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How Tom Cruise Became the Most Stunt-Friendly Star in Hollywood

How Tom Cruise Became the Most Stunt-Friendly Star in Hollywood

(Updated 07/24/2020)

When TOP GUN: MAVERICK jets into theaters in 2021, there are a few elements we can reliably expect to see. There will be muscles and mustaches; "Take My Breath Away" will be on the soundtrack; and Tom Cruise will absolutely, positively, 100% be doing his own stunts.

For this at-long last TOP GUN: MAVERICK, Cruise and the rest of the cast strapped into the cockpits of the world's most sophisticated and expensive fighter jets. The star will go above and beyond the call of duty to bring an unprecedented level of realism to the hotly anticipated sequel.

All of which has us thinking about Cruise’s journey from young heartthrob to America's version of Jackie Chan. He's a great actor who is willing to risk his life in order to create movies audiences have never seen before.

Tom Cruise: The Beginning

Tom Cruise's early career

Cruise began his career as something of a matinee idol. He starred in populist, teen-skewed movies like RISKY BUSINESS and ALL THE RIGHT MOVES. While both of these movies are more sophisticated (and probably darker) than you probably remember, they are also a great time at the movie theater. When Cruise appeared in TOP GUN in 1986, he showed the world that he could be more than just a teen magazine cover model. He could lead an action-oriented movie with just as much dexterity and commitment as established stars.

While he wasn’t doing his own stunts back then, Cruise did a lot of work that would be deemed dangerous by most. Around the same time as TOP GUN, Cruise started to work with some of the most well-regarded directors in the business. He teamed with Ridley Scott (LEGEND), Oliver Stone (BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY), Barry Levinson (RAIN MAN) and Martin Scorsese (THE COLOR OF MONEY).

Cruise returned to the action genre for 1990’s DAYS OF THUNDER, reuniting with his TOP GUN filmmaker Tony Scott, but this seemed like more of an exception than a rule. After DAYS OF THUNDER, the actor continued his run with prestigious directors, from Ron Howard to Neil Jordan, Rob Reiner, and Sydney Pollack. Things would change in 1996, however, with the premiere of a little movie called MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

His First Big Mission

Tom Cruise's first big stunt movie

In 1996, the first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE movie marked the beginning of Cruise’s career as a producer and his emergence as a daring stunt performer. He had always been an actor capable of precise physical work — check out the billiards scenes in 1986's THE COLOR OF MONEY, or the boxing in 1992's FAR AND AWAY — but the original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE gave Cruise a chance to really flex his muscles.

Sure, there are computer effects in the movie, but Cruise performed almost all of the film's stunts himself. Cruise was on set, running away from a cascading wall of water and broken glass, doing all the punches, kicks, and wire-work, and acting while a wind machine blew 140mph gales in his face for shots set atop a speeding bullet train.

After that first MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, Cruise did spend years working with Stanley Kubrick on the director's final film, EYES WIDE SHUT, but you could tell something had changed. Cruise's dynamic had shifted. His deep desire to entertain now expanded beyond working with the most talented collators on dynamic projects — it also included risking his neck for the audience’s enjoyment.

Intensity Increasing

Tom Cruise's biggest Mission: Impossible stunts

2000’s MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2 featured one of the most harrowing real-life stunts performed by Cruise. In the opening sequence, he's hanging off the side of the mountain. Only one element of this scene – a terrifying jump between surfaces – wasn’t him. In the years to come, even his less overtly action-oriented movies, like Steven Spielberg's MINORITY REPORT and WAR OF THE WORLDS, allowed Cruise to get physical.

In 2006, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III gave the star the chance to dangle off a building in Hong Kong and get blown into a car at full force. Every MISSION movie that came after raised the bar for stunts. For MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE — GHOST PROTOCOL, Cruise climbed around the outside of the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in Dubai. In MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION, he hung onto the outside of an airplane as it took off, while MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT featured him performing a harrowing HALO jump and flying a helicopter at high speeds doing incredible maneuvers.

Cruise even managed to squeeze death-defying moments into films that otherwise might not feature them. The MUMMY remake had a sequence where he careened around an airplane in zero gravity, while period drama AMERICAN MADE had Cruise flying small planes.

The Need for Speed

[Image credit: Paramount Pictures]


Which brings us to TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Costars and crew members on the actor's movies often talk about how Cruise’s commitment to being the very best inspires them to reach for similar heights. So when he returned to the TOP GUN franchise after decades away, Cruise and his collaborators (led by director Joseph Kosinksi and producer/screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie) knew they had to deliver what audiences now expect from Cruise. He had to be in the cockpit, flying the jets, and you had to see his face while he did it all.

Real-life stunts are now a part of the Tom Cruise brand, and he is willing to deliver the goods to audiences no matter the cost. As you can see from the trailer Cruise is really up in the sky in a fighter jet. That's all impressive, but so are his ever-present magnetism, charisma, and dramatic chops. That combination is what makes Cruise such a tremendous force: he’s not just the guy running and jumping and falling down. He’s also the guy who makes you cry, makes you cheer, and makes you feel great while doing it.



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All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.

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