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10 Unthinkable Stunts That Were Filmed for Real
Movie stunts come in all shapes and sizes, but no matter the scale, that doesn’t make them any less impressive. Whether it is riding something gasoline-fueled off a cliff or stuffing something live and deadly into your mouth, some actors are willing to go all the way, encouraging or, at the very least, entertaining their directors’ flair for authenticity and really showing up.
The result? Painstakingly crafted scenes that, while they may look staged, were actually filmed for real. But don’t just take our word for it…
10 Man on Fire: Extraction 2 (2023)
Sam Hargrave’s straight-to-Netflix action thriller Man on Fire (2020) may have seemed a one-off action star vehicle for Chris Hemsworth at the time, but the popularity of both the original movie and this year’s sequel tell a different story.
With Hemsworth returning to the lead role, both he and Hargrave knew they had to keep upping the ante—especially in a post-John Wick world, where audiences not only expect full-on action, but they want it to be as lifelike as possible. And what’s more lifelike than literally just doing it for real?
So for one of the big action set pieces of the movie—the prison escape fight sequence, in which Tyler Rake (Hemsworth) takes a Molotov to the arm—Hemsworth was actually lit up like a bonfire. According to stunt coordinator-turned-director Hargrave, the team used a sequence of different fire-proof jackets with layers designed specifically to protect the global superstar from actually burning to a crisp while shooting the scene many times over. 
9 Living Birdcage: Batman Returns (1992)
We now live in the era of the superhero, where every movie has a unifying visual style and is part of a bigger story. Still, back in the latter decades of the last century, auteurs like Tim Burton put a unique spin on our favorite comic book heroes.
While nowadays, the stars are protected from overexertion by waivers and clauses, leaving multi-million-dollar CGI to do the heavy lifting, films like Burton’s Batman Returns tell a different story for how things used to be. Although a wealth of sets, practical effects, and stunt teams were used to bring much of the director’s dark, moody Gotham and its citizens to life, Michelle Pfeiffer was convinced to play her part to the hilt.
Starring as Catwoman, Pfeiffer committed to the physicality of the role, doing most of the whip-work and acrobatics herself. But it is her most static stunt that has our jaws on the floor. In a scene with Danny DeVito’s Penguin, Pfeiffer stuffed a live bird in her mouth and held it there for longer than strictly sanitary or safe. While insurers would hit the roof today, Burton shot the scene in one take, and the rest, as they say, is history.
8 Canary Island High-Speed Tank Chase: Fast & Furious 6 (2013)
While the Fast & Furious franchise has built itself a reputation for over-the-top, gravity- and logic-defying CGI sequences (they literally went to space!), a decade ago, Vin Diesel and company were still making action the old-fashioned way, stunts and all.
The sixth entry in the series sees Dominic Toretto (Diesel) and his extended “family” take on a well-financed and heavily armored mercenary organization, leading to a series of big action sequences involving cars, planes, and even a tank. But rather than calling the tech guys in to paint a fake one over the footage, director Justin Lin and his crew used the real thing, putting it to work on the roads of the Canary Islands.
Custom-built using a WWII Chieftain tank, the production team created a monster of a vehicle that weighed 60 tons and could travel at 60mph (96.5 km/h), with a whole brand-new stretch of highway to wreak (government-approved) havoc on. They even fired it for real out the front of a 30-ton truck… and it should go without saying the results speak for themselves.
7 Bees for Breakfast: Candyman (1992)
Drawn from horror legend Clive Barker’s dark psyche, the legend of Candyman has made restless nights for teenagers and adults alike across the past three decades. And, with three sequels to date, the hook-handed horror doesn’t show any signs of going away.
But the thing that makes Candyman so scary, and the single element that has ensured the series’ longevity, is Tony Todd’s iconic performance as the folklore phantom. This includes everything, from his deep, haunting whisper of a voice to his thousand-yard stare. Todd did as much as he could with the part, and that includes swallowing his pride and taking one for the team in the first film’s infamous scene where bees come out of Candyman’s chest, hands, and mouth.
Amazingly, 200,000 live bees were used in the scene, and rather than glue fakes to his face and hands or regurgitate a bee-like substance, Todd allowed bees to be placed all over him, including a swarm in his mouth. Lucky for him, the actor had a good lawyer, and they negotiated an additional $1,000 payment for each sting..
6 The Trinity Test: Oppenheimer (2023)
As one of the biggest films of 2023 and of director Christopher Nolan’s career, Oppenheimer offered audiences a uniquely contemplative yet equally bombastic look into the life and legacy of the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Cillian Murphy plays the misguided scientific genius from his college days through his rise and to his eventual fall from grace in the eyes of the public, the government, and even himself. Along the way, we are treated to the kind of all-out, ear-crushing spectacle Nolan is known for, and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Trinity Test—the first detonation of a nuclear device.
While Nolan didn’t detonate a nuke, he did commit to shooting some major explosions for real to simulate one without the associated fallout. Working on location out in the desert in New Mexico, the largest explosion shot was created using stacks of 44-gallon fuel drums with high explosives rigged underneath them. Visual effects were used in post-production to string the shots of several different explosions together, but every eyebrow-scorching blast seen on screen was made for real.
