With the release of Netflix Day shift, the directorial debut of stunt coordinator JJ Perry, we thought it would be a good idea to look at some other great films directed by former stuntmen. Perry is the latest in a long line of stunt people to make the transition behind the camera. He has worked his way up from stunt person to stunt coordinator to second unit director (often tasked with shooting action in films) and now, for the first time, just “director”. Even if you didn’t realize it, you probably enjoyed his work. Perry did stunts on Blade, Iron man and Django Unchainedand directed action in films such as Warrior, Spyand F9: The Fast Saga. Most of the other names on this list have done their time in a similar way, and when given the chance to direct, they made the most of it.
You might assume that stunt people would have a natural eye for good action, and while that’s not always true, these 12 films help make it clear that more stunt people should be directors. This list does not include stuntmen who became performers and directors at the same time, so although they are legends, there will be no Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan or Sammo Hung films here. You will also notice that there is a distinct lack of female directors on this one. The sexism that has been inherent in the stunt industry over its existence is beyond the scope of this list, but if you want to dig deeper, I highly recommend checking out the great documentary Stuntwomen: The Untold Hollywood Story, which is available to watch for free with ads on Tubi, Vudu and Pluto TV. On the list!
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
No list of stuntmen turned directors would be complete without Hal Needham. Needham came up through TV Westerns and spent much of his early career dubbing Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. These connections allowed Needham to move into directing, and the result was Smokey and the Bandit, starring Reynolds as a bootlegger who tries to keep Jackie Gleason’s sheriff distracted by leading him on a hunt so his partner can transport beer. Needham fills the film with car chases and wall-to-wall crashes, a formula he would also use later on The cannonball race. Needham became such a Hollywood institution that Quentin Tarantino based Brad Pitts Once Upon a Time in Hollywood character, Cliff Booth, largely about Needham and his friendship with Reynolds.
Smokey and the Bandit is available to watch on FuboTV or for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
Undisputed III: Redemption (2010)
Undisputed III director Isaac Florentine cut his teeth doing stunts in his native Israel, and so on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers after he moved to the United States. When talking about having an eye for action, there is perhaps none better than Florentine, and Undisputed III is his masterpiece. Starring the one and only Scott Adkins, Florentine pushes the martial arts star and DTV legend to the limit, highlighting his gravity-defying kicks better than anyone has ever done. Florentine also takes full advantage of Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror as the villain. The end result is one of the best martial arts films of the 21st century.
Undisputed III: Redemption is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
Broken Path (2008)
Power Rangers is truly an unknown farm system when it comes to great stunt and fight coordinators. Koichi Sakamoto is perhaps the best of an outstanding group. Along with his team Alpha Stunts, Sakamoto helped define the look of Power Rangers fight scenes, and was stunt coordinator for the almighty Drive (1997) (a film Perry did stunt work on). After DriveSakamoto tried his hand at directing, and the result was Broken path, a wall-to-wall fight and stunt spectacular. Previously Power Rangers Johnny Yong Bosh is ready for anything Sakamoto can throw at him, often reaching Jackie Chan levels of reckless disregard for his personal safety. Broken path hardly works as a movie, but as a 90-minute demo reel for Alpha Stunts it stands tall.
Broken path is available to watch on YouTube.
John Wick 1-3 (2014-2019)
Hal Needham’s heir, Chad Stahelski, has spent the last decade reinventing the plot. Together with partner David Leitch, Stahelski’s company 87eleven Action Design has had great success creating action for everything from the MCU to low-budget DTV films. But in 2014 John Wick arrived as its true calling card.
Combining gunplay with jiu-jitsu moves felt like a breath of fresh air for action movies that had been stagnant by Bourne-style over-editing. In Keanu Reeves, Stahelski found a star who was more than willing to do the work and put his body on the line for the best possible film. As the series has continued, Stahelski has increased his focus on martial arts, including bringing in legends such as Driveare Mark Dacascos and The raidYayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman.
