Read more from Slate's Summer Movies special issue.
Fridge full of beer, bowl of hot popcorn, which would you rather see? One more round of Jack Nicholson's septuagenarian spit takes or DMX racing a quad-runner out a sixth-story window? That may seem like a false choice, but for anyone with even mild insomnia, it's the sort of decision you face a lot in life. Enough late nights and enough action flicks and pretty soon you have a crypto-list of favorite stunt films.
My list is informed by conversations with stunt performers, men and women, during a few years worth of research into the stunt field. Ask stuntmen to name their favorites, and every one will come up with at least one movie that sucks, that nobody can sit through in its entirety, but that still retains its awesomeness based on one big scene. (Like the one in Cradle 2 the Grave where Jet Li takes on about 12 guys in a MMA-style cage fight.) My films aren't ranked in any order—some make the list because they've got the best stunt sequences of all time or, at least, of their era. Others because they changed the business. Still others because they contain the most talked-about action sequences.
The Matrix Trilogy: Hard to put a Keanu vehicle at the top of any list, but the film changed the business for stuntmen. As they explain it, producer Joel Silver traveled to China to beg a reluctant Yuen Wo-Ping, the action director for such kung fu classics as Iron Monkey and Fist of Legend, to choreograph the fighting in this movie, and Wo-Ping set ridiculous demands in the hopes that Silver would just go away: a huge budget, a ridiculous salary, and six months of training with the actors and stuntmen. Much to his surprise, Silver agreed to everything, and when the series became a blockbuster, the practice of hiring stuntmen for lengthy training and rehearsal periods took off.
Stagecoach: Stunt folk don't watch the whole movie anymore, since now you can just check out the most famous and dangerous stunt ever on the Internet. Yakima Canutt, doubling an Apache, rides up to a team of horses, leaps over the lead horse onto the hitch between them, gets shot off, falls to the ground, slides between the hooves of the running horses and under the axles of the stagecoach wheels. In Zorro's Fighting Legion and Idaho, Yak catches onto the back of the wagon then climbs up and over it and gets into a fistfight with the driver, but in Stagecoach, the most successful of the three movies, he skips that part and just lies dead on the dry bed of Monument Valley.
The Driver: Ryan O'Neal plays a part originally written for Steve McQueen: It has 350 words of dialogue and about half a film worth of driving. (Here's the soundtrack: screech … SCREEch … scrEEECH.) In the best scene, O'Neal takes an immediate dislike to some guys who want to hire him for a getaway job, and so for his tryout, he systematically ruins a Mercedes-Benz by clipping all the sheet metal, door by door and quarter panel by quarter panel, against the parking structure girders at high speeds. At the end of the demonstration, the passengers are frightened for their lives. O'Neal shuts the car off and says, "Better get new plates if you plan on taking it out again. People might be looking for you."
Alarm für Cobra 11: If you're ever flipping through the channels in Germany, check out this TV series about police on the autobahn. It's like ChiPs meets Das Boot directed by the guys from Starsky & Hutch—authentic stunts done with very little camera trickery to hide how much it hurts.