IT’S not often that I turn up to work in my trackie-daks. But I’ve been told to wear “loose, comfortable clothing” for today’s assignment and, once I cop a look at the burly men I will be going toe-to-toe with, I am not going to argue.
I have been sent to the 87Eleven gym, found in a nondescript warehouse in Los Angeles, where I’ve been convinced that I will be turned into an action star after only an hour’s practice.
I am a less-than-coordinated man, so I’m less than convinced anyone would believe that it’s me beating up these four musclebound men.
87Eleven Action Design is described as a “one-stop school for action movie stars”. Its team members have acted as stunt doubles for Brad Pitt in Fight Club and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games movies, and helped revive Keanu Reeves’ career by turning him into a fighting machine for John Wick.
Most recently, they worked intensively with Charlize Theron for her kick-arse spy thriller Atomic Blonde, which is out today on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD and on demand.
The South African beauty spent three hours in the gym each day for nearly two months to hone the moves she would need to transform into a deadly secret agent for the movie.
While the weight benches and boxing gloves imply that I’m in an everyday gym, the fake handguns and prosthetic severed arms prove I’m somewhere entirely different.
After meeting the stunt team, I am invited onto the gym’s sprung floor to learn a routine that seems impossible to pull off. First, shoot two men dead. Second, kick another aggressor in the crotch. Third, throw him to the ground. Fourth, cop a headbutt from another goon before smashing him in the shin with a crate.
Oh, and the piece de resistance? Knock out the last man standing by smashing a glass bottle over his head, then walk away unscathed. No problem.
But as the stunt team walk me through each stage of the action, the sequence starts to make sense.
And as I rehearse each move, the secrets behind movie stunts are slowly revealed.
The kick in the crotch? If you aim for the inner thigh and the recipient sells it as being excruciatingly painful, the audience will think you’ve struck him right where it hurts.
A smash across the face with a crate? Well, if the camera is watching at the right angle and the stuntman groans loud enough, the audience will assume you’ve made contact with his jaw.
Getting thrown over another guy’s shoulder? While the throw is fast, a good stuntman will actually place his colleague onto the mat with all the grace of a ballroom dancer.
What lifts these sequences from choreography to a bruising melee are the stuntmen themselves.
While they often act as Hollywood stars’ doubles, these stuntmen are stellar actors in their own right, using their body movements and well-timed grunts and groans to make the scenes real.
And don’t be fooled into thinking what they do is all sleight of hand. One stuntman drilled me until I gave him a forceful kick in the inner thigh — no higher — and another wouldn’t let us shoot the scene until he was convinced I would smash a glass bottle over his head with force.
(The glass bottle, as it turns out, is made of sugar. It’s so fragile that it will smash to smithereens in your hand if you don’t hold it right.)
Atomic Blonde is jam-packed with ambitious fight scenes, which the 87Eleven team designed. One of the most memorable is the brutal seven-minute stairwell sequence where Theron vanquishes foe after foe in what looks to the audience like one long take.
“She worked extremely hard,” the movie’s stunt co-ordinator Sam Hargraves told news.com.au of the Oscar winner.
“Maybe Keanu [Reeves], but not a lot of actors in the business train as hard as she did for this role and that was what allowed a lot of this action to live and breathe the way it did and it allowed Dave to shoot it how he wanted to, which is extended takes and you could hang on the actor doing it.
“You didn’t have to cut away to a double or go in tight or use editing techniques to hide her inadequacies. You could just let it live and she made it not just live but come alive in a very exciting way — but that was because of the training she put in in the gym.
“There’s times where you have to use a stunt double, but she wanted to do everything.
“She was fully committed to that character and it shows in the movie. She just sells it, 100 per cent.”
And, so came the time for me to follow in Charlize’s footsteps.
After a final rehearsal, Hargraves himself got behind the camera to shoot my final fight scene.
When he yelled “action”, I sprung into action, picking off two men with my Glock, swerving away from a left hook, throwing a man to the ground and getting smashed up against some cardboard boxes. And there’s little more satisfying in this world then smashing a glass bottle over another man’s skull.
And here’s the proof that these experts can turn anyone into a stuntman. When the shoot was over, I was begging to go again.
Atomic Blonde is out on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD and on demand today.