The 10 Best Movies Directed by Stunt PerformersMovies Lists stunt work
What are stunts but cinema’s unique brand of storytelling theatrics? Like the pageantry of the circus or a kinetic ballet, stuntmen and women have been performing supercharged kicks, flips and getting-thrown-through-the-airs since cameras started rolling, making them both incredibly prestigious and indistinguishable from filming your friend doing parkour behind some dumpsters.
With stunt coordinators using a lot of the same filmmaking tools as dramatic directors—an understanding of rhythm, timing and emotion—it’s no surprise that many have transitioned to directing more than just action sequences. Sometimes it’s because films used to be nothing but stunt reels. Sometimes it’s to do with East Asian films working more closely with stunt teams than their American counterparts. Sometimes it’s because we realized, damn, those stunts in The Matrix looked good, didn’t they?
As John Wick: Chapter 4 thunders onto our screens, here are the top 10 films directed by stunt performers, doubles or coordinators:
Director: Sam Hargrave
In reaction to the claim that Marvel movies don’t feature any proper movie stars, the Russo brothers have on four occasions produced star vehicles for Avengers that inadvertently prove that Marvel movies don’t feature any proper movie stars. Still, uncomfortable stereotypes aside, this bare-knuckle action thriller is the best of the bunch, in no small part thanks to stunt-performer-turned-director Sam Hargraves’ relentless and exhausting approach to racking up a body count in the most gnarly and bludgeoning way. The dynamic, vibrating camerawork keeps you in a firm grip as bodies get ripped apart and slam onto car roofs all over the shop—you might want to get off this ride, but Extraction simply won’t let you.
9. Day Shift
Director: J.J. Perry
These days, it feels like we can’t get a minute’s peace without the damn vampire slayer union busting our balls! Just joking, all unions do invaluable work and deserve full support, which is what makes Day Shift’s Reagan-adjacent portrayal of its inflexible, bullish and overly bureaucratic slayer union a little queasy. There are of course things to commend in this film besides vampire hunter unions; director J.J. Perry adds hordes of ragdoll-physic acrobats that simply love to get flung around sets to the vampire action canon. There’s a bouncing energy to the action that threatens to give you whiplash, which does a lot to make up for the stale characterization and plotting. Thanks to Scott Adkins for turning up for the best action scene!
8. Atomic Blonde
Director: David Leitch
David Leitch’s other blockbusters suffer from a pervading smugness and character thinness that softens the genuinely well-executed action, but his strongest film—focusing on a deadly agent at the tail end of the Cold War in a divided Berlin—is fun in a way that doesn’t make you roll your eyes every two minutes. Since Fury Road, Charlize Theron entered her action pro phase with a formidable keenness, and combined with a gorgeous color palette and some slick camera blocking and editing (except when it does that annoying floaty thing), Atomic Blonde shows Leitch has confidently internalized all the lessons of his stunt work. Although why that West Berlin cinema was showing Stalker eight years after it was first released, we’ll never know…
7. Iron Monkey
Director: Yuen Woo-Ping
Poor Yuen Woo-Ping; between directing this and choreographing the action to The Grandmaster, he’s had some bad luck on his films receiving the Harvey Scissorhands treatment. Still, Weinstein can’t overshadow his intimidating stunt coordinating and directing career, spanning 50 years and overseeing countless incredible brawls in the process. He collaborates frequently with Donnie Yen, and directed him in this tale of a martial arts vigilante, adapted from the lives of folk heroes Wong Fei-hung and Wong Kei-ying. It’s quick, slick and (even though diehards might find it a bit too polished for their tastes), Yen is in fine form. The whole adventure shines with personality.
