Gary Kent was a journalism student who joined the Naval Air Corps after graduation before finding himself in Hollywood in 1959 where he began a forty year career as an actor and stunt man working with the likes of Jack Nicholson in movies like Monte Hellman’s 1966 western Ride in the Whirlwind and Richard Rush’s 1967 biker flick Hell’s Angels on Wheels. And whilst it’s not directly mentioned in this doco, he’s also one of the legendary stuntmen upon which Quentin Tarantino supposedly based Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in his latest movie Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood. There’s a pretty interesting sequence in DANGER GOD that looks at the movie making days out at George Spahn’s ranch during the time that Charles Manson and the Family were living there – that piece of history is reflected in one of the best sequences in Tarantino’s film, and Gary Kent has his own, terrific Charles Manson story to share.
All this mythology can only serve to raise the expectations of a documentary like this and, sadly, as entertaining and informative as it is, it doesn’t quite meet those expectations. Part of the reason for that is that the bulk of old footage that O’Connell relies on is from Kent’s various talks and panel appearances and book launches which is generally poorly shot and overused. It provides too much rambling chat and not enough incisive insight.
Similarly, the many ‘fly on the wall’ bull-sessions between Kent and old friends like Charlie Bail and Bud Cadros amount to little more than old war stories and reminiscences which, again, have a high entertainment value but don’t allow us to drill down into the psychology of the stunt men or the mechanics of how they pulled off such amazing feats in the pre CGI days. What’s great, though, is to see the old clips of all the classic (and awful!) B Grade movies when a young and very handsome Kent was an actor as often as he was a stunt man.
On an emotional level, the film does give us a very personal view on grief and mortality through Kent’s eyes as he takes us through his difficult relationship with Tomi Barrett and how he coped with her eventual death, as well as his own trials and tribulations at the latter end of his life. This latter part of the doco, however, becomes overly focused on Kent’s failing health and the limitations of old age and, with the exception of a terrific little sequence when an elderly Kent shows a bunch of young filmmakers how to throw a punch and make it look good for the camera, Danger God shift down a gear for its third act and becomes a different film altogether.
Gary Kent is a larger than life character who has the gift of the gab and a million stories that benefit from that gift. He’s a worthy subject for a film like this but, as good as this documentary might be on a superficial level, Kent’s story and the development and ingenuity of his craft is worth a deeper, more forensic examination than the material Joe O’Connell has been able to assemble affords us.