With the release of Netflix’s Day Shift, the directorial debut of stunt coordinator J.J. Perry, we thought it would be a good idea to look at some other great movies directed by former stunt people. Perry is the latest in a long line of stunt people who have made the transition behind the camera. He’s worked his way up from stunt person to stunt coordinator to second unit director (often tasked with shooting the action in movies) and now, for the first time, just “director.” Even if you didn’t realize it, you’ve probably enjoyed his work. Perry did stunts on Blade, Iron Man and Django Unchained, and directed action in movies like Warrior, Spy, and F9: The Fast Saga. Most of the other names on this list have done their time in a similar fashion, and when they got their chance to direct, they made the most of it.
You might assume stunt people would have a natural eye for good action, and while that isn’t always true, these 12 films help make the case that more stunt people should be directors. This list doesn’t include stunt people who became performers and directors at the same time, so even though they are legends, there won’t be any Buster Keaton, Jackie Chan, or Sammo Hung films here. You will also notice there is a distinct lack of female directors on this. The sexism that has been inherent in the stunt industry over its existence is outside 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 to the list!
Smokey and the Bandit (1977)
No list of stunt people turned directors would be complete without Hal Needham. Needham came up through television Westerns and spent much of his early career doubling Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. Those connections allowed Needham to transition into directing, and the result was Smokey and the Bandit, starring Reynolds as a bootlegger trying to keep Jackie Gleason’s sheriff distracted by leading him on chases so his partner can transport beer. Needham fills the film with wall-to-wall car chases and crashes, a formula he would also use later in The Cannonball Run. Needham became such a Hollywood institution that Quentin Tarantino based Brad Pitt’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood character, Cliff Booth, in a large part on 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 then on Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers after he relocated to the United States. When talking about having an eye for action, there may be no one 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 his limit, highlighting his gravity-defying kicks better than anyone ever has. Florentine also takes full advantage of Chilean martial artist Marko Zaror as the villain. The end result is one of the 21st century’s best martial arts films.
Undisputed III: Redemption is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
Broken Path (2008)
Power Rangers is really an unsung 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 the stunt coordinator for the almighty Drive (1997) (a movie Perry did stunt work on). After Drive, Sakamoto tried his hand at directing, and the result was Broken Path, a wall-to-wall fight and stunt spectacular. Former Power Ranger Johnny Yong Bosh is up for anything Sakamoto can throw at him, often reaching Jackie Chan levels of reckless disregard for his personal safety. Broken Path barely 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)
The heir apparent to Hal Needham, Chad Stahelski has spent the last decade reinventing action. Along with partner David Leitch, Stahelski’s company 87eleven Action Design has had wild success crafting 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 stagnated by Bourne-style overediting. 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 the focus on martial arts, including bringing in legends like Drive’s Mark Dacascos and The Raid’s Yayan 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 multiple Scott Adkins films on this list, since the man works with some of the best action directors in the business. Jesse V. Johnson was already a veteran stunt person when he started directing his own films. Over the years, Johnson’s films have varied in quality, but he’s always displayed a true authorial voice. His best work in my view is this film, which finds Adkins seeking revenge after being wrongfully sent to prison. Johnson uses Adkins completely differently than Florentine, opting for brutal grounded action rather than high-flying martial arts, and Adkins appears to relish the chance to fully craft a character and have a gritty tumble. Adkins came to prominence for being the “human special effect,” but Johnson turns him into much more of a brawler in the Jason Statham mold, and Adkins proves in the final pub brawl he’s a multidimensional film fighter. If you only think of Adkins as Undisputed’s Boyka, you need to see what he can do under Johnson’s assured direction.
Avengement is available to watch on Netflix.
Blindsided: The Game (2018)
A bit of a 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 most notable for coming in as the stunt coordinator for season two of Netflix’s Iron Fist after the reception to the fights in season 1 was, shall we say, less than warm. The fights in season 1 were choppy and flat. Barber elevated them by making the actors do the work and shooting them in long, clean takes. By doing so, the show vastly improved, and he helped turn Jessica Henwick into a star.
For Blindsided: The Game, Barber teamed up with fellow stunt person/director Eric Jacobus to tell a story of a blind man with a particular set of skills who has to help a friend out of trouble with mobsters. Part Zatoichi, part Jackie Chan-style comedy, Blindsided: The Game thoroughly entertains for its brief run 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 action is fairly sloppy, and the politics are murky at best. That’s what makes Angel Has Fallen such a surprising delight.
Director Ric Roman Waugh dials back the xenophobia and dials up the character work for Gerard Butler’s Mike Banning. Instead of the unstoppable machine he was in the first two films, Banning is reckoning 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 as well, including an impressively done drone attack to kick the plot into motion. Waugh frames the drones almost as an invading plague of locusts, and it really gives the movie a much different vibe than the previous two films.
Angel Has Fallen is available for digital rental or purchase on VOD platforms.
Action Jackson (1988)
Former stunt person Craig R. Baxley made the transition to directing and proceeded to kick out three all-time action bangers in a row with Action Jackson, I Come in Peace, and Stone Cold. Of the three, Action Jackson is my favorite, simply because Carl Weathers finally got the proper starring vehicle he had deserved for years.
Weathers makes the most of it. It’s not an exaggeration to say Baxley gives Weathers maybe the best introduction of all time in the film (trust me, it’s best to see it without knowing what’s coming), and then Weathers takes it from there. Also, he fires a grenade launcher shirtless. I’m just saying.
Baxley worked in an era when stunts were all practical and yet still manages to get Weathers driving a sports car up three flights of stairs. Craig T. Nelson is perfectly slimy as the villain, and the 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 movies on the map, in particular working with his mentee Tony Jaa on films like Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior and The Protector.
Rittikrai frequently directed as well, and one of his most go-for-broke films is this 2004 release. When terrorists take over a village, several Thai Olympic athletes have to band together to stop them. Lead 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 particular talents to fight back, whether it’s soccer, 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 series including Resident Evil (where he’s worked on both games and animated movies) and the third and fourth Devil May Cry games. Sonomura is known for over-the-top 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 slice-of-life, hangout vibe. Despite its short run time of 79 minutes, Hydra is languidly paced. That is, until its final action scene, which sees Sonomura craft a hand-to-hand fight that is truly unlike anything in other action films. Blisteringly fast and brutal, it has to be seen. Come for the mellow vibes, stay to get your mind blown 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.