Read more from Slate's Summer Movies special issue.
Ong-Bak: The plot is ridiculous (young boy goes to big city to retrieve sacred statue of his village and gets caught up in the underworld fight scene) but in the sweaty Muay-Thai fight scenes, the star, Panom Yeerum, who now goes by the name Tony Jaa, moves like a mixed-martial-arts version of the young Baryshnikov. Who needs acting?
The Skywayman: Several movies are like mausoleums: You go there to visit the dead. Death in the line of duty is a mostly off-limits conversation topic for stuntmen, as it is for race-car drivers. But this movie is old enough to inspire a little rubbernecking: In 1920, stunt pilot Ormer Locklear failed to come out of a spiral in a night shoot lit by flares. The studio capitalized on the publicity his death attracted and rushed the movie into theaters three weeks later.
Crank: It is very hard to select the best movie in the Jason Statham oeuvre, but it would be tough to find a plot more perfectly devised to deliver nonstop stunts than Crank: A hit man finds out that his rival has injected him with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops. Personal favorite scene: Statham does a mostly bare-ass tank stand on a motorcycle in a hospital gown, then crashes into a sidewalk cafe at full speed. With his parolee stubble and looming granite forehead, Statham, the Doc Martens of actors, makes the perfect figurehead for action-for-action's-sake roles. But Crank's absurd premise makes every body-slam come off like a well-timed practical joke, and the audience is encouraged to laugh at the pain, just the way the stuntmen do on-set.
The Bourneseries: The best movie was the first one, but the most influential stunt sequences came in the two sequels, thanks to some innovations in car work by a group of stunt coordinators and second unit directors who call themselves GoStunts. Through the clever use of souped-up camera trucks and a series of driver-pod attachments that allow a stuntman to control the wheel from a remote roll cage drilled onto the car's exterior, the film achieved the best of both worlds: real high-speed action and continuous use of the high-priced talent, who could keep up the playacting, in close-up, at the wheel, while all actual driving was handled by capable stunt drivers a few feet off camera.
C'était un rendezvous: A 1978 short film by New Wave director Claude Lelouch * may be the most thrilling single piece of driving ever filmed. The director, who had no permits to film or to stop traffic, hooked a camera to the front bumper of a Mercedes-Benz (in the only bit of film trickery, the sound of the motor was played by a five-speed Ferrari) and filmed the entire movie in a single cinema-verité take: He drove through the streets of Paris at five in the morning, through red lights, around the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Élysées, against one-way traffic, over sidewalks, at speeds up to 140 miles per hour. The film ends after nine terrifying minutes when the driver parks the car in Montmartre and a blonde comes up the stairs toward Sacre Coeur. (It was a date.) After the first showing, the director was arrested for endangering public safety.
Correction, July 6, 2009: This article originally misspelled Claude Lelouch's name. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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