TG chats to Bruce Willis*
*Not really, but a man who looks a bit like him: we hang out with Brucey’s Die Hard stunt driver…
Posted: 10 Jun 2013
Larry Rippenkroeger isn't Bruce Willis. He is, however, a very nice man with a smashing name and a penchant for the dangerous. The kind of dangerous that might persuade the ‘reasonable man' to curl up into fits of trembling fear, and the kind of dangerous that puts you in hospital for a month needing several surgeries.
Larry Rippenkroeger is a stunt man; more specifically, Bruce Willis' stunt driver on Die Hard 5, and sitting on the balcony overlooking the Mercedes-Benz World in Surrey, he recalls one terrible night in Los Angeles many years ago on the set of Die Hard 4.0, where he experienced what life in the dangerous lane tasted like. It tasted like pavement.
"Basically, we were about a month into filming," he says, in such a laid-back Californian drawl you wonder if he's adrenaline deficient, "and we were back in Los Angeles doing what we would call a ‘nothing' stunt: a simple, easy night.
"I was just going to be running down a couple of levels of a fire escape, transfer to a ladder on the building, and then climb the rest of the way down to the ground. Somewhere in that transition - I have no memory of it - I must have slipped. Something went wrong, and I fell 25 to 27 feet head first into the street. No, scratch that, I fell face first. I apparently got my hands out in front of me to break the fall, because afterwards I had compound fractures on both wrists, and the right side of my face was pretty much destroyed."
He looks in great shape today, and smiles energetically as if to prove his athleticism. "I was in the hospital for a month, and then had to go back several times for several more surgeries over the next year and a half. I got all my eyesight back, and I now have a great range of motion in both my wrists. But... it's a miracle that I'm alive."
You would think this accident might have persuaded Larry to jack in the stunt business and retreat up a Himalayan mountain refuge to live amongst birds and monks. But he's a former four-time jet-skiing world champion and harbours a deep love of motocross. "I'm absolutely a gearhead, no question about it," he enthuses. Almost on cue, a couple of E63s powerslide in the background, trying to replicate the anatomy and god-that-was-close hairiness of a proper chase scene around MB World's purpose-built circuit. No, after the accident, Larry just dusted himself off and got straight back into his day job: Falling Over And Jumping Around For Bruce Willis.
"It was the dream phonecall," he says, about being drafted in to do Bruce's driving for A Good Day To Die Hard. And on the basis of the epic car chase sequence, it certainly qualifies as a ‘good day in the office'. Not least because he gets to pilot a Mercedes G-Wagen, Unimog, and a custom-built military truck simply known as the ‘MRAP'.
"There was some insane stuff on Die Hard 5. I remember standing on the overpass next to the G-Wagen - for the ‘stepladder' sequence - looking at how far down the drop was, thinking, ‘really, can this be done?' I wasn't so sure, man". Well, turns out it can be done, as we've shown you on these digital pages: the wanton destruction levelled out on the motoring world is eye-poppingly gratuitous.
"The Unimog was rigged up with a castor system, so I had to drive it one-handed for most of the time. You hit a button and these castor wheels came down, lifted the back tyres up enough to get them off the ground... then it was like suddenly driving on ice. But I had never done stunts in a G-Wagen before, so I was impressed with how much abuse this thing could take. All we had was a roll cage in it - that's the only modification we made to the G-Wagen for filming, and I was smashing vehicles in it, jumping over centre dividers and slamming into the MRAP."
Ah yes, the MRAP. Stunt coordinator Alex King was the man responsible for making it happen. "The director wanted one," he tells me, "which means we'd have to have several, because of the journey it was under. It's originally a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle used to keep soldiers alive on the war front. We built three, and a lightweight version that had a carbon fibre body built for one particular sequence - when it jumped back onto the motorway."
It's been built around the chassis of a Russian-made ZIL truck, weighs around 3.6 tonnes and features a 500bhp V8 from a Dodge Ram. It cost around $200,000 to build, but there were many other cars sent to their deaths to ‘feed' the MRAP's appetite - and the film's chase scenes. "Easily in excess of a couple of hundred," King tells us. "In the end it was indiscriminate. We were buying cars and it was like cannon fodder, feeding this mangle machine."
Larry can attest to that. "You plan things as best you can, but we had a couple of days when we hit cars we weren't supposed to. You're taking things to the ragged edge, so things like that naturally happen."
Indeed, a point most ably made as Larry tries to show me what a moment in his world is like: attempting to navigate a modified Mercedes E-Class with a roll-cage - and steering gear - attached to the roof, on MB World's handling track. It's a driving rig, set up so a stunt man (that's Larry) can drive from the roof, relieving the actor inside the car to concentrate less on crushing apexes and being a Driving God, and more on perfecting his or her Blue Steel. For the trial run, something goes wrong, and it accelerates off with venom. Only the sternest application of brakes - laying down a lovely set of ‘11s' - a bit of shouting and some light sweating prevents it from reforming the steel barriers. Scary, much?
Larry shrugs his shoulders. These things happen. He strong-arms me into the hot seat of the driving rig, and talks me through the controls. It's an auto, with a hideously stiff accelerator pedal, brakes you have to stamp on to activate, and no power steering. It doesn't self-centre, either, and judging by that practice outlap, doesn't like to work properly all the time. "Just take your time," he says. I do. I take a lot of time, because driving a Mercedes E-Class while perched on its roof in a makeshift rollcage doesn't inspire me to set purple fastest times. It does to Larry though. Within a few moments of him behind the wheel, he's screeching around like a pro. Later I discover why.
"I'm fairly good at drifting," he says, modestly, "although I haven't spent a lot of time in a true drift car. I did some car racing recently, racing sprint cars. You get an oval dirt track and you're sliding sideways the whole way and the cars are just all horsepower. I did that very well. I had a yellow ribbon on my rollcage (because I was a beginner), started dead last, and passed more than half the field."
We can see why. Have a click here to see TG.com's exclusive video from A Good Day to Die Hard - out on DigitalHD, Blu-ray and DVD - with an actual Bruce Willis in it.
Words: Vijay Pattni