Cruise in ‘Ghost Protocol’
In 2015, Hollywood has rediscovered its love for practical effects. The phrase, which refers to special effects made without computers, has been invoked constantly this year: J.J. Abrams has mentioned it often while discussing the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Mad Max: Fury Road was widely praised for eschewing CGI whenever possible. And Suicide Squad director David Ayer has boasted about his film’s practical effects (like using squibs for a gunfight), which will be enhanced with computer graphics in post-production.
But the best practical effect in Hollywood right now isn’t a ball droid or an exploding oil tanker. It’s Tom Cruise. The 53-year-old actor topped the box office this weekend with Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, a film that made headlines for Cruise’s insane stunt work. During the fast-paced action flick, Cruise hangs from the side of a flying plane, rides helmet-less in a high-speed motorcycle chase, and holds his breath underwater for more than six minutes while swimming. Over the course of five Mission: Impossible movies, Cruise’s daredevil feats have arguably become the franchise’s biggest draw. Just as IMAX posters for Rogue Nation show Cruise’s plane stunt, IMAX posters for 2011’s Ghost Protocol featured that movie’s centerpiece stunt: Cruise dangling from the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. And back in 2000, much was made of Cruise free climbing the cliffs of Utah’s Dead Horse Point for the opening scene of Mission: Impossible 2.
Cruise’s name wasn’t always synonymous with stunt work, although he has long touted his stunts as a matter of actorly dedication, perhaps to ward off the notion that he was just another pretty face. He reportedly learned to ride a motorcycle for 1986’s Top Gun, and did his own race car driving for 1990’s Days of Thunder. While promoting 1992’s Far and Away, Cruise boasted about his newly acquired horse-riding and boxing skills.
Cruise in ‘Mission: Impossible’
When Mission: Impossible opened in 1996, Cruise seemed to have taken his passion for stunts to a whole new level. In the film’s most famous sequence, the actor dangles from a ceiling wire, holding his body parallel to the floor as he hacks into a computer. It’s a grueling physical feat, and there’s no body double in sight. As veteran stunt coordinator Randy Butcher recently told Vulture, “The fact that we can always see that it’s Tom really helps make the scene. There’s a profile shot of him over the computer, and you can actually sense his struggle to maintain that balance, which really adds to it.”
Watch Cruise talk about his most famous ‘M:I’ series stunts:
By the time he made 2000’s Mission: Impossible 2, Cruise was determined to become — as an M:I 2 producer described him People �� “better than a lot of stunt guys.” From a career standpoint, the timing makes sense; the actor was pushing 40, and coming off two of his least financially successful pictures (by Tom Cruise standards), Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia. Those, and the subsequent Vanilla Sky, were complex character dramas, but Cruise was about to make a shift into doing mainly action movies — and he needed to establish his bona fides. M:I 2 was an ideal showcase for Cruise’s inner daredevil. The stunts were big and ambitious, from that breathtaking opening sequence at Dead Horse Point to a wire stunt that one-upped the previous movie by incorporating a helicopter. During one fight scene, a knife hovered a quarter-inch from Cruise’s eye — and at the actor’s insistence, the weapon was real. Director John Woo’s trademark slow-motion shots emphasized that this was the Top Gun star, not a stunt double, in some of the film’s most intense moments; frame by frame, audiences watched the strain on his world-famous face during every roundhouse kick and motorcycle swerve.
From that film forward, stunts became an increasingly big part of Cruise’s film career from his close encounter with a sword on The Last Samurai to his motorcycle stunt in Knight and Day, and beyond. For the past decade or so, tales of his near-death experiences on set have become mandatory promotional material for any Cruise movie.
And you know what? It’s working for him. In a time when star power holds less and less sway over movie audiences, Cruise has found a way to reel them in: He’s the one A-list star risking life and limb to do his own spectacular stunts. And that is an increasingly rare thing, even for action films. Take Hollywood’s most successful action franchise, the Fast and Furious movies. As fun as those car chases are, it’s obvious that Vin Diesel isn’t actually behind the wheel. Yes, a few other actors still do their own fighting and roof-jumping, including Jason Statham and the still-kicking Jackie Chan. But we’re so accustomed to CGI in movies that the sight of an actor pushing himself to the limits is more thrilling than any third-act Avengers climax.
Cruise in ‘Mission: Impossible 2′
As jaded as movie audiences are, we still want our stars to be superheroes. We’re always looking for evidence of how much better they are than mere mortals, so we ooh and ahh when Meryl Streep learns to play guitar, when Jared Leto puts on high heels, or when Chris Pratt sheds a few pounds. What Cruise is doing puts them all to shame: He is literally accomplishing things that most people in the world could never dream of doing. (How many people can hold their breath underwater for six minutes? Seriously.) He’s become the Beyoncé of movies, demanding perfection of himself in all things. And like Beyoncé, he puts on a damn good show.
Cruise in ‘Rogue Nation’
For a few years, all Cruise wanted from his career was to take attention back from his personal life. His stunt work has proven to be the ultimate distraction, more novel and entertaining than his bizarre love life. So it’s no wonder that he’s determined to stick with it. His upcoming roster of films is action-packed, including a spy movie with Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman and a sequel to Jack Reacher. Reportedly, he’s also involved in Top Gun 2, though he declared in a recent interview that he has certain conditions for signing on. “I don’t want any CGI jets,” he told Reuters. “I want to shoot it like how we shot the first one.”
The producers of Top Gun 2 would be smart to adhere to Cruise’s vision. After all, practical effects are hot right now — and with Tom Cruise, they have the best one of all.