How Mission: Impossible Became the Last Great Stunt Franchise

Over the past 27 years, the Mission: Impossible franchise became the final stronghold for “real action.”

Tom Cruise

It started with Tom Cruise and a rope.

In Mission: Impossible, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt dangles from the ceiling of an extra-secure vault in Langley, the CIA headquarters, to hack a computer protected by state-of-the-art technology. It’s a heist performed on the head of a pin. Any noise louder than a whisper could set off the alarms. Any rogue sweatdrop could be picked up by sensors. Hunt and his team manage to eke out a successful heist, but not before things almost go horribly wrong: Hunt is sent tumbling until he’s inches off the ground, waving his arms wildly to regain his balance. It’s the most enduring image of the movie, and arguably of the entire franchise. But, surprisingly, it wasn’t the stunt that Mission: Impossible stunt coordinator Greg Powell thought would be the film’s big standout moment.

“I thought it would be the train sequence,” Powell tells Inverse, referring to the climactic scene where Cruise fights Jon Voight’s Jim Phelps and Jean Reno’s Franz Krieger atop a moving train (and almost gets skewered by a helicopter rotor blade in the process).

But it didn’t take Powell long to realize which sequence would go on to become an iconic pop culture moment. “It's been copied 1,000 times, commercials, cartoons,” he says. “I wish I'd had pay in that stunt, because it's been shown over and over again.”

Why has the Langley vault stunt endured? It’s probably its deceptive simplicity. All the tension is focused on Tom Cruise and a cable rope. And unlike all the bells and whistles of the train sequence — which Powell describes as the biggest setpiece of the movie, complete with a giant wind machine that could “actually blow you off your feet” — the Langley vault sequence came down to pure human skill.

“That was pretty hard for him,” Powell says. “That was probably harder in some ways than the train, because he's balanced and hanging there upside down and working.”

“That's why we do Mission movies, because there's no other movies like it.”

It feels fitting, then, that pure human skill — specifically, the pure skill and tenacity of Tom Cruise — has become part of the DNA of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Though the setpieces have gotten significantly bigger and more dangerous, Mission: Impossible is still about Cruise dangling from various heights. The Burj Khalifa sequence in Ghost Protocol? Dangling Cruise off the tallest building in the world. The famous plane stunt in Rogue Nation? Dangling Cruise off a real Airbus A400M “Atlas.” The newest Mission: Impossible movie, Dead Reckoning Part One, graduates to simply throwing Cruise off of a cliff in a stunning sequence where the actor does a combined base jump with a motocross.

It’s a long way from dangling from a Langley vault ceiling, but Dead Reckoning stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood tells Inverse it was the only direction the franchise could have gone.

“You are always trying to one-up [the last stunt].”

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation pushed the boundaries for putting Tom Cruise through death-defying stunts.

Bad Robot/Skydance Prods/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

Eastwood could certainly be credited with bringing Mission: Impossible to new heights. The stunt coordinator and second unit director joined the franchise with director Christopher McQuarrie in 2015’s Rogue Nation, and has become a key part of the crew since, introducing even more death-defying stunts that use as little CGI as possible. Mission: Impossible’s dedication to stunt work has raised the bar for everyone while simultaneously setting it apart from the rest of the blockbuster landscape, namely those green-screen reliant Marvel movies — a comparison made even starker when you consider the steadily declining state of the VFX industry. In the process, the Mission: Impossible movies have become one of the last remaining bastions for “real action,” which only puts more pressure on Eastwood to deliver.

“It's very stressful because people watch Mission Impossible movies and expect great stunts,” Eastwood says. “I want to deliver great stunts to the audience. Tom definitely wants to deliver great stunts to the audience and a great story. So it's a constant battle and many sleepless nights.”

Making a Mission: Impossible Stunt

Tom Cruise and Esai Morales grapple on top of a moving train in Dead Reckoning Part One.


Planning a Mission: Impossible stunt starts at the drawing board. Eastwood, McQuarrie, and Cruise brainstorm ideas for setpieces that “would be really cool for the story” but also offer the kind of visual spectacle the Mission: Impossible movies have become known for, Eastwood says. “What would the audience want to see? What would be really cool that fits within the character in the story?” Then they factor in prep days, shooting days, and Cruise’s training schedule. They get advice from experts in the field, build a schedule — if it’s for Cruise, it’s a shorter training period because he “learns at a much higher rate than just your average person,” Eastwood says — and get to work.