5 Hood-Riding Car Battle: Death Proof (2007)
Created out of the adoration Quentin Tarantino holds for the grindhouse B-movie scene of the ’70s and ’80s, his exploitation flick Death Proof makes an art of its realer-than-real stunts. While the director is known for going old-school, shooting on film, and almost exclusively using practical effects in his films, this one takes things to another level. Lucky for everyone involved, Tarantino chose a bona fide, real-life stuntwoman—Zoe Bell—to play out the most extreme stunts caught on camera.
In the latter half of the film, Bell (playing a fictionalized version of herself) engages in a don’t-try-this-at-home game called Shipman’s Mast, riding the hood of a Dodge Challenger going at top speed. Tough enough, right? Far from content to leave things there, Tarantino had the film’s antagonist, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), attempt to ram her car off the road, with Bell still hanging on for dear life.
And every moment of it is real—Bell put her life on the line so the Pulp Fiction director could get his shots, and rather than take it slow and speed up the footage in post, they gunned the cars at 80-100mph (128-161 km/h) for the entire sequence.
4 222-Step Fall: John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023)
Made by ex-stuntmen, the John Wick movies have been on a mission to go as traditional as possible with their action sequences, shooting in long, unbroken takes and choreographing the fights down to every last blow.
And series star Keanu Reeves has thrown himself in at the deep end every step of the way. But some things you can’t choreograph, like falling down a very long and very steep set of stairs—which is where the real stuntmen come in.
In Paris, 222 steps lead up Montmartre Hill to the famous basilica Sacre Coeur, and this is where director Chad Stahelski staged one of John Wick: Chapter 4’s most audacious and death-defying stunts. The scene sees Wick (Reeves) arriving at the foot of the staircase and having to battle an army of henchmen to reach the top in time for his dual with the main villain. Needless to say, he gets knocked, kicked, and tripped down the stairs several times. But in one painful sequence, as he has almost reached the top, he takes a tumble all the way back to the bottom. Vincent Bouillon, Reeves’ stunt double, bit the bullet and took the fall for real—twice over!
3 Anti-Gravity Hallway Fight: Inception (2010)
Seemingly determined to outdo himself with every subsequent film, Christopher Nolan nonetheless delivered a career-high with Inception that benefitted from a blend of mind-boggling sets, sparingly applied CGI, and some truly epic stunt work.
No scene is more impressive in this star-studded tour de force than the anti-gravity hallway fight. Stuck between dream levels in a hotel that is physically and metaphysically unstable due to the forces acting upon his body on the next level up (go with it, and it kind of makes sense), Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has to fight off a squad of goons while gravity and perspective shift around them.
Most directors would balk at the logistics of having to film something like this and instead use digital trickery, but Nolan opted instead to shoot the thing for real. Taking inspiration from the rotating structure used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, he had his team construct two ginormous suspended hallway sets: a horizontal one capable of rotating 360 degrees, and a vertical, “zero-G” one capable of supporting stunt wires. Thus, Gordon-Levitt was suspended for a three-week shoot within a twisting, spinning set, gravity be damned!
2 Bungee Down a Dam: GoldenEye (1995)
The planets aligned when director Martin Campbell and star Pierce Brosnan came together on GoldenEye, the first of the ’90s James Bond movies and one of the best of the entire franchise. Keen to make his mark on the series from the get-go, Campbell went big and kicked things off with a pulse-pounding ten-minute sequence that begins on one of the craziest stunts of the franchise: a death-defying bungee jumping down a dam.
As the introduction of this new-and-improved 007 was crucial to setting the tone for the character and the film to follow, the sequence had to look as large and as real as possible. Stuntman Wayne Michaels got the honors of playing Brosnan’s part, plunging over 720 feet (220 meters) off Switzerland’s Verzasca Dam and breaking the record for the biggest fall of all time.
The stunt became so iconic that, due to popular demand, the dam was leased out to a commercial bungee jump operator soon after the film’s release. Thrill-seekers today are still making the same jump 007 made three decades ago.
1 Melee on the Orient Express: Mission: Impossible–Dead Reckoning Part 1 (2023)
The Mission: Impossible film series has, in recent years, become synonymous with all-out action and crazy stunt work, thanks to star Tom Cruise’s increasingly voracious appetite for danger. As such, there are numerous unthinkable stunts from across the seven films that would make an ideal addition to this list—but we had to choose only one. And what better way to go than the train-top fight from the franchise’s latest installment, Dead Reckoning.
Mirroring the action of the first film, which culminates in Ethan Hunt (Cruise) fighting double agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) atop the TGV train from London to Paris, Dead Reckoning sees Hunt take on global terrorist Gabriel (Esai Morales) on top of the Orient Express. Unlike the first film, however, they did it for real.
Director Christopher McQuarrie and his crew built a custom train that would allow for filming rigs and equipment and could actually function on a real track in Norway. The specially built locomotive was then able to travel at up to 60mph (96.5 km/h) during the shoot while both Cruise and Morales straddled the roof and sides, running and fighting while trying their best not to fall off.