6. Magic Cop
Director: Wei Tung
One of the few films helmed completely by Hero action choreographer Wei (Stephen) Tung, Magic Cop makes the low-budget genre fare produced by Hollywood look like the least imaginative crap ever. As the tagline confoundingly explains, “He’s a Modern Day Devil Hunter, He’s a Master of the Martial Arts, He’s… MR VAMPIRE!” Where is this kind of galaxy-brained ambition in, say, Mark Wahlberg movies? A deeply spiritual police officer (a young stunt actor aged up with dramatic prosthetic facial hair) teams up with two city cops to crack down on a sorceress’ smuggling ring, and even though the film prioritizes horror and comedy over action (although there are some impeccably choreographed voodoo battles), there’s an unhinged energy to the proceedings, elevating this buddy procedural to truly delirious levels of charm.
5. Yes, Madam!
Director: Corey Yuen
Aka In the Line of Duty II, aka The Supercops aka Police Assassins aka The Most Star Power Ever Assembled, with not only one Academy Award-winning stuntwoman taking center stage in Michelle Yeoh, but… well, Cynthia Rothrock never won an Oscar, but she darn well should have. Director Corey Yuen—who kept working as an action choreographer throughout his directing career, even having his talents watered down by Hollywood productions like DOA and The Transporter—demonstrates he’s the perfect choice to bring the two martial arts legends together. The plot is thin, and depending on what version you watch, you may not hear any of the actors’ real voices, but when the glass-smashing, high-kicking action kicks off, you’re completely under Yes, Madam’s spell.
4. Pedicab Driver
Director: Sammo Hung
Sammo Hung is lauded among Hong Kong action diehards as one of the best and funniest to ever do it. Melodrama, martial arts and broad comedy are so confidently blended here (as they are in many Hong Kong films), as we follow two parallel stories of pedicab drivers in love—even as the social status of all four lovebirds puts them all in constant jeopardy. It’s sweet, affecting, often funny (despite the dated gender humor) and elevated by some dynamic and impactful action scenes. Most commendable is the cast, who are uniformly strong, but with Hung’s lead performance standing out in the film he directed and choreographed, it’s clear you’re always in safe hands with the HK master.
Director: Chad Stahelski
Is it a John Wick movie if Keanu Reeves doesn’t get to deliver a completely mundane line in an overly labored but strangely badass way? This sequel dials up the carnage and silliness (all the John Wick world-building is cool if you listen to none of the people who’re convinced it’s genuinely good), expanding the world of Wick across multiple cities and handing out a lot more guns along the way. Director Chad Stahelski’s experience as Keanu’s Matrix double is evident throughout the series—he’s clearly tapped into the abrupt but graceful ways Reeves moves in fights. The Wick movies differentiate themselves from those of their imitators (Leitch, in all fairness, was an uncredited director on the first film) by being stylish, but not distractingly so—the films are pretty straightforward when it comes to staging and executing action set-pieces with maximum efficacy.
2. Sherlock Jr.
Director: Buster Keaton
Back in the day, you could just screw around with your friends making a “Top Stunts and Gags” film and have it enshrined in the American Film Canon. And if you broke your neck in the process? That’s just the method, baby. Buster Keaton’s story of how film plays with your imagination and perception of self features a lot more motorcycle chases than something like The Fabelmans, but it didn’t stop this landmark silent film from remaining a core influence for how characters who yearn for adventure are written. Some stunts and tricks still boggle the mind, and Keaton may be the prime example of someone who meshed his incredible physical ability with a genius curiosity for visual filmmaking. Surprise cameo by: the Irish!
1. Police Story
Director: Jackie Chan
This may be the only ranking where you’ll find Keanu Reeves, Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan in the top three slots, but we’re proud to bear that privilege. But all three aren’t just tremendous action stars, they’re brilliant comedians. One of the most successful showcases for a physical performer ever made, Police Story makes the best choice ever by making this onslaught of violence also a slapstick comedy. Across the whole trilogy (the first two directed by Chan), we see an escalation of carnage with differing tones and budgets, but the surging energy and glorious action never gives up. Also it’s unconfirmed, but we’re pretty sure that as a consequence of its shopping mall finale, Police Story was single-handedly responsible for the Kowloon Glass Replacement Boom of 1985.
Rory Doherty is a screenwriter, playwright and culture writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.