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Movie Stunts That Were Even More Complex Than You Realized

Updated June 29, 2021 3.7k votes 799 voters 155.7k views14 items

List RulesVote up the stunts that were more complicated than they looked onscreen.

It takes more work to plan movie stunts behind the scenes than average viewers expect. When you think of complex movie stunts, some scenes immediately come to mind - Tom Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation; Tom Hardy’s Bane pulling off a mid-air plane hijacking at the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises; the chariot race In Ben-Hur. These HUGE stunts obviously took a dedicated cast, crew, and hours upon hours of work to come to fruition. Practical stunts are impressive; that said, most contemporary movies implement the use of both practical effects and CGI. The desired result: an adrenaline rush coupled with unparalleled immersion. 

As cinema evolves, the stunts get bigger and bigger. Every big-budget movie is competing with what came out the year before (and will come after). Lost in the shuffle of explosions and wirework are the modest stunts that were much harder to pull off than they look on screen. This attention to detail is a testament to the artists and their devotion to suspending our disbelief, and that includes risking their lives for movie stunts that are a lot more complex than you realized, so let’s take a moment to appreciate them.

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  • Arguably one of the best superhero movies ever made, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man tells Peter Parker's web-slinging origin story. After being bit by a radioactive spider, Peter discovers his superpowers. CGI was used heavily in the movie, but the cafeteria scene, in which Tobey Maguire catches all the contents of Mary Jane's (Kristen Dunst) lunch, did not enlist computer enhancement.

    The studio wanted to cut the scene to stay on schedule, but because Raimi deemed it essential, Maguire spent 16 hours (and 156 takes) filming the smaller “Spidey Sense” sequence. While they did glue the tray to Maguire’s hand, the actor caught each item one by one. The scene has gone on to become a fan-favorite moment in the trilogy. 

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  • Long before Christopher Nolan opened The Dark Knight Rises with a jaw-dropping aerial sequence, the 1993 Sylvester Stallone-led Cliffhanger saw group of international crooks zipline between two planes. The stunt was both dangerous and expensive - so dangerous that it was considered to be illegal in Europe (where the movie was being filmed), prompting the production to return to the US to film it.

    On top of the cost of moving a portion of production to the US, they couldn't get the studio to insure the stunt. So, Stallone ended up paying $1,000,000 out of his salary to get the shot. Altogether, it is considered to be one of the most expensive aerial stunts ever filmed. Stunt man Simon Crane moved between two jets at an altitude of 15,000 feet, nearly sliding past the second plane's door, and then quickly pulling open his parachute in order to bail from the stunt. This near-fatal slip is why we never see him land in the second plane on screen.

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  • Christopher Nolan is the granddaddy of modern-day intellectual blockbusters. His action sequences almost always serve the plot while stunning audiences. As he explores grounded yet otherworldly ideas, the director refuses to shoot in 3D and always uses practical effects over CGI. From flipping semis in The Dark Knight to street shootouts in Dunkirk, some of the greatest sequences in recent memory have been in Nolan films. The Nolan film of them all is easily Inception, the dream-within-a-dream heist film that subverted expectations. 

    In the film, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character exchanges fisticuffs in a rotating hotel corridor in what is essentially an anti-gravity fight scene. To film it, they had to build a massive 100-foot rotating cylinder/rig. The intricacies of the rig had to be incredibly precise. If a single wheel lagged, vibrations would result, which would flicker the lights on the walls and put the performers at risk. All the lighting for the scene was built into the “hallway.” That said, camera placement was even trickier. CineFix’s behind-the-scenes video shows the camera attached to the set itself and how Joseph Gordon-Levitt rehearsed for two weeks before filming. If he or his scene partner missed their marks by even a little, they could have gone crashing into the wrong areas or fallen off the centrifuge completely. All to get what amounts to 30 seconds of screentime in the final cut.

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  • Practically every year, another mission becomes impossible and Tom Cruise seems to set a new precedent for doing your own stunts. From the knife fight and free soloing in Mission: Impossible 2 to driving a motorcycle through traffic and climbing up a helicopter’s payload (and falling) in Mission: Impossible - Fallout, Ethan Hunt continues to risk life and limb. As the bar is raised entry after entry, you'd be forgiven for forgetting where it all began. 

    The wire stunt from the first Mission: Impossible, in which Ethan drops 30 feet through an air vent (quicker than expected), is quite possibly the most iconic in the series. The hanging heist may be a quiet stunt that looks simple enough, but looks can be deceiving. According to a behind-the-scenes featurette, not only did Cruise hang from a wire cable upside down (hitting his head a few times), but he had to master the art of balancing himself horizontally with help from a little loose change in his shoes. The stunt was filmed practically. That said, to get the shot of him almost hitting the floor, Cruise could have been seriously injured if they were off by a couple of inches. According to producer Paula Wagner:

    That looks effortless, but that was a really difficult stunt, and if you drop him too far down, that’s not good. Because he was coming fast, down. That I think is one of the hardest stunts that Tom [has] done.

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