The boundaries between Tom Cruise and his daredevil Mission: Impossible character Ethan Hunt are often blurry, to say the least. But that's why the Mission movies are so thrilling to watch: there's nothing quite like an actor putting themselves in harm's way for generating a sense of pulse-pounding, visceral excitement.
And no current movie star puts themselves in harm's way quite like Cruise does. He returns as the daredevil IMF agent Hunt in Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One, catapulting us on a thrilling international journey that encompasses a handcuffed car chase through Rome, a motorbike/cliff stand-off in Norway and countless more breathless set-pieces.
Cruise's commitment to his own stuntwork has long been a part of the Mission: Impossible cinematic brand. Dating back to the inception of the series in 1996, here are the moments where he embodied Hunt's bravery for real.
1. The vault dive (Mission: Impossible, 1996)
The first Mission movie is directed by horror veteran Brian DePalma and it assimilates the director's characteristically cracked, paranoid atmosphere. Clad in canted angles and unusual shots while being propelled by Danny Elfman's jittery score, it's much more of a covert espionage outing than the later movies.
That said, the movie's most famous sequence is a doozy of a stunt: Hunt suspended on a wire above an vault floor that is both pressure and heat-sensitive in a bid to claim the all-important NOC list. Cruise reportedly had trouble balancing on the cable until he hit on the idea of placing coins in his shoes to act as a counterweight.
2. Utah rock climb (Mission: Impossible II, 2000)
Come the second movie, directed by action master John Woo, and Cruise's hair could be registered as a deadly weapon. His locks are flowing during Mission: Impossible II's testosterone-laden and utterly gratuitous opening sequence as he scales Deadhorse Point in Utah.
It does nothing to advance the plot and is evidently a calculated ploy on the part of Cruise to play up his superhuman image. But it's giddily vertiginous and good fun, even when you considered that he's propped up by cables and the famous overhang stunt was undertaken by Cruise's stunt double Keith Campbell.
3. Shanghai base jump (Mission: Impossible III, 2006)
The third Mission: Impossible movie was seen as something of a course correction after the operatic excesses of the second instalment. In this movie, Hunt is tormented by sadistic arms dealer Owen Davian (a terrific and terrifying Philip Seymour Hoffman) in pursuit of a mysterious weapon code-named the 'rabbit's foot'.
Hunt's quest takes him to Shanghai and a mission to get the rabbit's foot for Davian, in exchange for the life of Ethan's kidnapped wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Naturally, he must do a fulcrum swing between two high buildings, but only after an introductory and nerve-wracking base jump that, of course, was undertaken on the set by the fearless Cruise himself.
4. Scaling the Burj Khalifa (Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, 2011)
The Mission: Impossible series contains untold numbers of hair-raising stunts, but this must be the scariest and most jaw-dropping to date. Ghost Protocol recalibrated the series again as more of an ensemble team effort, allowing Cruise to enjoyable spar with the likes of Simon Pegg's Benji.
Ethan and his team rock up in Dubai, more specifically, the famous Burj Khalifa tower that stands as the world's tallest building. In order to access the server mainframe, Ethan must scale the building from the outside and Cruise did it for real (admittedly using cables that were later removed in post-production).
Pixar veteran Brad Bird's hand is very much evident in the sequence's blend of physical humour and nervy suspense, utilising Michal Giacchino's pensive score and some gorgeous establishing shots from DP Robert Elswit to cement Cruise as either the bravest man in the world, or the absolute maddest.
5. Going airborne (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, 2015)
We'll concede that the jaw-dropping opening of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation is a rival for Ghost Protocol's hide-behind-the-fingers terror. Shot in the UK at RAF Wittering, it sees Cruise, in his role as Ethan Hunt, clinging to the outside of a plane. Oh, and did we mention that the plane goes airborne while Cruise is hanging onto the side of it?
In his first stab at the Mission franchise, incumbent director Christopher McQuarrie does an admirable job of holding the camera static on Cruise, allowing us to take in the truly extraordinary site of an A-list actor being G-forced to hell and back as the ground agonisingly slips away from him. This being Cruise, he undertook the stunt more than once to help get the perfect shot.
6. Taking a deep breath (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, 2015)
It may lack the splashier qualities of the earlier plane sequence (no pun intended), but the slow-burn terror of Rogue Nation's underwater scene is made potent by Cruise's typical commitment. The actor is said to have free-dived for up to six minutes for the sequence where Ethan infiltrates an underwater database to retrieve the film's macguffin.
The scene also stands out as one of the few where Ethan dies and comes back to life. (The only other is the climax of Mission: Impossible III where he's resuscitated by his wife, Julia.) With Cruise dedicated to the practical nature of his own stuntwork and the limits of human endurance, we are more than simply passive observers of the scene. Instead, we're physically invested and genuinely wrung out come the climax.
7. HALO jump into Paris (Mission: Impossible - Fallout, 2018)
The sixth movie in the series, Mission: Impossible - Fallout was acclaimed for one-upping the level of technical ambition witnessed in the previous movies. Once again written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, the movie is an expert exercise in near-constant action escalation, and Cruise is once again the ideal helmsman.
We know we're in for a wild ride early on when Cruise and new character August Walker (Henry Cavill) HALO jump through an electrical storm onto the roof of a Parisian nightclub. As ever, Cruise was there in the thick of it, having trained extensively prior to filming. Much was made of the sequence's technical challenges and one has to admire the amount of preparation and technical acumen needed for a single five-minute set piece.
8. Scaling and piloting a helicopter (Mission: Impossible - Fallout, 2018)
Speaking of preparation, it doesn't get more extreme than securing a helicopter pilot's licence for the purposes of one sequence. That's exactly what Cruise did to assist the production of Fallout's spectacular closing helicopter stand-off between Hunt and Walker.
And not only does Cruise manage to keep the helicopter in the air (we dread to think what would have happened had he not achieved that basic aim). He also pitches and rolls the craft in line with the popcorn demands of the scene itself. Ethan Hunt? Tom Cruise? They are, quite simply, one and the same.
Be sure to catch the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster on the biggest Cineworld screen you can find. Get your Mission: Impossible tickets by clicking the link below. The movie is released on July 10th.