How the 'Mission: Impossible' franchise pulled off its wildest stunts

The road to the 'biggest stunt in cinema history'

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One
(Image credit: Paramount Pictures / Screenshot)

For nearly 30 years, Tom Cruise has chosen to accept his mission of risking his life to entertain us. The "Mission: Impossible" franchise is famous for its increasingly jaw-dropping stunts that Cruise personally performs, and he may have outdone himself for the newest installment, "Dead Reckoning Part One." One of the sequel's stunts has been described as the biggest in cinema history.

In honor of his latest mission, here's a peek behind the curtain at how Cruise pulled off the wildest stunts in the series, including a few from "Dead Reckoning," which hits theaters on July 12:

"Mission: Impossible" - The Langley vault

For the famous scene in the original film where Ethan Hunt infiltrates CIA headquarters, Cruise really hung upside down from the ceiling and was quickly dropped to the floor like seen in the movie.

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"It was all done by hand and weights" with "two guys feeding him up and feeding him down," stunt coordinator Greg Powell explained in a behind-the-scenes featurette. Cruise also recalled that initially, he kept hitting his face when falling to the floor, but he finally got the shot to work by putting coins in his shoes.

"Mission: Impossible 2" - Rock climbing

The opening of "Mission: Impossible 2," which finds Ethan Hunt dangling off rocks and nearly falling to his death, was shot in Utah with Cruise doing the entire sequence himself.

"The scary thing was, the cliff was 2,000 feet high, and there were no protections on the ground," director John Woo explained in a behind-the-scenes featurette. "I was sweating and in a panic."

According to Entertainment Weekly, Cruise only wore a thin safety cable, and getting the scene took seven takes. "We had five cameras on the cliff, including a helicopter camera, a camera on a crane, and cameramen hanging from safety cables, but we had focus problems, so we had to do it again and again," Woo told EW.

"Ghost Protocol" - The Burj Khalifa

The Burj Khalifa sequence was shot by having Cruise — you guessed it — legitimately hang off the side of the tallest building in the world, 2,000 feet in the air, while attached to harnesses. "We thought we'd have to recreate the building and do it in a more traditional way, and it was Tom who said, 'No, I'm going to go out there,'" producer Bryan Burk said in a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The crew set up on an empty floor of the building and had to get permission to drill holes into the ground and ceiling for their equipment, as well as take out more than 26 windows to film. To prepare, Cruise repeatedly climbed up and down a glass wall that was built for rehearsal purposes. But the actor noted in the featurette that he couldn't stay out for long because with the gear he was wearing, he was "being cut off in two main arteries" across the harness, and his legs became numb. Jeremy Renner also really had to partially hang out of the side of the building for the shot where his character grabs Ethan.

"Rogue Nation" - The plane

Yes, that was really Cruise dangling on the outside of an airplane, 5,000 feet in the air, at the start of "Rogue Nation." He "was in a full body harness" and "cabled and wired to the plane through [its] door," cinematographer Robert Elswit explained to The Hollywood Reporter, adding that "inside the aircraft was an aluminum truss that was carefully bolted to the plane, which held the wires that went through the door, which held Tom." Cruise also wore special contact lenses protecting his eyes, though director Christopher McQuarrie noted in a behind-the-scenes featurette that "there was nothing to protect his face." So McQuarrie feared debris could be sucked into the propeller and hit Cruise "traveling at the speed of a bullet," and "if a bird hit Tom at that speed, on any part of his body, that would have been the end." Despite the risks, Cruise performed the stunt eight times.

"Rogue Nation" - Diving underwater

The sequence in "Rogue Nation" where Ethan dives underwater and holds his breath for an extended period of time was filmed in a water tank, and at one point, Cruise held his breath for six full minutes. While filming the sequence, he had to "hold his breath, wait for everyone to get into position, wait for all the bubbles to clear, wait for the cameras to roll, then he does a long take, and then he has to wait for the divers to come back and give him air," visual effects supervisor David Vickery explained in a behind-the-scenes featurette.

