‘Stuntman’ Review: Retracing Evel Knievel’s Rocket Trail

The omnipresent Dwayne Johnson provides a short intro to “Stuntman,” the kind in which a celebrity host (in this case also one of the film’s producers) jovially warns us that the acts we’re about to see were performed by trained professionals, and under no circumstances should we “try any of this at home.” That would seem a no-brainer. Then again, this documentary’s most appreciative viewers will doubtless be little boys and girls (as well as big ones) who can imagine no career more intoxicating than being the person actually executing thrills ’n’ spills that will appear in finished films or TV shows to have been done by stars like the erstwhile Rock.

If, in fact, crashing cars and leaping from explosions for a living doesn’t really sound that tempting, you’ll probably find Kurt Mattila’s slick documentary of lesser interest. His principal subject (indeed, it seems, his boss as director-for-hire) is Eddie Braun, a veteran stunt driver, coordinator and all-around performer whose screen credits stretch back to 1980. But Braun’s own focus here is on re-creating — successfully, this time — an infamous Evel Knievel stunt from 1974. It’s an obsessive pursuit that takes some years to be realized.

“Stuntman” itself has also been slow-aborning, finally arriving on streaming platform Disney Plus nearly three years after its festival premiere, while the events it depicts largely took place several years before that. Well-crafted, the film’s appeal nonetheless depends greatly on whether you find Braun’s quest brave and inspiring or sort of a pointless childhood dream that did not require adult actualization.

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Braun introduces himself in voice-over narration as “the face you never see,” though the stunts he’s invisibly performed on everything from 1980s series “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “The Fall Guy” to recent “Transformers” and “Avengers” franchises loom large on the modern entertainment landscape. When “Stuntman” begins in 2013, he’s in his early 50s, wondering how long he can continue this highly skilled, often dangerous work. (An older colleague once told him, “You don’t ever retire from this business; this business retires you.”)

But he can’t help leaping to volunteer as pilot when he learns that the son of the NASA scientist behind Evel Knievel’s attempted 1974 jump over the 1,700-foot Snake River Canyon expanse wants to try it again. Scott Truax wants to prove his late father Robert’s passenger rocket would’ve worked, had not a prematurely released parachute malfunctioned. (The daredevil was lucky to escape the crash alive, with only minor wounds.) Despite Braun’s confessed fear of heights, he cannot decline an opportunity to perform a stunt that failed the childhood hero whose high-profile career lured him into stunt work.

But getting the thing done proves a long, complicated process that Mattila’s film doesn’t entirely illuminate. Still stung by the original event’s circus atmosphere, the property damage and local debts the oft-problematic Knievel left behind, residents of neighboring Twin Falls, Idaho, do not welcome a reenactment. (It is unclear how their objections are overcome.) Money runs out, forcing Braun to become an investor in the project. Media sponsors that might leaven the financial burden sign on, then drop out. Some of “Stuntman” feels like repurposing of footage perhaps originally shot for a projected TV special, as when we visit a studio where Slash and other musicians are recording a meh cover of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” as the theme song of what’s being billed as the “Jump of the Century.”

Through it all, Braun is amiable if rather innocuous company. He chases this pipe dream because it’s “something [I’m] very passionate about,” yet that passion isn’t palpable. A bit bizarrely, he calls the stunt “kind of my love letter to my family,” though before performing it he must bid them tentative goodbyes, just in case his wife is left a widow, his four children minus a father. “Stuntman” frequently suggests an emotional intimacy that the viewer never really feels, particularly in domestic scenes with the fam whose slices-of-life have an air of being semi-staged for the camera’s benefit.

When stars finally align and the rocket jump happens (in September 2016), it is duly a tense, exciting watch. Even so, you’re aware how the film has had to pad itself in order to stall that climax for 75 minutes, its various digressions failing to provide some key intel or even much behind-the-scenes insight toward Braun’s everyday employment as a Hollywood stuntperson.

In the end, both documentary and the jump itself feel like ambitious vanity projects that are admirably accomplished, yet feel a little hollow in the raison d’être department. A dream realized is valuable, albeit not always to anyone but the individual dreamer. “Stuntman” does eventually get across that canyon. Still, a viewer might be justified in wondering if there would have been more reward in simply hearing more tales about the rascally late showman Knievel, or lore from the even-more-veteran stuntmen Braun affords brief screen time as his still-living professional mentors.