When watching a movie, we want to be as immersed in it as possible. That requires us to believe what we see on the screen. If one does not believe the action seen on screen, the viewer will not be fully immersed in a movie. Action must feel authentic. That, in turn, requires the stunts to be believable. And what can be more convincing than the actor or actress doing them personally.
However, in many cases, doing a stunt is a considerable risk. So, with people like Daniel Craig and Tom Cruise constantly being praised for doing most of their own stunts, it does raise a question. Should we (the audience), expect and demand actors to do their own stunts, and is it in proportion with the risk involved? Let's take a look at 3 for and against arguments.
A sign of commitment and respect for the audience
When an actor or actress decides to do a dangerous or tricky stunt for a movie, it sends a clear message. The message is that an actor or actress is committed to the role and is willing to risk his or hers health for the sake of authenticity. A stunt or a fight scene can not only be dangerous, but also complicated to pull off. When an actor or actress takes it up, it can involve a specific kind of training, risk of injury, a lot of focus and a big physical challenge in general. That is a sign of commitment.
Of course, an actor or actress doing their own stunts is no guarantee that the whole movie will be good, but it does let people know that the key players involved are willing to put a lot on the line for their entertainment. It is a sign that they are committed to offer the best entertainment they can. And that really counts for something.
Being more immersed in a movie
To repeat what was said before, part of the enjoyment of movies is to be pulled into their universe and believe what you see on screen. Therefore, especially in case of action movies, it means that in order to not be taken out of a movie, the stunts must be believable.
If the viewer notices an obvious use of CGI to make a dangerous stunt happen or clearly recognizes someone as a stuntman, it will take him or her out of the movie. Having said that, a lot can be achieved with computer these days, but nothing beats actually seeing the character's face and clearly believing what is going on. This adds a lot to the entertainment value.
The whole production steps up their game
I recently watched some interviews regarding the filming of Skyfall. Many involved with production said that the fact that Daniel Craig did most his own stunts made everyone work harder.
Even though I have never worked on a film set, the logic behind this is not hard to figure out. When the star of the movie is willing to risk his or her life, get injured and literally throw him or herself into danger purely to create the best possible movie, then everybody else involved with production will have to (and want to) step up their game as well — walking that extra mile. This is how great cinema is born — everyone involved will go as far as they can.
Having said that, there are also some counter arguments.
It really depends on a movie
To generalize: The more serious, deep and ambitious the action movie is, the more important it is to make sure that audience believes what they see.
However, when a movie is more light-hearted or on the comedic side, no one probably cares much whether the actor did the stunts or not.
For example: People would be pretty annoyed, if it turned out that Matt Damon did not do any of his own stunts for the Bourne movies (of course, he did do them). But we don't really mind if good ol' Roger Moore did not do many of his stunts, since his take on Bond was a light and fun one that did not take itself too seriously (credit where credit is due — Moore did some of his own stunts, but in the later movies the stuntmen became extremely frequent. Then again, Moore has revealed that he used no stuntmen whatsoever during the love scenes).
How much is right to sacrifice for entertainment?
This is a question that is, at the same time, clear as crystal and tricky as hell.
As said before, an actor or actress doing his or her own stunts adds a lot to the entertainment value. Also, stunts can be dangerous and might involve a big risk. Furthermore, actors are mostly not professional stuntmen.
So, is it okay to risk one's health and life in order to add a bit for entertainment? There probably is a point where it's not okay anymore. The really crazy stuff should be left to professional stuntmen.
To explain further, it really is a question of common sense and calculated risk. For example, most would agree that the fact that Dylan O' Brien was injured on set of the new Maze Runner movie due to a stunt not being thought through properly, is not OK. Then again, Jason Statham nearly drowned when he drove a truck into water during a shoot for a scene in The Expendables 3. He laughed it off as occupational hazard.
At the end of the day, it is the individual's own decision anyway. A controlled risk that is approached with the utmost dedication and care is one worth taking in order to make a great movie. It is also one that many actors or actresses probably want to take; although, it should stay within realms of common sense.
It actually might take you out of the movie a bit
This last counter argument is a complete nitpick that is only here because I figured that if I'm going to have three arguments for it, I should also have three counter arguments. Having said that, there is a point in here:
If you watch a crazy stunt that was actually pulled off by the actor or actress, you might start thinking more about the stunt itself than the actual plot of the movie.
To give two examples: the Burj Khalifa climbing scene in Mission Impossible 4 and hanging on the side of a flying military airplane in Mission Impossible 5. Both of these stunts were done by Tom Cruise without any help from stuntmen. They are easily among the most impressive scenes I have witnessed in cinema. Massive credit to Tom Cruise for going so far with a stunt and being fully committed on doing it himself.
And yet, for a second, when watching these scenes in the cinema (especially the plane hanging one), I was not thinking about the story or the plot of the movie; I was thinking about something along the lines of: "This is so awesome that it's all done for real and Tom Cruise is one crazy (in a good way) guy to actually go this far." Therefore, the action scene or the stunt became bigger than the movie itself at that moment. That might take you out of the story.
To sum up
A movie star doing his or her own stunts is a sign of commitment and respect for the audience. It immerses one further into the movie and motivates/inspires the entire production of the movie.
Yet, it's importance very much varies with the type and tone of a movie. Furthermore, there is a limit of common sense on how much should one be willing to risk for the entertainment of others. Also, a standout action sequence does not guarantee a great movie, although it adds to it massively.
As long as the risk is a calculated one, it's worth taking it to create an amazing movie experience. Therefore, it is understandable when an actor or actress lets the professional stuntmen do their job if the stunt is too dangerous. But the ones that go for it definitely deserve some praise.