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Summer's (real) action heroes

It’s the season of big-screen pyrotechnics and daredevil action. But behind every high-flying star is an unseen wizard pulling the strings — literally. We talked to the stunt coordinators for five high-profile new flicks about what it takes to leap, fall, crash, and explode on film without getting (too) hurt

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Andy Armstrong
The Amazing Spider-Man

(Opens July 3)

Age 58

Career Highlights Charlie’s Angels (2000), Planet of the Apes (2001), Thor (2011)

Origin Story Armstrong began by racing cars and motorcycles in his native England. ”By the time I was 18,” he says, ”I realized I could make far more money crashing a motorcycle than I ever could trying to win an event on it.” His first gig came courtesy of his father, Robert, who was then a rising stunt coordinator and needed a motorcyclist for the 1974 British TV series The Zoo Gang. (Armstrong’s brother, Vic, and son, James, are also prominent stuntmen.)

The Stunts in The Amazing Spider-Man Instead of using CGI for Spidey’s scenes swooping between the skyscrapers of New York, Armstrong wanted to capture the real thing. First he videotaped an Olympic-level gymnast swinging on a high bar from just about every angle. ”His downward motion is actually a really violent motion,” says Armstrong. ”He’s accelerating until he reaches the bottom, and then as he starts to come up he’s decelerating. Once I realized that, we started to build machinery that would pull someone along with that sort of dynamic.”

His Favorite Stunt Armstrong pulled off one of his most daring stunts in the little-seen 1988 movie Honor Bound — not with a car or motorcycle, but rather on a plain old bicycle. Armstrong pedaled the bike toward two side-by-side cars that were tearing toward him at 70 mph. Just as they were about to plow into him, they separated slightly, actually touching his elbows as they sped by. ”Looking back, it was an idiotically dangerous thing for the payoff,” he says.

What Went Through His Head When Those Cars Were Racing at Him ”’What the hell was I thinking when I suggested this?’ [Laughs] There is always the ‘Oh, s—‘ moment — which is part of the excitement, really.”

Worst Injury He broke his back in five places jumping a truck off a ramp for a 1998 Mazda commercial. ”I was in the air long enough before I hit the ground to have two thoughts,” he says. ”The first was ‘This is going to hurt.’ And the second was ‘Wow, maybe this won’t hurt. Maybe this will be the big one. Maybe it will be, you know, fade to black.’ When I did land and there was excruciating pain, the first thing I did was wiggle my toes, so I realized I hadn’t severed the spinal cord, but I knew I was in bad shape.”

Up Next He’s shopping a stunt-competition reality show and keeping his calendar open for a possible Spidey sequel.

Simon Crane

Men in Black 3

Age 52

Career Highlights Titanic (1997), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005)

Origin Story The British-born stunt veteran dropped out of law school and joined the circus before breaking into stunt work on the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill. ”I was just a guy running along getting shot by Roger Moore and falling over,” he says. ”It was amazing.”

The Stunts in MIB3 Even in CGI-heavy scenes like the monocycle chase with Will Smith’s Agent J, some old-fashioned stunt work was required. ”When you’re doing a chase without your main characters there, it’s quite difficult to do,” Crane says. Using a motorbike as a stand-in for the monocycle, the team then staged ”all the other stunt action around that, all the cars skidding or crashing or whatever that makes it look real.”

His Favorite Stunt For the 1993 Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger, Crane pulled off a midair jaw-dropper, jumping from one jet to another at 15,000 feet. ”We were doing it for real — it wasn’t bluescreen,” he says. ”I was on a winch let out from a DC-9. Wearing protective clothing to stop my body parts from freezing, wearing a hidden parachute, traveling at 200 miles per hour, and then having to get in the front door of a jet flying behind had its problems.”

What He Was Thinking in Midair ”I just sort of heard this little voice in my head saying, ‘Go, go, go,’ and I did,” he says. ”It is terrifying. Those kinds of stunts don’t happen every day of the week.”

Worst Injury Though he’s broken his collarbone and torn muscles, Crane has managed to avoid serious damage. Even so, ”if you work a lot as a stunt performer, you’re 100 percent going to hurt yourself,” he says. ”There is no getting away from it.”

Up Next Next summer’s World War Z, starring Brad Pitt; the futuristic Tom Cruise thriller All You Need Is Kill, due next year; and the 2014 fantasy film Maleficent with Angelina Jolie.

Dan Bradley
The Bourne Legacy

(Opens Aug. 10)

Age 54

Career Highlights Independence Day (1996), Jackass: The Movie (2002), Spider-Man 2 (2004), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), Spider-Man 3 (2007), The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Origin Story As a kid, Bradley thought he was headed for a law career. But a college film class changed his mind. ”I was a gearhead,” he says. ”I built hot-rod cars. I sort of stumbled into the stunt profession and got completely seduced by it. When I started, they were doing all those Two-Lane Blacktop car movies in the ’70s, and as a kid who liked to build fast cars, I was completely amazed by, like, ‘Look, the police aren’t chasing me — they’re holding traffic for me!”’ His first job was on a 1977 movie called Joyride to Nowhere. ”It premiered on some Peruvian airline because it was atrocious,” he says.

