Director Christopher McQuarrie makes it clear – Tom Cruise does risk his life to film his action sequences. He should know: he has directed three of the seven Mission: Impossible films that have been released (Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opened on Tuesday, and Part Two, where Cruise is supposed to take things even further, will be released next year). The actor has stand-ins and specialists who replace him occasionally, but when it is time for the action set pieces, whether it is a jump, a fight, a chase or a shootout, he asks to do it himself. And although there are mandatory safety measures, there is always the risk of something going wrong. Want an example? We have 13. The following are some of the most memorable moments in which Cruise — who turned 61 on July 3rd — has risked life and limb for the sake of his art.
Climbing the world’s tallest skyscraper in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011). At 2,716.5 feet, the Burj Khalifa, in Dubai, has been the tallest skyscraper in the world since 2004. Seven years later, Ethan Hunt – that is, Tom Cruise – climbed it, broke some windows and hung from it under the direction of Brad Bird. Both had previously consulted with specialists, other climbers and architects on how to film that sequence. Fun fact: the day before filming of this set piece began, Cruise told Bird that he wanted to climb to the top without a harness or any safety measures to take a promotional photograph. The resulting image is scary.
The knife from Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). The final fight between Tom Cruise and the villain, played by Dougray Scott (an actor whose shooting delays kept him from playing Wolverine and whose career went down the drain), may seem like a minor affair, but it has its intricacies. John Woo, who directed this installment, wanted to give the brawl strength and credibility. At one point, Scott gets on top of Cruise, who is flat on his back, and tries to plunge a hunting knife through his eye. The star asked Scott to push the weapon (which was real) as hard as he could, and even though the object was attached to a wire, its tip remains less than an inch away from his pupil. One wrong move and Ethan Hunt would now be wearing an eyepatch.
The climb in Mission: Impossible 2 (2000). The beginning of Woo’s film is not bad either, with Hunt free climbing in Dead Horse Point, in Utah. The shooting took five days, with cables holding Cruise, who was replaced in the jump by stuntman Keith Campbell. But it is too incredible, even for the M:I universe. Although the movie launched the actor as an action movie star, it hasn’t aged well.
The fall from the Shanghai skyscraper in Mission: Impossible 3 (2006). How will Hunt gain access to a skyscraper where his kidnapped wife is being held in Shanghai? After flying around several buildings, the course of action is dropping down the sloped façade of one of them. JJ Abrams, the director of M:I 3, liked the idea, but it was shot in a hangar with a green screen to protect the safety of the star. It was just at the end when Cruise had his moment of glory: he dropped in front of the screen, attached to a crane, from approximately 65 feet high, with his head ending up barely 20 inches from the floor. Too close for comfort, had the cable failed.
The helicopter chase in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). McQuarrie says that a sort of mantra they repeat on the sets is “Don’t be careful, be competent,” because there are millions of variables that can complicate the filming of any sequence. In this high-speed helicopter chase through New Zealand’s Southern Alps, Cruise is both acting and piloting between steep slopes, with no special effects.
The aquarium explosion from Mission: Impossible (1996). Hunt is in Prague, surrounded by enemies, and there is only one way out: a spectacular escape. Brian de Palma was going to use a stunt double in this sequence in which the star runs out of a restaurant, blowing up a huge aquarium as an evasive maneuver. However, he did not like the way it was turning out, and asked Cruise if he would mind filming it himself. Not at all, despite the 16 tons of water roaring behind him and the flying glass splinters from the aquarium.
The high-altitude parachute jump from Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). This movie is full of memorable Cruise moments, like the one that made him the first actor to star in a real HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jump on screen – that is, a jump at a high altitude followed by a quick free fall, with the parachute opening at low altitude. After a year of preparation, the actor jumped from more than five miles high with a special helmet that supplied him with oxygen and allowed his face to be seen. Before jumping from the C-17 plane that was carrying him, he breathed pure oxygen for 20 minutes to avoid problems with decompression.
A close car in Jack Reacher (2012). The first of the two installments of Jack Reacher was also directed by McQuarrie, who says that sometimes the most dangerous moments are the most unexpected ones: in one sequence, Rosamund Pike backs a car out of a parking space, and when she moves forward she suddenly finds Cruise in front of her. Rosamund is an actress, not a driver, and if she stepped on the wrong pedal or miscalculated the distance, she would have run him over. In other words, he was in more danger there than in the fast-paced chase at the heart of the film.
The plane taking off with Hunt hanging from it in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015). “Benji, open the door!” Ethan Hunt shouts as he dangles from a Russian A400 cargo plane that is taking off. Cruise is actually hooked with a harness, although that would not have protected him from being hit by a rock on takeoff, or a bird during flight. It is one of the iconic images of the saga, and he repeated it in half a dozen takes.
A broken ankle on the rooftops of London in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). Another trademark of the M:I franchise, since its first installment, is Hunt running and jumping across the roofs of any city. This time it was London, and in a seemingly easy leap he crossed from one rooftop to another, but he hit a wall and broke his ankle. Filming stopped for nine weeks and the studio had to pay approximately $80 million in extra costs for the delay.
The 6.5-minute immersion in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015). He trained to lower his heart rate in order to consume less oxygen. And he did it. Tom Cruise stayed underwater for 6.5 minutes. While promoting the premiere on The Graham Norton Show, the actor said that the experience had been very unpleasant and that after filming there were moments when his body stopped breathing unconsciously, forcing him to “turn [his] autonomic system back on to breathe again.”
For a few years Cruise held the world record (among actors) for holding his breath underwater, until Kate Winslet reached 7 minutes and 15 seconds on the set of Avatar: The Way of Water.
The plane crash in The Mummy (2017). There’s more to Tom Cruise than just Mission: Impossible. In The Mummy, he stars in an intense sequence in which he tries to survive a plane crash in a military airplane that is free falling out of control. To do it, they filmed in a plane used by astronauts to train in zero gravity. The entire idea for the sequence, by the way, was Cruise’s, of course.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023). Christopher McQuarrie says that the scariest thing for him was not the jump that has been promoted on social media, but a spiral descent with a parachute that ends in an abrupt high-speed landing. On top of that, Cruise does it by a steep hillside. The actor speeds up on a motorcycle up a mountain (a ramp built in Norway, after rehearsing on another one in England) and when he reaches the end he lets go of the vehicle, flies against the wind for about six seconds and then opens the parachute, with several cameras on drones and a helicopter capturing his every movement. He didn’t do it once, either: he did it six times, until he got it just right.