How Tom Cruise and the ‘Mission: Impossible’ Franchise Redefined the Longevity of an Action Hero

Mission: Impossible

Tom Cruise returns as hero Ethan Hunt in 'Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning - Part One,' in which the 61-year-old performs more of his own trademark high-risk stunts. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Adventurer Indiana Jones isn’t immune to the effects of aging, as we’ve just witnessed with 80-year-old Harrison Ford’s farewell performance in the role. But IMF agent Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise, could well be. With the Mission: Impossible film franchise, Cruise has redefined the longevity of the action hero.

When Mission: Impossible debuted on the big screen in 1996, Cruise was 34. He’s 61 now as the latest — Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One — hits theatres (July 12), though you’d hardly know it from the unrelenting physicality in his ongoing portrayal of Hunt. Alongside James Bond, the franchise has redefined what we expect from action movies and their stars.

Frequently touted as among the last action heroes, Cruise will be a tough act to follow when he eventually hangs it up for good. Movies like Bullet Train and the Kingsmen franchise are becoming the exception, not the norm, where stars perform as much of their own stunt work as possible. Pity the post-Cruise generation of audiences stuck with the post-Cruise generation of action actors — green-screen jockeys, really, whose action is filmed on sound stages and relies mostly on visual effects.  

Like Ford, Cruise has been leading an action franchise for several decades (and making other stunt-filled projects in between). But where Ford’s intrepid hero is unhurried (though rest assured, Indy is still punching Nazis), Cruise has yet to stop running. He’s still training — hard — and last year that physicality helped make Top Gun: Maverick Hollywood’s fifth-highest grossing picture of all time. 

Famously, Cruise continues to perform his own dangerous stunts, which escalate in ambition with each subsequent picture. (Learning new skills keep him physically and mentally agile: “Sea-kayaking, caving… fencing, treadmill, weights… rock-climbing, hiking… I jog,” he once told an interviewer about how he keeps fit through nonstop variety.) On M:I–Rogue Nation he trained with professional free divers to safely hold his breath underwater for up to six minutes per take. For M:I–Fallout, the star earned an advanced helicopter license to perform the aerial action sequence finale (he trained for a year).

It’s no secret that Cruise would probably jump off a cliff to win the first Oscar for Best Stunt, a new awards category currently being discussed by the Academy. And he does just that in Dead Reckoning Part One.

My knees buckled just watching this extended behind-the-scenes featurette (see video above) about his latest with the M:I stunt team as they precisely planned and perfected the actor’s motorcycle driving off a cliff, dismount and parachute into the void. Paramount has declared it the biggest stunt in cinema history and even just against Cruise’s own history of insane M:I stunts, that’s a crowded field.

In the lead-up to the new M:I’s theatrical release, for instance, the star has been releasing teasers of some of the more daring escapades — like a tweet that shows his take on speed flying, one of the most dangerous sports in the world. (Fist-fights on the roof of speeding train cars as they approach a tunnel are so last century.) “Speed flying is incredibly unpredictable,” director Christopher McQuarrie says of any sort of cross-wind that could imperil his star. 

What makes these death-defying spectacles so intense are not only the innovative techniques (like a new dynamic gimbal camera system) the M:I stunt team devised to capture the stunts on film. It’s also that in the tightly-planned practical action — as in, no CGI — the danger and the stakes are real, whether Cruise is tearing around Paris on a motorcycle or running away from real explosions or being pummelled by strong winds while scaling the world’s tallest building (M:I–Ghost Protocol). Cruise’s occasional concessions to human frailty? Tearing his shoulder in M:I2 while jumping between cliff sections in the rock climbing opener, or breaking his ankle in Fallout, but spending 12 hours a day in physical rehab in order to quickly resume shooting.

“He has the complete aura of a 25-year-old,” Cruise’s longtime M:I costar Simon Pegg said during a stop in Abu Dhabi during the blockbuster’s press rollout, joking that he’ll probably be jumping off buildings at age 100. 

And if you think Cruise, at 61, is likely to slow down with age, think again. When asked by a CNN reporter if there was anything he wouldn’t try onscreen, Cruise’s response was clear: “There’s a lot of things that I still want to do.”


Sun Screenings: 10 New Summer Blockbusters That Embrace Aging and Nostalgia