"You have these free divers that came in and trained me how to do it," Cruise said on the Graham Norton Show. "It's not pleasant." In fact, he noted that after filming the stunt, "There'd be times I'd be sitting there talking in meetings, and I wouldn't breathe. I realize I am not breathing, and I had to turn my autonomic system back on to breathe again." Though the scene was shot underwater, Cruise was surrounded by green screens so much of the environment around him could be added in post-production.

"Fallout" - The HALO jump

For the HALO (high altitude low opening) jump sequence in "Fallout," not only did Cruise really fall out of a plane traveling 165 miles per hour at a height of 25,000 feet, but he did it over 100 times. The film crew also built a large wind machine that was used to rehearse, and a special helmet had to be developed that would both provide oxygen and ensure Cruise's face could be seen in the shot, according to a behind-the-scenes featurette.

"It'll look like one continuous take, but they're really three long takes," Cruise explained, and he had to fall to exactly three feet in front of the camera. The sequence also had to be filmed during a tight window to get the lighting right. The lightning storm, though, naturally had to be added in post-production.

"Fallout" - The rooftop chase

Though the rooftop chase in "Fallout" isn't as dangerous of a stunt as some of the others, it stands out because Cruise was injured making it. He jumped across a rooftop for the sequence but broke his ankle by accidentally landing in a way that his leg smashed into the side of a building. The injury forced the film to shut down production, but footage of Cruise breaking his ankle and running past the camera while limping was used in the movie.

"I knew instantly it was broken," Cruise recalled on The Graham Norton Show. On the blu-ray commentary, director Christopher McQuarrie remembered Cruise "laying on a couch with [his] foot up and a bag of ice on it" and asking, "Did we get the shot? Good, because we're not coming back."

"Fallout" - The helicopter fall and chase

For the finale of "Fallout," Cruise actually dangled from a helicopter before dropping 40 feet. Director Christopher McQuarrie told the Los Angeles Times a pulley system and safety line were used, but he added, "The only thing the safety line was ensuring was that if Tom was killed during the stunt, we wouldn't be looking for his body in the bushes. Because if he made the fall at the wrong angle, it's picture wrap on Mr. Cruise. If he hits the payload headfirst as opposed to back first or legs first, he'll break his neck and just be a rag doll."

In fact, Cruise's co-star Rebecca Ferguson revealed in a behind-the-scenes featurette that as the stunt was being shot, "I heard myself scream" because "I actually thought he fell," while McQuarrie recalled, "We heard on the radio, 'I think we just lost Tom.'" Cruise also flew the helicopter through the mountains for the chase sequence, and he was trained in flying specifically for the film. Cameras were attached to the helicopter, meaning Cruise "was performing three jobs: he's the pilot, he's the camera operator, and he's acting," McQuarrie noted.

"Dead Reckoning Part One" - The train fight

For an action sequence on a train in "Dead Reckoning Part One," an entire functioning train was built, and a fight was shot on top of it while the vehicle was moving at 60 miles per hour, according to a behind-the-scenes featurette. The train was then filmed being destroyed by falling and crashing into a quarry.

"Dead Reckoning Part One" - The motorcycle cliff jump

The marquee stunt of "Dead Reckoning Part One" involves Cruise riding a motorcycle off a cliff into a base jump, which director Christopher McQuarrie described as "far and away the most dangerous thing we've ever attempted." Cruise's training involved more than 13,000 practice motocross jumps and over 500 skydives. A ramp was constructed in Norway for Cruise to ride off and deploy a parachute in the air — and he then did it five more times.

Cruise told Entertainment Tonight the stunt was shot on the first day of filming so the crew would know whether he would be alive for the rest of the movie. "We know either we're gonna continue with the film or we're not," he said. "Let's know day one … Do we all continue, or is it a major rewrite?" But to quote Anthony Hopkins in "Mission: Impossible 2," this is not mission: difficult. It's mission: impossible.

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Brendan Morrow

Brendan is a staff writer at The Week. A graduate of Hofstra University with a degree in journalism, he also writes about horror films for Bloody Disgusting and has previously contributed to The Cheat Sheet, Heavy, WhatCulture, and more. He lives in New York City surrounded by Star Wars posters.