Black eyes and busted bones

Micky Gilbert earns the lifetime achievement award. He’s been a stuntman in everything from Ben Hur to The Wild Bunch.

It’s Saturday. Your phone’s not ringing. You seem to be dead to the world. So what do you bring home? Takeout, and an armful of action films, of course. 

The lonely heart’s secret pleasure is the public passion of cinephiles who want to elevate the status of the action film with ActionFest. The Asheville-based festival, which bills itself as the only international film festival dedicated to the action film genre and its “unsung heroes,” will screen two dozen movies over the course of one thrilling, knuckle-busting weekend.

The first installments took place in Asheville, in 2010 and 2011. An action film festival is a perfect fit for a city known for its action sports, said festival director Colin Geddes, who is also the international programmer of the Toronto International Film Festival.

“People come [to Asheville] for the outside sports and the arts,” Geddes said from his home in Toronto. “If you’re into action of the real kind, it’s a haven.”

He said that people who live here are likely to appreciate “the exhilarating feel, the breathtaking experience you have, when you watch these films, when they’re well done. To see true, physical feats without trickery is pretty remarkable. Watching a lush, historical battle recreated, whether it’s in Asia, Europe or America, that’s a pretty hard thing to pull off. That’s why you don’t see a lot of low-budget Civil War epics.”

The festival honors not only action films, but also the stunt people and second-unit directors who make the genre possible. First-unit directors are often charged with developing the story from opening impressions to the rolling of the credits.
The action scenes that punctuate the story are often filmed separately, sometimes in separate locations, by second-unit directors who focus on stunt work and truly alive live action.

“Did you know there is no Oscar for stunt work?” Geddes said. “A computer effect from Avatar can win an Oscar (for visual effects), but a man that did all the battle scenes for, say, Saving Private Ryan doesn’t get an Oscar. Or the women and men that risk their lives to make cinema exciting. Without them, we’d be watching really boring films.”

ActionFest presents a wide selection of contemporary action cinema from around the world. Films have come from as far afield as Europe and Asia, and closer to home, from Canada, proving that “action really is an international cinema language,” Geddes said. 

In its first year, the year that ActionFest brought actor Chuck Norris to town, it paid tribute to stunt doubles such as Mark De Alessandro (stunt double/coordinator for Sylvester Stallone), Paul Weston (á la Roger Moore playing James Bond) and Buddy Joe Hooker, the stunt double for Norris who performed all the car flips in Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film Death Proof.

Hooker received the festival’s lifetime achievement award last year. This year’s lifetime achievement award reaches further back into cinematic history. Receiving it will be 60-year industry veteran Mickey Gilbert (stuntman in Ben Hur and The Wild Bunch, among other films). Gina Carano, a pioneer in women's mixed martial arts and “Haywire” star, will receive the Chick Norris Award (best female action star). J.J. Perry (of Warrior and Haywire) will receive the ActionFest Fight Choreographer of the Year Award.

The festival headquarters will be at Carolina Cinemas. The opening night film, Solomon Kane by director Michael J. Bassett, will show at Diana Wortham Theatre. The closing night film, Wu Xia by director Peter Chan, will be at the Fine Arts Theatre. Geddes described Solomon Kane as “a rollicking, swashbuckling, swords-and-sorcery film” created by Robert E. Howard, a pulp fiction writer who created Conan the Barbarian before he died at age 30. The star of Wu Xia is Donnie Yen, who is one of Hong Kong’s most recognized contemporary martial arts action stars.

Part of the festival’s mission is to prove to the world that the action genre is as high on story value as it is on entertainment.

“People consider it lowbrow,” Geddes said. “I actually had an academic friend of mine, when she found out I was working with ActionFest, said she doesn’t watch action films. I said, ‘Yes, you do.’ You love the Alien films, Children of Men and the Bourne Identity films.

“We’re trying to show how broad these films can be. Last year, we showed Bellflower, an anti-action film about the obsession with pop culture based around action.”

Before one screening last year, Geddes asked attendees to raise their hands if they were from Asheville. About 40 percent did. That 60 percent did not indicates that people came from far and wide, because “you can’t see these movies anywhere else,” Geddes said. “We’ve had people from Detroit, from Colorado and two carloads coming from Toronto.”

“‘Why Asheville’ is usually the No. 1 question” the founders get, he said. “There is a lot of action that goes on in Asheville. Fire spinners and tall bike riders — ActionFest is for the locals, but it’s also to show off Asheville.”

— Paul Clark can be reached at

what: Actionfest
where: Carolina Cinemas, Diana Wortham Theatre, Fine Arts Theatre
when: Thursday-Sunday, April 12-15 ($100 all-access; single screenings are $8, student/senior $6, military $7.

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