John Wick, John Wick: Chapter 2, and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum are all available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
It’s hard not to have more Scott Adkins movies on this list, as the man works with some of the best action directors in the business. Jesse V. Johnson was already a veteran stuntman when he began directing his own films. Over the years, Johnson’s films have varied in quality, but he has always displayed a true auteur’s voice. His best work in my opinion is this film, in which Adkins seeks revenge after being wrongfully sent to prison. Johnson uses Adkins very differently to Florentine, opting for brutal action instead of high-flying martial arts, and Adkins seems to relish the chance to fully create a character and have a vicious tumble. Adkins rose to prominence as the “human special effect”, but Johnson makes him much more of a brawler in the Jason Statham mold, and Adkins proves in the final pub brawl that he’s a multi-dimensional movie fighter. If you only think of Adkins as UndiscussedBoyka, you have to see what he can do under Johnson’s sure guidance.
Vengeance is available to watch on Netflix.
Blindsided: The Game (2018)
Slightly different choice here since it’s a 45-minute short and not a feature, but when the film is directed by Clayton J. Barber, it has to be included. Barber is best known for stepping in as stunt coordinator for season two of Netflix Iron hand after the reception of the matches in season 1 was, shall we say, less than warm. The battles in season 1 were choppy and flat. Barber elevated them by having the actors do the work and filming them in long, clean shots. By doing so, the show was greatly improved and he helped make Jessica Henwick a star.
To Blindsided: The Game, Barber teamed up with fellow stuntman/director Eric Jacobus to tell a story about a blind man with a particular set of skills who must help a friend out of trouble with gangsters. Share Zatoichipart Jackie Chan-style comedy, Blindsided: The Game thoroughly entertains for its short running time.
Blindside: The Game is available to watch on YouTube.
Angel Has Fallen (2019)
I’m not the biggest fan of the first two Has Fallen movies, in particular London has fallen. The plot is pretty sloppy, and the politics are murky at best. That’s what does The angel has fallen such a surprising joy.
Director Ric Roman Waugh dials back the xenophobia and dials up the character work of Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning. Instead of the unstoppable machine he was in the first two films, Banning reckons with his age and the damage he’s done to his body while repeatedly saving the president. Make no mistake, though: Waugh still brings it on the action front, too, including an impressively executed drone strike to kick off the action. Waugh frames the drones almost like an invading plague of locusts, and it really gives the film a much different feel than the previous two films.
The angel has fallen is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
Action Jackson (1988)
Former stuntman Craig R. Baxley made the transition to directing and went on to kick off three all-time action bangers in a row with Action Jackson, I come in peaceand Ice cold. Of the three, Action Jackson is my favorite, simply because Carl Weathers finally got the proper vehicle he had been deserving of for years.
The weather makes most of it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Baxley gives Weathers perhaps the best introduction ever in the film (trust me, it’s best to watch it without knowing what’s coming), and then Weathers takes it from there. Also, he fires a grenade launcher shirtless. I’m just saying.
Working in an era when stunts were practical, Baxley manages to get Weathers to drive a sports car up three flights of stairs. Craig T. Nelson is perfectly slimy as the villain, and late singer Vanity has great chemistry with Weathers.
Action Jackson is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
Born to Fight (2004)
Panna Rittikrai is a legend in Thai cinema. The stuntman and coordinator helped put Thai action films on the map, notably working with his mentee Tony Jaa on films such as Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior and The protector.
Rittikrai also directed frequently, and one of his most popular films is this 2004 release. When terrorists take over a village, several Thai Olympic athletes must band together to stop them. Leader Dan Chupong was billed as the next Jaa, and while he lacks Jaa’s charisma, his moves might even be better. Rittikrai pulls out all the tricks in his action bag for this one. As great as Chupong is, the real highlight is an action scene where all the athletes use their special talents to fight back, be it football, basketball or something else. It’s the perfect kind of unhinged action that made Thai action cinema such a force in the early 2000s.
Born to fight is available for digital purchase on Apple TV.
Kensuke Sonomura has quickly become one of the most in-demand action designers and choreographers in Japan, frequently doing action design for video game franchises including Resident Evil (where he has worked on both games and animated films) and the third and fourth Devil May Cry games. Sonomura is known for excessive action, including the particularly wild Resident Evil: Vendetta.
For his directorial debut, Sonomura goes in a different direction, dialing back the action in favor of a more lively hangout vibe. Despite its short running time of 79 minutes, Hydra is slow paced. That is, until the final action scene, which sees Sonomura create a hand-to-hand fight that is truly unlike anything seen in other action films. Gets fast and brutal, it has to be seen. Come for the mellow vibes, stay to be blown away by the fight.
Hydra is available to watch on Hi-Yah!, for free with a library card on Hoopla, or for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.