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'The Fall Guy' Review: Ryan Gosling Is a Lover and a (Stunt) Fighter

In 99% of Hollywood movies, the goal is to make the stunt work invisible. Audiences are supposed to believe that the star — or better yet, the character he plays — put his own life at risk jumping off buildings, blowing up cars or duking it out with squads of bad guys. In “The Fall Guy,” the stuntman gets to be the hero (of an insanely overcomplicated story), while the star is a prima donna who claims to do all his own stunts but needs his double to step in when things get tough.

“The Fall Guy” is funny, it’s sexy, and it features the boy’s-toy version of “Barbie” scene-stealer Ryan Gosling — which is to say, after playing a Ken doll, now he embodies the ultimate action figure. This is the charisma-radiating side of Gosling audiences love (as opposed to expressionless “Only God Forgives” Gosling), and though his character doesn’t have much depth, you could hardly wish for better casting.

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Everybody knows that stuntmen are more impressive than the movie stars whose gnarliest feats they perform. It’s the reason Tom Cruise insists on doing his own stunts. And daredevil Cliff Booth of site:variety.com “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is by far the coolest person Brad Pitt ever played. In the role of stunt ace Colt Seavers — originated by Lee Majors on Glen A. Larson’s early-’80s television show — Gosling gets to have it both ways.

The character of Colt sets Guinness Book records (most notably a crazy cannon roll in which driving ace Logan Holladay flips an SUV eight and a half times), but because the film reveals how such tricks are achieved, audiences are trained to look for the signs: digital face replacements, fancy cutting, doubles shown only from behind. Though we know Gosling just stepped in to give the thumbs-up when each stunt is done, in a classy way, the star is actually sharing credit with the crew — not just the stunt guys either, but everyone who hustles to make a movie. Gosling comes off looking gracious, and at the end of the day, he’s still the one who gets the girl.

The girl, in this case, is Jody Moreno (Emily Blunt), the director of a multimillion-dollar sci-fi blockbuster called “Metalstorm” — a camerawoman getting to call the shots for the first time. Clearly, a lot has changed in Hollywood since ABC first aired “The Fall Guy” in 1981, and the feature version does something incredibly smart by making Colt’s old flame the boss on this particular production. (Her boss is also a woman: ballbuster producer Gail Meyer, played with stop-at-nothing brio by “Ted Lasso” star Hannah Waddingham.)

Worth noting: Back in 1981, stunt legend Hal Needham directed “The Cannonball Run,” which means the transition from double to director is nothing new. Former stunt maven David Leitch has been directing features for a decade, starting with “John Wick.” With this project, the helmer has an unparalleled opportunity to honor his original profession. In recent years, bluescreens, digital effects and the fast-evolving field of AI have pushed those who do the real-world exploits even farther to impress, with wirework, “oners” and other techniques showcased here.

“The Fall Guy” doesn’t feature Leitch’s best action. That would still be “Atomic Blonde,” though “The Fall Guy” is a stronger movie all around, thanks to the dynamic between Colt and Jody. Screenwriter Drew Pearce has crafted a crackling 21st-century screwball romance between Gosling and Blunt’s characters at the center of an epic stunt spectacular. Visually, Leitch and DP Jonathan Sela make the whole endeavor look so glossy, you’d think you were watching a feature-length Super Bowl commercial. We’re talking crisp, meticulously lit sequences in which the colors pop, sparks literally fly and even the below-the-line characters look like … well, movie stars.

Here, the A-list attention hog is an actor named Tom Ryder (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who looks like Alex Pettyfer with his frosted tips, sounds like Matthew McConaughey with his cowboy drawl, and acts like an egotistical jerk. Colt’s been doubling for Tom for years, until take two of an ultra-dangerous stunt — a plunge of more than 100 feet — leaves him with a broken back. Colt had been seeing Jody, but the injury brings their relationship and his career to an end. Eighteen months later, Colt would give anything for another shot, which is why he leaps at the chance to work on her movie, shooting in Sydney.

Once he gets there, Colt learns that she’s still angry with him (this bit doesn’t quite work — why should he be the one to apologize for what happened?). Blunt and Gosling share a cute scene where she orders multiple takes of a painful stunt — Colt is repeatedly lit on fire and slammed into a rock — while voicing her grievances over a bullhorn for all to hear. There’s not much doubt that they’ll work things out, although the script supplies a far kookier plot for Colt to untangle in the disappearance of Tom from the production. It seems this is the real reason the producer Gail called him to Australia.

Though Colt performs a few truly impressive stunts on camera, his riskiest behavior occurs far from Jody’s cameras, aided by blockbuster-quoting stunt coordinator Dan Tucker (Winston Duke) and Tom’s ambitious personal assistant, Alma Milan (Stephanie Hsu). In the original series, Colt moonlighted as a bounty hunter, employing filmmaking tricks to capture his targets — a fun if contrived excuse for stunt driving and pyrotechnic sequences. Here, Colt’s experience feels more directly integrated into the action: His on-set experience makes him uniquely suited to take on multiple goons at once, improvise weapons from whatever’s available and jump from one speeding vehicle to another.

And yet, the movie never really explores what makes Colt tick: Does he have a death wish? An unusually high pain tolerance? (A flashback to kid Colt’s career-inspiring moment might have been nice.) Leitch is hardly objective on the subject, which could explain why “The Fall Guy” avoids a familiar trope in movies about dudes with dangerous jobs — namely, that their girlfriends don’t want to see them die. It also accounts for several not-so-subtle mentions of how the Academy ought to add a stunt category (Gosling and Blunt paid tribute to the profession at this year’s Oscars ceremony).

The explanation for Tom’s disappearance is preposterous, but makes a certain amount of sense within the movie’s underdog view of stunt people. Colt’s been tapped to take the fall, as it were, while the film is designed to educate audiences about all the things — fighting, crashing, jumping, swinging, falling — doubles do. If the movie feels overstuffed, that’s because Leitch wants to give audiences more than just a taste, but the full buffet of what his trade is capable of. By the end, they can’t help but appreciate just how hard it is to make action look easy.

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