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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Into a Burning Ring of Fire
by Donald Levit

A couple of possible explanations suggest themselves for the rash of movies about movies (or stage productions, e.g., Michael Almereyda’s This So-Called Disaster). One suspects they are a ploy for recycling, and on to DVD sales, with cuts uselessly restored and lots of talking about the film. They also cater to an unquenchable thirst to see celebrities unplugged, as it were, not so much playing a character as discussing the insider’s whats, hows and whys. Cynically, one might add that, given the preponderant mediocrity of mainstream scripts, the public has grown correspondingly hooked on the script-less.

Whatever the reason, director/cinematographer Amanda Micheli’s second feature, Double Dare, is a look behind the façade, with a share of famous TV and cinema faces of yesteryear and today. It is humanized and held together in focusing on two women forty chronological years and nine thousand miles apart, whose unconventional careers overlap, who meet and adopt one another, and who have succeeded in “the most macho of all” of patriarchy Hollywood’s fields.

For ten years a rugby player at the national level, Ms. Micheli won a 1995 student category Oscar for professional rodeo cowgirls documentary Just for the Ride, and has now turned to the conflicts of being a woman, balancing family and career, and ageing, all within the frame of working as a double, or stuntwoman. Her twin interlocking stars are still-active sixty-four-year-old wife, mother and grandmother Jeannie Epper, action-sequence screen replacement for dozens of big names but most remembered as Lynda “Wonder Woman” Carter’s TV stunt lookalike; and young New Zealander Zoë Bell, the lip-ringed Auckland gymnast who was Lucy “Xena: Warrior Princess” Lawless’ primary fill-in and has begun to make a mark here, notably doubling Uma Thurman and Sharon Stone in Kill Bill and Catwoman.

Indicative of the obstacles they and their sister specialists face is the fact that, in six thousand five-hundred words, a prestigious culture magazine’s article on the profession mentions exactly two women, one time each and the second of them by first name only alongside her coworker husband’s. A century ago, the first stuntmen were not specialists but unemployed refugees from rough jobs eager for a few dollars to risk what actors could, or would, not. Legend has the first of the breed a California mesmerist, or else a Native American employed by D.W. Griffith, but what is certain is that women’s rôles were doubled by stuntmen for a good half-century, just as midgets filled in for children.

From a family that has produced a dozen such specialists descended from a Swiss cavalryman who just happened into it, Jeannie Epper was one of the original stunt-children. Past president, current vice president of the Stuntwomen’s Association of Motion Pictures, she fusses over injured, operated-on stuntwoman daughter Eurlyne, considers and rejects liposuction and assorted nips and tucks, was recently a mature policewoman driver in The Fast and the Furious and honored by her peers (including Ken Howard, to whom she had donated a kidney: “it is only right that both her kidneys be here”).

The Xena series wrapped after a long television run, during which she had harness-rigged flips, somersaults and flying swordplay, Zoë leaves her parents and younger brother for the other planet that is Southern California, initially for the overwhelmingly female Warrior Princess Fan Club annual convention but also to look for work that her native island cannot offer.

From her Holiday Inn room, she is invited by kind-hearted Jeannie and joins the Epper household -- “Welcome Friends/relatives by appointment” -- where she is like another daughter, learns about new training methods and industry contacts and is counseled against breast enlargement on her “34B-plus.” All share the joy, and she phones Auckland, when second-unit director Kenny Lesco selects her to join Tarantino on the Beijing set for Kill Bill.

Called “gags” by insiders since Keystone Kops days, stunts are dangerous but, while serious mishaps are not uncommon, fatalities are rare, on average less than half-a-dozen per decade. Part of the fun is simply watching preparation and how the visual tricks are done by bewigged, disguised, unsung heroines and hero specialists. But the real warmth of Double Dare comes from its two protagonists, enthusiastic professionals who meld into friends even as they become family. 

(Released by Runaway Films and Goodmovies Entertainment; not rated by MPAA.)

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