The Best Movie Critic + TIME

Half the Battle at ActionFest – Round 1

Hi guys, Ben here. Our good friend Andy from The Hollywood Projects has written a fabulous 3 part account of his experience at last week's ActionFest, the only international film festival devoted exclusively to action movies, for the Movie Advocate. This is the must-read of the week:

I love what I do at The Hollywood Projects—I’m presently working through Arthur Penn’s more obscure films, which I might never have crossed paths with otherwise—but one of the downsides is that I rarely write about newer films. I’ve got no beef with new movies, but I’m just not an opening weekend kind of guy and by the time I get around to watching and reviewing something, the internet has already devoured it, digested it, and moved on to another meal. So when Ben asked me if I’d be interested in covering ActionFest for his site, I pounced on the opportunity.

And so I found myself riding through the North Georgia mountains early Saturday morning on the way to Asheville, NC, home of the only “festival with a body count,” resisting the urge to check my friend’s speedometer. My buddy Erik was behind the wheel, wearing his Pumping Iron “Arnold is Numero Uno” t-shirt, and attempting to make the mountain his bitch. Erik is a movie fan, but one with very specific tastes. If the characters aren’t holding guns, he’s fairly hard to motivate. He’s an acolyte at the church of Schwarzenegger, can quote Total Recall with total recall, and is the only human being you’ll ever meet who is legitimately excited about The Governator. I coined a nickname for him years ago: The Patron Saint of Product Loyalty.

Having made peace with the idea that my life was no longer in my own hands, I took my eyes off the road and reviewed the festival schedule. I’d already missed Friday night’s festivities and the opening film, Ironclad, because of the Atlanta Braves home opener. My daughter and I have attended every opener since 2002, and no action festival was going to change that. Tim Hudson gave the Braves a win, so things were already looking up.

We arrived at the hotel by 11:00 am, and I pestered the front desk until they found us a clean room to check into. We had time enough to throw our bags through the open door before piling back into the car and heading for the festival’s home base, the Carolina Cinemas. I love the Carolina. I rarely pass through Asheville without seeing a movie there, and it’s a perfect fit for this festival. The lobby has an industrial design, like a loft or an old warehouse, the kind of setup that looks like either a fight scene or an art gallery could break out at any time.


ActionFest’s lifetime achievement recipient this year was Buddy Joe Hooker, a storied stuntman whom I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t know enough about, so Erik and I chose our first film—the Burt Reynolds “classic” Hooper—to prepare for Hooker’s panel.

Hooper is a friendly enough film, a genial 70s character bio about an aging stuntman (named in honor of Hooker himself, who the film references a few times) and all the rigmarole that he goes through to get his job done. Directed by Smokey and the Bandit helmer Hal Needham—a former stunt performer—Hooper is told from the stuntman’s point of view, revealing how these modern cowboys see their jobs. Adam West plays himself as a buffoonish, pampered star that requires a stunt team to make him look good on film, and Robert Klein is the egomaniacal director (allegedly based on Peter Bogdanovich) trying to squeeze art out of a movie called The Spy Who Laughed at Danger, at the risk of the stuntmen’s lives, of course. It’s all very “schoolyard,” giving the jocks a chance to vent their frustrations on the nerds in charge.

As a narrative, though, Hooper is a dead end. The movie introduces a competition between Hooper, the veteran, and Ski, a hotshot newcomer played by Jan-Michael Vincent, but even that thin plot resolves itself by the end of the first act, and the film is content to coast by on charm until a big stunt finale gives it a reason to exist (to be fair, though, it is one helluva stunt).

There’s some chatter in the film about the future of the stunt industry, and how the cowboys would soon be phased out for the next new thing. As the lights came up, Erik told me how much he enjoyed the film’s stunts, how these “old” stunts looked fresh, and how contrived and unreal modern blockbusters looked in comparison. I think that’s interesting. In today’s CGI-saturated marketplace, it seems like real stunts have become the spectacle. Hooper didn’t see that coming, but I think he would be proud.


The Patron Saint and I stayed for the Buddy Joe Hooker panel, psyched by the stunts we’d just seen and by a promo package the festival put together to honor him. Hooker was joined by Tom Elliott of Stunts Unlimited, and the two discussed various adventures from their careers, from Hooker’s start doing cowboy stunts with his dad, to the push for more motorcycle and car gags in the 70s and 80s, and to his more recent jobs, including his work on Tarantino’s Death Proof.

The panel had two highlights, at least for me. The first was when Hooker talked about his work on the cliff face jump from First Blood, and how only one person was injured during any of the setups. That person? Sylvester Stallone, who ignored Hooker’s advice against doing the jump so that he could have his hero close-up.

The second highlight for me came when Hooker and Elliott were asked about their worst injuries. The men raised their eyebrows and then looked at each other, listing a couple of minor issues (a rib separation; a finger injury) and trailing off. Elliott carefully explained that if a stuntman is any good, nobody gets hurt. “People confuse stuntmen with daredevils,” he said.

This made sense, but I couldn’t help but notice a man at the end of my row, an older gentleman in a wheelchair who was listening intently and hanging on Hooker’s words. The room was filled with professional stuntmen, and I idly wondered if this man might have once worked on the job. Probably not. Most likely he was just a fan like me. But his presence reminded me of the types of injuries that could await a person who failed to prep for a stunt, or who manned a piece of machinery just as it failed, or for whom Murphy’s Law just has a hard-on to harangue. It’s easy to say “if you’re good, you won’t be hurt,” and maybe that’s mostly true, but injury is still a possibility. Always. These men may shave the danger level down to almost nothing, but it’s still almost nothing. Mitigated risk is not zero risk, and never will be. The Spy Who Laughed at Danger, indeed.

Hooker deserves more than a mere lifetime achievement award. He deserves one more for every extra life he’s earned himself throughout the years.

In Part 2 – I finally write about a brand new film, Erik finds a new favorite action movie (non-Arnold division), and I completely fail to meet my nephew’s wrestling hero.

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Half the Battle at ActionFest – Round 1 + TIME