Ever seen a double-decker leap like a salmon? That moment in Speed when Keanu’s bus hurdles a bridge has long drawn howls of incredulity but, with the right team, a 12-ton Routemaster really can flip like a 5p coin. It’s Day 32 on Simon West’s latest explodathon, Stratton, and Longcross Studio’s two-mile test-track, once used by the M.O.D. to trial army tanks, has been turned into a landing strip for a flying double-decker. The stunt’s taken four weeks to prep. Today’s take-off day and, understandably, there are some pre-flight nerves.
Based on Duncan Falconer’s series of novels, Stratton is a bit of an anomaly – a 100% geezer-free British action movie, and the first to feature a hero from the Special Boat Services (AKA the SBS). Never heard of them? That’s kind of the point. “Until the Iranian Embassy siege, nobody knew about the SAS either,” says West as the stunt-team clank through the final safety checks on the purring Routemaster. “If you Google them, very little comes up: they’re incredibly secretive. I guess the layman’s term would be an aquatic SAS but that doesn’t do them justice. They’ve turned underwater warfare into an artform.”
Stratton, it has to be said, has survived a bumpy ride into production. Henry Cavill, a Royal Marine ambassador, was set to produce and star. Then, five days before the shoot, he pulled out. “Creative differences” were cited but producers reveal it was down to a simple script clash. Cavill wanted to adapt Falconer’s first book, The Hostage, set in 1970s Northern Ireland. Distributors envisioned a modern take on Stratton. So Cavill walked.
With a seven figures already spent on pre-production, rather than pull the pin, the shoot was pushed back three weeks, the entire film recast in two. Enter Dominic Cooper as Stratton 2.0. “Dominic was concerned he didn’t have the muscle packed on, but SBS guys are covert, very ordinary looking,” says West. “I’ve worked with Arnie and Sly but I’ve seen the genre shift since: there’s no delineation between drama and action nowadays, so you can have RSC-trained actors doing stunts. Dominic’s been a trooper: he’s not quite ready to join the SBS but, boy, he could fake it really well.”
I’ve spent the last three days in urine-infested water.
By all accounts, Cooper’s hurled himself into the deep end: he’s learnt to kayak, scuba-dive and handle weapons, all in under a month. He’s also clearly relieved to be on dry land today. Cooper’s previous scene involved an infiltration sequence in a claustrophobic water tank, diving through a three-foot-wide pipe without a respirator. “Yeah, I’ve spent the last three days in urine-infested water,” he laughs. “The camera crew promised they wouldn’t wee in it but... I’m not so sure.” This is typical Cooper: all dry-wit and self-deprecation, but he’s dived into the role, full-force. “Stratton’s easily the most physical character I’ve played. He’s not a Rambo, a Bond or a Bourne – he’s all grit, no zingers. Other than the stunt driving, I don’t think I’ve shot a scene where I’ve sat down yet.” The water-tank stuff sounds like an endurance. “Not as tough as the beach-storming scene we shot in Puglia. That was a killer. Full SBS kit, carrying 40lbs in 45 degree heat. Tyler Hoechlin (who plays Navy SEAL Marty) passed out from heat exhaustion on day two. Utmost respect to anybody in the SBS – fuck knows how they do it.”
That beach-storming scene forms the film’s opening sequence – an action hors d’oeuvre before the meat of Stratton’s man-hunt plot. Joining MI6 and Austin Powell’s Navy SEAL, Cooper’s SBS mission is to thwart a bio-weapon attack on London by Thomas Kretschmann’s rogue ex-FSB Russian agent. The chase swings from Iran to Rome and finally to London, where Kretschmann plans to drop cyclosarin (dubbed Satan’s Snow in the movie) via drone. Which brings us to Longcross, and that bouncing bus – a stunt that kicks off Stratton’s frantic final act.
The burning question then: how do you make a bus fly? Stunt co-ordinator James O’Donnell, whose credits range from Casino Royale to Kingsman, explains: “We’ve fitted a massive, nine-foot long canon pressurised in the bottom of the bus – imagine a nitro-fuelled telegraph pole. Once the double-decker is approaching full speed, a button’s hit, the nitro’s fired and the rod slams into the road. All being well, the bus should fly into the air and flip over. No CG - it’s a dangerous, old-school stunt.”
As O’Donnell oversees some final adjustments, EMPIRE, along with the rest of the production team, are sent to a grassy knoll in the centre of the race track – far enough to avoid any spinning bus shrapnel. Eight cameras are set-up to capture the action, including a whirring drone tracking the bus and crash-cams hidden in the verge. Walkie-talkies crackle. Half a mile up the track, Fast & Furious 6 stunt driver Lee Millham straps into the driver’s seat. The larky mood tenses up. Things go silent. You could hear a spider fart. Suddenly it’s go-go-go and the Number 9 to Trafalgar Square blurs into view, hurtles around a corner and charges down the straight, swiftly followed by a motorcade of camera-rigged trucks (Simon West is riding shotgun in one them). There’s an air-cracking bang, the rod fires into the tarmac... And lift-off. Twelve-tons of Routemaster flies up, seems to hang in the air in bullet-time, then crashes back down, sliding on its side across the tarmac. It’s like watching a bus land a triple-jump. Once the all-clear’s called, there’s a rush to the wreckage. Millham climbs out. beaming. Metal and glass are strewn across the road along with a lengthy red paint scuff, like a gash of lipstick, describing the bus’s slide. The stripe runs for a good 30ft. The bus looks like a giant crumpled red accordion.
West looks delighted. “You see that?” says West. “When it landed, the front wheel scooped up a bunch of stones and they slammed straight into the crash-cam. Couldn’t have gone better.”
After Longcross, the Stratton roadshow moves onto Canary Wharf for what West calls “an old-school, bash-and-smash boat chase”. This wasn’t the original plan.“We spent months securing permission to shoot on London’s canals,” laments O’Donnell. “But we’ve just been scuppered by the blue algae alert.” The what? “If you get in the water and blue algae enters your lungs, you’ll be dead in ten days. No kidding. So we’ve rewritten the action beats for Canary Wharf. Honestly, this shoot’s been like an SBS mission: adapt, overcome, improvise. Fingers crossed, you’ll see all that energy up on the screen.”
Stratton is released on 1 September.