Are you tired of green-screen sets and CG stunts? Then we have your cinematic antidote!
Practical effects and real-life, death-defying stunts are going the way of the dodo. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, we could have never had Iron Man, The Force Awakens, or The Matrix without modern CG effects. But when it comes to watching old-school movies that did everything for real, there’s something special about watching all that old fashioned movie magic play out on screen.
Instead of heaping praise on classics like Aliens, Gremlins, Robocop, and The Road Warrior, I’d like to highlight some often overlooked gems that feature fantastic practical effects and amazing, high flying stunts. All of these movies are available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and or even on YouTube.
Blue Thunder (1983)
Directed by John Badham
Starring Roy Scheider, Daniel Stern, Malcolm McDowell
While over thirty years old, the central themes of Blue Thunder are still surprisingly relevant today: personal privacy, unwarranted surveillance, and the militarization of the police. Roy Scheider and an impossibly young Daniel Stern play helicopter officers assigned to test out a cutting edge new helicopter nicknamed “Blue Thunder.” While taking over-the-top war machine on a test flight, they uncover a conspiracy that puts their lives in danger.
A real helicopter flying really low.
The first half of the movie is a fairly by-the-numbers buddy cop movie, albeit one that takes place in the sky instead of a squad car. The real showcase is the film’s second half, which features an amazing, climactic battle that lasts for nearly thirty minutes of screen time. There are a few shots involving miniature effects, but most of what you see are real helicopters performing mind-boggling stunts over the skies of Los Angeles.
Battle in the skies.
The Final Countdown (1980)
Directed by Don Taylor
Starring Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen
Years before Top Gun went into the Danger Zone, The Final Countdown featured unprecedented film-making on board a Navy aircraft carrier, with a squadron of F-14s stealing the show. In the movie, the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier is mysteriously transported back in time through a “time storm” (don’t ask), and the crew find themselves on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The time storm effects.
The crew must now face a decision: use their knowledge of things to come to prevent not only Pearl Harbor, but every other major catastrophe, even if it means permanently changing their future… or try to find a way back without altering time itself.
The storm effects a somewhat quaint, but still cool looking. The real star of the show is the spectacular aerial combat sequences featuring F-14 Tomcats taking on WWII Japanese Zeroes. It’s not perfect, but it’s still an entertaining time-travel romp most have forgotten.
Probably not a fair fight.
Directed by Peter Hyams
Starring Sean Connery, Peter Boyle
At first glance, most people would assume Outland to be a blatant ripoff of Alien. While it obviously borrows many visual ques from Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic, there are no space monsters to be found. In Outland, man’s greatest enemy is still man. Also, it’s a remake of High Noon.
Sean Connery is all out of bubble-gum.
Sean Connery plays a US Marshal assigned as security to Con-Am 27, a mining colony on Jupiter’s moon, Io. Not long after he arrives, things start going awry. After getting frustrated with several roadblocks in his investigation, Connery eventually uncovers a massive corporate conspiracy that results in a price on his head.
Some of the highly detailed miniatures.
But enough about the plot. The industrial-strength sets in this movie are stunning. And I mean stunning — as good, if not better than Alien, Aliens, Star Trek II, or other contemporary sci-fi productions. There are also some massive miniature effects full of amazing detail against beautiful matte paintings. The icing on the cake is a fantastic, brooding score by Jerry Goldsmith.
Just one of Outland’s amazing interior sets.
Flight of the Intruder (1991)
Directed by John Milius
Starring Danny Glover, Willem Dafoe, Rosanna Arquette
This all-but-forgotten movie is about hotshot pilots who fly A-6 Intruders during the Vietnam war. The story focuses on two pilots who’ve grown disillusioned with their mission, decide to go rogue, and bomb a high-value target against orders.
The Intruder flies the night skies of Vietnam.
On the surface, this movie isn’t nearly as sexy as Top Gun. For one thing, Intruders are bombers, not fighter jets. Secondly, Vietnam is just a fucking bummer, no matter how you slice it. That said, unabashed lover of all things military and certified crazy person John Milius managed to make one hell of a lemonade out of a crate of lemons. (Keep an eye out for costars Tom Sizemore, John Corbett, Ving Rhames, David Schwimmer, Reb Brown, and Law & Order alums Fred Thompson and Dann Florek.)
The assault on SAM City.
Like Blue Thunder and The Final Countdown, this movie features spectacular aerial photography and combat footage. It also features some astonishing miniature and optical effects, most notable being the attack on “SAM City,” the secret bombing run on a compound full of enemy missile batteries.
Gone in 60 Seconds (1974)
Directed by HB Halicki
Starring Eleanor, HB Halicki
No doubt you’ve heard of, or have probably seen, the 2000 remake starring Nicolas Cage. Chances are you haven’t seen the original, unless you were born before 1980. The original Gone in 60 Seconds is by no means a masterpiece, but it is a true example of independent film making, the likes of which we will never see again.
Halicki’s cast and crew largely consisted of his family and friends. They were complete amateurs who taught themselves how to make movies as they were going. They shot the movie without permits in real traffic, including real high-speed chases. All of the bystanders who appear were just everyday people who happen to be nearby when they filmed.
Just filming a high-speed chase in the middle of LA. No big deal.
Every wreck, every jump, every chase was done for real, often by Hallicki himself, including the famous 40-minute climactic chase that turns the streets of LA into a demolition derby. If something looked like a genuine accident, that’s because it was. But if it looked good, Hallicki insisted it stay in the movie.
It’s not the slickest of productions. The acting is mostly bad. But if you love car chases, you’d be hard pressed to find something better.
Eleanor’s big jump.
The second half of the list is on page two!