Tom Cruise: The Last Great Special Effect
Every great piece of art has functioned on the appeal that it’s some sort of magic trick that no one else could create. And when stunts, special effects, and later, digital effects, popped up in films, there was always a wonderful question that audiences thought to themselves as they sat in the theater: “How did they do that?”
In this day and age, it’s becoming more and more difficult to keep asking that question. You have a computer, I have a computer; we get it. The monsters, sharks, tidal waves, spaceships, and superpowers are digital. Hell, even sloppy continuity on a shot or an actor’s unsightly cold sore can be fixed with digital effects. We may not be able to make these excellent effects on our own, but we know that with enough money and time from talented artists, we can essentially see anything happen on film. And let’s be honest: there’s something slightly disappointing about that. What happened to the wonder and thrill of cinema? Enter Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in the Mission: Impossible franchise.
When starring in action films, Tom Cruise has that manic desperation of a kid on a diving board with his parents barely paying attention on nearby deck chairs – he wants to entertain, but not like the other countless film actors collecting awards and paychecks. Tom Cruise’s insistence of participating in his action sequences has become his calling card and a major selling point of the Mission: Impossible films. And it’s very effective. The apex of this strategy to sell Cruise this way has to be his the Burj Khalifa stunt sequence from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. Cruise apparently fired the insurance company on the film so he could perform the thrilling sequence in which he scaled the side of the tallest building in the world. After a lukewarm box office response to the previous installment (the very underrated Mission: Impossible III), it seemed that Tom Cruise’s career was cratering and his key franchise was turning stale. But then, Cruise put himself in the middle of the magic trick in Ghost Protocol, dangling from a glass building, hundreds of feet up, and audiences ate it up. In fact, with Ghost Protocol, Paramount changed up their marketing technique for the franchise, now putting the biggest stunt on the poster. With Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, it was Cruise hanging on the side of a plane, and with the most recent entry, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Cruise can be seen on buses and billboards, plummeting out of a plane at 200 miles per hour. And if you know anything about Tom Cruise and his character of Ethan Hunt, you know it’s as real as humanly possible.
In order to get that stunt captured on film for Fallout, the scene had to be shot close to sunset, giving the crew only three minutes a day to nail. What makes this stunt extraordinary is that it’s a HALO jump, which is short for high altitude, low open; meaning that Cruise’s character drops from 25,000 feet, hurtling towards the camera at 200 miles per hour and he can’t pull his chute until he reaches 2,000 feet, making him the first actor to record this stunt on film (it also meant the crew had to breathe pure oxygen for 20 minutes on the ground before they went up in order to prevent decompression sickness.)
It’s probably not coincidental that Tom Cruise upped his stunt game with the normalization of excellent digital effects. This also meant that he would be doing less character-based films like Jerry Maguire and Rain Main. A student of blockbuster filmmaking, Cruise doesn’t do TV like most actors these days – he’s a movie star. And that means he needed to give audiences something that no one else is willing to give: his body and, well, his safety.
During the filming of Fallout, Cruise famously broke his ankle on a rooftop jump and that unfortunate take makes the final cut. Even though this is clearly not intentional, the accident oddly supports the narrative that Tom Cruise is willing to risk his body in order to entertain. Cynics view the “performing my own stunts” routine as a gimmick in order to maintain his action-star career at a high level. Gimmick or not, there’s nothing like a large-scale Tom Cruise action sequence these days.
Mission Impossible: Fallout is garnering strong reviews, and it’s not just because of the stunts, which is key to understanding why this franchise is so successful. The stunts have to be the frosting on top of the dramatic action; just look at Johnny Knoxville’s most recent effort, Action Point. You can only watch someone get injured so many times until you wonder, what else is there? Cruise knows this. Each film he makes is an effort to raise the bar and the sense of wonder and that includes the emotion that runs through the characters.
So, what does this mean for the future of Tom Cruise’s career? The man is 55 years-old, so father time will eventually have to step in and hand him a knee injury or something. Yet, if history has taught us anything, an older and hobbled Tom Cruise will find a new approach to take our breath away.