The Stunts in The Bourne Legacy The Bourne movies aren’t about the loudest explosion or craziest car chase. ”Philosophically, we try to make it sort of real,” says Bradley. ”I don’t really think about doing big stunts. It’s about doing lots of really intense things and putting the actors right in the middle of it.” That was no problem for new series star Jeremy Renner, who did most of his own stunts. ”If he wasn’t such a fine actor,” says Bradley, ”he would make an excellent living as a stuntman.”

His Favorite Stunt Bradley is particularly proud of a crash at the end of a car chase in The Bourne Ultimatum, when Matt Damon’s character steers a Volkswagen Touareg into an NYPD cruiser and propels it along the top of a highway divider. ”There’s a great deal of physics, a great deal of prep dealing with a tenth of a second,” he says. ”I was one of those kids in algebra class who was like, ‘When am I ever going to use this again?’ And in this movie, I was doing even higher levels of math trying to figure out where things would go. It’s funny what you wind up needing later in life.”

Worst Injury Bradley spent a month in the hospital with third-degree burns after getting trapped in a car explosion gone wrong on the set of 1992’s Boris and Natasha. ”I wasn’t pinned for that long, but I was in there long enough for it to burn through a four-layer Kevlar full-immersion fire suit,” he says. ”I knew instantly that I had suffered a really serious burn. I didn’t work for, like, 10 months.”

Up Next Bradley directed the remake of the 1984 movie Red Dawn, due Nov. 21.

Tom Struthers
The Dark Knight Rises

(Opens July 20)

Age 45

Career Highlights The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), X-Men: First Class (2011)

Origin Story Struthers, who grew up on a ranch in Australia, started his career working with animals as a member of the Australian Cowboys Association. In 1991, he was playing polo in Kenya when a friend asked if he would bring some horses down to the set of George Lucas’ TV series The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. One of the stuntmen was impressed by Struthers’ riding skills and introduced him to his boss, Simon Crane, who offered him a job. ”I’d never looked to be a stuntman or be in the film business,” says Struthers. ”I was like, ‘Yeah, okay.”’ They wound up working together for the next 12 years.

The Stunts in The Dark Knight Rises If you’ve seen the trailer for Christopher Nolan’s final Bat-epic, you probably caught a flash of an airplane dangling from another plane. Struthers promises that the sequence leading up to that shot is one of the film’s most spectacular. ”I won’t say too much about it, but I will say that it was done for real. It’s [something that has] never been done before.”

His Favorite Stunt Not surprisingly, Struthers favors the famous zero-gravity hotel fight scene in Inception. ”We had the designers and the art department build us a vertical corridor and a vertical lift, and then special effects built a 110-foot gimbal corridor that would rotate 360 degrees at different speeds,” he says. ”It took maybe two and a half days to shoot a sequence that took nine weeks to prepare and rehearse.” And just seconds to unfold in the film.

Worst Injury In 1999’s The Mummy, Struthers was supposed to get knocked off a horse by a shotgun blast, then crash into a wall. ”I hit the wall wrong,” he says. ”I didn’t hit the area that was padded. I fractured my elbow pretty badly. My arm’s not quite straight now.”

Up Next Struthers will likely work on director Ed Zwick’s The Great Wall, set in medieval China.

R.A. Rondell

The Avengers

Age 55

Career Highlights Godzilla (1998), The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

Origin Story ”I kind of fell into it, no pun intended,” he says with a laugh. ”I’m third-generation. My grandfather started in the ’30s. My father was an active stuntman until not too long ago. We raced motorcycles since I was 8 years old, and we were skiing and surfing and scuba diving and hang gliding and rappelling. Then you find out you’re going to make a pretty good living doing that.”

The Stunts in The Avengers The biggest challenge, Rondell says, was coordinating scenes with all of the superheroes, each of whom had his own distinctive style of fighting and moving. ”If you break it down mechanically, there wasn’t anything that was really that difficult,” he says. ”It was just putting all those pieces together to make them blend properly.”

His Favorite Stunt Driving a car at the famed Daytona International Speedway for the 1990 Tom Cruise movie Days of Thunder. ”You show up, they give you a NASCAR, put you in a driving suit, and send you out on the track to race with a bunch of your friends at high speeds. We were completely stoked, because we’re so used to working with junk all the time. These cars were great.”

What He’s Thinking Just Before a Stunt ”You’re very focused,” he says. ”You start tasting a little bit of that bittersweet bile in the back of your mouth, because things are real, and it’s time to go. And you do your gig, and you walk away from it, hopefully. And you have a laugh. You know, we’re all adrenaline junkies.”

Worst Injury ”I’ve been very fortunate,” he says. ”I’ve got my slight concussions and bruises and sprains” — including a pair of dislocated shoulders while making the 1979 David Carradine motorcycle movie Fast Charlie…the Moonbeam Rider — ”but I’ve never had any big broken bones or anything. I know quite a few that can’t claim the same. And there’s also fatalities. That’s something we live with day in and day out. Not to be melodramatic or anything — it’s what we’ve accepted as far as the job description. That doesn’t mean we’re going to go out there and test fate all the time. It’s a calculated risk, but it is a risk nonetheless. That kind of s— happens. You’ve just gotta carry on, or it’s not the job you should be doing.”

Up Next After Earth, a sci-fi adventure starring Will and Jaden Smith, due in June 2013.