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.
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.)