The “Mission Impossible” franchise is a tightrope of stunts — growing thinner and longer with every subsequent adrenaline-crammed installation — one that Tom Cruise continues to cross with ease and flair. The team behind these iconic scenes, Cruise himself included, has strapped Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to cliffsides, skyscrapers, and airplanes to challenge the limitations of practical action filmmaking. These are seven of the most daring stunts and their lethal behind-the-scenes risks that have cemented Cruise as a certified badass in the industry.
‘Mission Impossible II’ (2000) — Dead Horse Point
We’re kicking off this unhinged list with a literal cliffhanger. The opening scene of “Mission Impossible II” is Ethan scaling Dead Horse Point in Utah — thousands of feet above the ground with nothing but a chalk bag and a rigged cable. This scene reminds anyone who might’ve forgotten that Ethan, or even Cruise, thrives in death-adjacent situations. After all, this isn’t a glance at the mission underway, but rather a relaxed Ethan “on holiday.”
The eye-widening moment comes when Ethan, mid-climb, has no other option but to leap from his position to another track on the face of the sheer cliff. The jump appears successful until his feet slip down and over the small ledge. In true action fashion, he latches on at the last possible moment and finds himself in another life-threatening situation. He must now swing outward, into nothing, before landing in another nook with only his free arm to hoist himself up.
‘Mission Impossible III’ (2006) — I Knew He’d Make It
My preconceived limitations of the practical stunts Cruise can withstand shatter in every installment of the franchise. It’s not to belittle his previous cliffside stunt, but jumping off one skyscraper only to swing over another, unhook the cord, and slam back-first and upside-down onto a sloped surface is faint inducing. The franchise’s focus on quality over quantity makes these movies unforgettable. Instead of cramming stunt after stunt into their pictures, they spend countless hours and days rehearsing a handful of extreme ones, and it shows.
Despite the gravity and dangerous nature of the situation, this is only second on the list; it gets worse (in the most amazing way possible). The majority of the stunts are ticking time bombs that only give Cruise a small window to act and find his footing before the situation worsens. Despite precautions, these stunts pose genuine life-altering (if not entirely life-ending) risks. In one movie (not mentioned in this list), Cruise breaks an ankle jumping between rooftops. Still, the thrill of the watch is witnessing a fearless Cruise testing the limits of what’s possible.
‘Mission Impossible V – Rogue Nation’ (2015) — Motorcycle Chase
Vehicle chases in action movies are a dime a dozen, and most carry out the same twists and turns: a gnarly jump here, a car explosion there, and the protagonist escapes, driving away unscathed. The motorcycle chase in “Mission Impossible – Rogue Nation” ups the ante. Taking a behind-the-scenes look at what went into making this scene as visceral as it turned out might leave you wondering if anyone involved in the film had a hint of sanity left.
The safety measures that stabilized control on the bikes were disengaged so Cruise and the rest of the stunt team could steer more fiercely and dangerously. At first, this doesn’t sound too bad — until you realize the climax of the chase is on a winding mountain road that promises death should you lose control. The cherry on top: Cruise performs this entire scene in a tropical tee and a pair of jeans, with no safety gear whatsoever — which is all the more terrifying and impressive when you find out how the scene ends.
‘Mission Impossible VI – Fallout’ (2018) — Helicopter Drop Scene
This scene keeps me up at night. The planetary scale of the remaining stunts is the only reason it isn’t higher on my list. Cruise sets off in a sprint before leaping onto a rope carrying a netted ball attached to an in-flight helicopter. He makes quick work of the climb before feigning a slip, letting go all together, and falling backward onto — what is later shown behind the scenes — a small, rounded surface below.
A successful execution of the scene results in Cruise ultimately catching himself on the net below, mid-fall. It’s reassuring to know that safety measures are in place to protect stunt actors when performing these death-defying acts, but ultimately, safety is never guaranteed. Take the infamous ankle-breaker scene from “Mission Impossible V – Rogue Nation,” for example. Though the stunts performed in these movies are meticulously rehearsed, certain factors are beyond the team’s control — things like temperature and wind levels that Cruise must navigate in real-time.
‘Mission Impossible VI – Fallout’ (2018) — HALO Jump
I would’ve never imagined, watching Ethan hang from that lowering cable in the first “Mission Impossible,” that he would one day be free-falling from the edge of space. The intricate process behind executing this jump is a testament to the precision of the work. After all, having Cruise jump out of an aircraft traveling 200 miles per hour at 25,000 feet in the air — while maintaining visibility and the overall composition planned for the shot — is no small undertaking.
A disorienting tidbit of background to the stunt is the planned timing for the shoot. The team wanted to shoot at night, at a height that severely lacked light and visibility. Navigating this treacherous space while simultaneously coordinating with divers strapped with camera equipment to execute a scene in free fall is enough to give you chills.
‘Mission Impossible IV – Ghost Protocol’ (2011) — Burj Khalifa
One of the most iconic scenes in the “Mission Impossible” series uses the tallest building in the world, The Burj Khalifa, and sets the standards for stunts unimaginably high. With every new release in the series, the crew works harder and harder to outdo the last; still, this scene from the fourth installment remains one of the most outlandish and unbelievable. The spectacle of the climb is only the first half of this unhinged situation.
Only moments after completing his climb and task, he jumps out of a window and performs an Australian rappel back down. Here’s where the stunt reaches new levels of intensity: missing the necessary amount of line to make it back to his room, Cruise must run horizontally across the building, leap off the face of the building, and swing back — timing and unhooking his cord so that the trajectory sends him back inside.
‘Mission Impossible V – Rogue Nation’ (2015) — The Plane
There’s only one stunt in my book so audacious and ludicrous that it tops dangling Cruise from the Burj Khalifa. I figured the franchise had done everything humanly possible, and it wouldn’t be long before they turned to CGI like other studios in the industry. I couldn’t have been more wrong. One installment later, Cruise pulled off the most badass stunt I’ve ever witnessed. I watched in awe as Cruise clung to the side of an Airbus A400M and took off into the sky with it.
This entire scene plays out with Cruise attached to a single cable. The severity of the situation settles in when you watch the behind-the-scenes footage and discover that if any of the doors had malfunctioned, he would’ve had to hold on until the plane landed again before getting down. It’s a ridiculous scene (in the best way) and well worth the effort that went into making it happen. With every installment, Cruise rewrites the reality of cinematic practicality and cements himself as the legendary stuntman of our generation.