Cruise, who has already developed a skill set including piloting planes, skydiving, base jumping, motocross riding, and race car driving, sets out to learn whatever new skill he may need for his next great stunt. Eastwood points to the combined base jump with the motocross that Cruise performs in Dead Reckoning Part One as an example of his commitment.

“It was emotional on the day,” Eastwood says, explaining that after “months and months of training … to nail that stunt with such perfection” caused him to almost tear up. It’s that kind of dedication that Cruise has shown that Eastwood thinks is the secret ingredient of the Mission: Impossible movies.

“I think it's just Tom from the very beginning. If Tom wasn't an actor, he would've been one of the top, if not the top, working stuntmen in the world. And the reason is he's very versatile.”

Cruise’s dedication to executing stunts himself has pushed Eastwood’s team to improve the technology that will allow Cruise to hang off the side of a mountain or base jump off a cliff. Eastwood had to develop new rigs or methods to stage the real action, using helicopters to film the sequence or hauling equipment up a mountain and bolting it 3,000 feet high.

“Logistically, it's very challenging,” he says, “but that's why we do Mission movies, because there's no other movies like it.”

How the Mission Impossible: Movies Changed Stunts

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol upped the ante on the franchise’s stunts.


Stunt coordinator Greg Powell, who has over 150 credits to his name including Harry Potter and Skyfall, has watched from afar as the Mission: Impossible franchise evolved in the 27 years since Cruise first rappelled down that Langley vault.

“Stunt work's gotten more technical now from when I was a young man,” he says. “When I was a young mate, it was crash-bang wallop, that sort of thing. These guys today, they've taken it to another level in what they do on motor bikes, and climbing, and parachuting.”

Does he credit the Mission: Impossible franchise for pushing the stunt industry to evolve? Powell wouldn’t say as much, though he’s happy to see how his work in the first Mission: Impossible laid the foundation for Cruise’s future sky-high stunts. “It set the ball running,” Powell says. “He's hanging off the side of planes now, and buildings, and jumping motorbikes with parachutes. It started with a train, and then that became a little bit more complex.”

“It's something that will be part of cinema history.”

The heights that each Mission: Impossible movie has been able to reach make Powell a little nostalgic about what he accomplished, though. Not for the Langley vault scene — no, he wouldn’t change one part of that. But if he could redo the first Mission: Impossible’s train sequence, he would — with Cruise doing it all for real on top of a moving train, with no CGI. “I think if you should do the same thing today, it would look a lot better. But I think Tom would definitely try on the express train from London to Paris to do it,” Powell jokes.

But Eastwood doesn’t have time to look back — the Mission: Impossible movies have to evolve at such a fast rate to keep up with changing times. “Audiences have changed and techniques of rigging have changed, techniques of shooting it have changed, smaller cameras, easier to move. So we've evolved,” Eastwood says.

Looking Ahead at Dead Reckoning Part Two

Tom Cruise preparing for the combined base jump with a motocross in Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.

Paramount Pictures

Eastwood’s team is already developing new camera systems and equipment for Dead Reckoning Part Two. “We don't look at what's on the shelf, we never have,” he says. “It's constant R&D, constant. And I think you've got to be on that level to do a Mission film. You've got to be thinking way outside the box in order to evolve.” One major sequence in Dead Reckoning Part Two has already been shot, Eastwood reveals. He can’t say any more about what the sequence was, except that they shot in his home country of South Africa, and that it is “breathtaking.”

But even at the breakneck speed at which Eastwood and McQuarrie’s team are working to make the next (and potentially last) Mission: Impossible movie, Eastwood says they still take special care to craft each stunt for more than just spectacle. They want to make something as iconic as Tom Cruise dangling down a vault ceiling. “It's not just a stunt for that moment, a fad that's come and gone,” Eastwood says.

“It's something that will be part of cinema history.”

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One opens in theaters July 12. Part Two is scheduled to hit theaters June 28, 2024.

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