A peak behind the scenes into the mega-explosions, high flying stunts and ultimate action of… ACTION USA (1989).
If you haven’t heard of Action USA yet, well, nuts to you. But also good for you because you’re reading about it right now! Here at the Ultimate Action Movie Club we love all the over-the-top and awesome action from the ‘80s and ‘90s and Action USA is a lost classic that should be up there with Commando, Cobra and Invasion USA.
And while it might have only been known as a cult classic for much of its existence, Action USA has made a triumphant resurgence thanks to Vinegar Syndrome and Alamo Dafthouse. So, if you haven’t yet, read our full review of Action USA here, then check out this ultimate interview with longtime stunt coordinator and performer turned action director John Stewart!
UAMC: So, what got you into action movies and stunts?
John Stewart: When I was 10 years old watching John Wayne movies I knew I wanted to be a stunt man when I grew up. I started driving cars and mini-bikes and jumping off roofs at a young age, so I knew I wanted to do that pretty early on. I got a chance to double Matt Dillion in a picture in Boston when I was 18 and from there I moved out to LA.
What’s the craziest stunt you’ve coordinated or performed?
Obviously there’s a million of those in Action USA but before that there was this movie called Cold Steel with Sharon Stone. I did a couple of things for that. For one I did a 16-story high fall on fire off a building. And then I directed a car chase off a main road into a raceway where there was a race going on. With the good guys chasing the bad guys and we jumped over a wall and we’re going the opposite way of traffic as the race cars – so you have race cars flipping over the stands and taking out the cars, it was just crazy stuff. Action USA obviously had some crazy stuff too – like jumping over the train in the police car.
Action USA starts off with a bang and has some of the best action sets that I’ve ever seen. What were you looking to accomplish with the film right off the bat?
I learned that early on when I was directing movies because the way it worked at the time was the buyers would come in to a screening and decide within five minutes if they liked it or not. You’d have to grab them at the beginning or they’d just walk out and you’d blow the sale.
What’s the secret to ULTIMATE stunt choreography
You see nowadays you can do whatever your brain can think with CGI, but back then I was always looking around at other films and shows to see what they were doing and trying to see how you can do it bigger and better. How can you do it with a higher speed or off of a higher ramp. Everything has to start somewhere, these movies like Action USA paved the way for Fast and Furious and what they’re trying to do these days. We were just trying to do our things faster and higher and to try to make stuff that would stand out.
There’s a car jump scene that stood out to me where a police car in pursuit crashes and blows up. We cut away for a second to our heroes escaping, but then cut back to see the officer get out of the car while still on fire – and I love that you went back to this rather than just letting the action scene end there with the initial crash.
Yeah exactly that’s what it is. We wanted to put a fire burner in there and that was a perfect place to put it even though we certainly could have just jumped the gorge and moved on, but I cut back to give the stunt performer Gary Beal his fire burn! I mean I was trying to make a cheap, fun action movie – it was a no-brainer where I wanted people to just have some popcorn and enjoy it so I put everything I could into the movie.
Do you think stunt experts make good action directors?
That’s how it’s normally done – most directors who come out of film school can’t direct action much less traffic. But that’s what they should do and what they all do – like James Cameron where they hire a good stunt coordinator for the action scenes then they handle everything else.
I never planned to be a director but when the chance was just tossed into my lap I definitely felt like I had an advantage where I could at least always direct the action and I could direct it well – like I knew where to place the camera to make it look good and I could measure out where a car was going to land after going over a jump ramp and get the camera within five or ten feet to get those money shots that you’d see in the commercials that were selling the films.
But 99% of commercial directors would have no idea where to put the cameras or coverage and would have to rely on a second unit director to help figure it out.
What’s the best action movie that you’ve seen recently?
I haven’t been watching a lot of action films these days mostly because of all the CGI and all that crap. I don’t want to just say Fast and Furious to say it but I don’t feel like they’re doing many stunts or effects grounded in real life. I did see that Spenser Confidential film with Mark Wahlberg that I did like, but for the most part I think the genre has gotten away from its roots.
Is there going to be an Action USA 2?
Absolutely not because we’ve lost too many of the great people involved over the years. Plus everything came together at the perfect time for the movie, the right time, the right location, the right stunt team, the right script you know what i mean? My effects guy was great and it really was a perfect storm so there’d be no way to live up to the original.
I’d much rather do a new action film that has nothing to do with Action USA, but do it in the old style with none of the CGI stuff but do it the way we know how to do it.