of several scenes where the film smartly uses stunts to reveal character, advance the story and make good use of Gosling’s gift for physical comedy. If Colt can’t signal thumbs-up at the end of a stunt, it’s not just a blow to his ego. He’s working his way through a bewildering cloud of confusion — not to mention being a suspect in a murder investigation — that even a pitcher of spicy margaritas (nobody says “spicy margarita” better than Emily Blunt) with his lovely woman won’t be able to solve.

The two leads enjoy such an easygoing groove that you’re soon dreaming about the time when their characters can once again go looking for that lost shaker of salt. But then the movie sidelines Blunt and completely focuses on the action, employing boats, helicopters and trash-bin trucks in an undeniably impressive series of stunts — all to diminishing effect. One of the running jokes in “The Fall Guy” has Jody trying to solve “Metalstorm’s” third act issues. You sense that Leitch and Pearce ran into the same wall. But unlike Colt and his stunt brethren, they didn’t quite manage to dust themselves off.

Or, more likely, in their minds, they did and made precisely the movie they intended. Given Leitch’s background, it’s not surprising that “The Fall Guy” ends up landing as a big old bear hug to stunt performers, a way to shine a spotlight on a profession that, by definition, requires anonymity. The closing credits feature behind-the-scenes footage of the movie’s stunts being performed, showing that a good (and safe) time was had by all. Its fraternal spirit reminded me of the blooper reels you’d see at the end of the Burt Reynolds’ movies made with director Hal Needham who, yes, began his career as a stunt double.

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