You may remember that the last time we encountered Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, the global superspy prone to particularly spectacular pickles, he was flinging himself around the Burj Khalifa. That sequence, in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, drew spontaneous applause from cinema audiences here in the UAE – before, admittedly, leaving them scratching their heads a little at the geographically impossible footchase through ‘Old Dubai’ (that looked suspiciously like Morocco) that followed – and is one that remains the single most impressive physical stunt in cinema history. ‘Even if having Tom Cruise jump off the biggest building on the planet nearly gave the studio’s insurance department a breakdown,’ laughs that movie’s director, Brad Bird.
All of which was rather lovely at the time, but when shooting began on instalment number five it raised a knotty dilemma: how on Earth can you top that? ‘It’s an interesting question,’ says Cruise now. ‘And one that did keep us awake at night.’ This movie’s director, Christopher McQuarrie, echoes the pain. ‘We were, quite literally, never going to top that from an architectural point of view, and we knew it.’
Their solution? McQuarrie smiles. ‘Take buildings out of the equation.’ And so was born the money shot of all money shots, that graces the trailer of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, of Cruise clinging desperately to the outside of an A400M plane as it takes off and soars into the air.
Cruise did the stunt eight times, in excruciating 45-minute takes, over two long days, at 5,000 feet above Peterborough, England. Which is, to be fair, probably the best distance to view Peterborough from. He had just one wire across his back. He wore special lenses, to protect his eyes from debris and jet fuel, but no padding, as it affected his bodyshape in the shot. His logic also being that it was largely a placebo, anyway. If he’d been hit by anything at that height and at that speed, he’d be dead.
The Hollywood star talks of the stunt in exactly the same way as he talks of the one on the Burj Khalifa; a mix of science – of wind speeds and trajectories and ‘simple maths’ – and of emotion. ‘It all boils down to the audience,’ Cruise tells us. ‘If you do it for real they buy it as real, and that’s what keeps them in the story.’
Ever since John Woo filmed Cruise hanging off a cliff in Moab for Mission: Impossible 2 (no suffixes were needed back then, they were simpler times), this has been a franchise that has defined itself by its spectacular stunts. But it’s also one that has defined itself by its choice of directors. Parts one and two were directed by Brian De Palma and Woo, both A-list talents with anarchic tendencies. Part three fell to a TV nobody who may or may not have gone on to bigger things. His name was J.J. Abrams. Part four was given to Bird, a director who had only ever made cartoons before. And this latest one comes courtesy of screenwriter McQuarrie, who won an Oscar for the meticulously crafted, intimate timelines of The Usual Suspects and who now finds himself strapping megastars to the outside of planes.
That each of these directors has been hand-picked by Cruise showcases his innate understanding of movies and of audiences, and has shaped the franchise from a daft ’60s TV show into a spy series that can simultaneously stand shoulder-to-shoulder and apart from the likes of Bond and Bourne. Ditching the seriousness of the former and the shakycam of the latter, the series of Mission movies are pure popcorn and proud of the fact, with Cruise frequently referencing the ‘Are you not entertained?’ line from Gladiator as a guiding principle.
The new instalment is the latest fruit born of the partnership between Cruise and McQuarrie that began as a screenwriter/star dynamic on the likes of Valkyrie, Edge Of Tomorrow (that McQuarrie co-wrote) and Ghost Protocol, which Cruise drafted in McQuarrie to re-write on the fly as production began in turmoil. ‘I think the fantasy is,’ deadpans McQuarrie, ‘that one day a Mission: Impossible movie will start shooting with an entirely finished screenplay.’
This time out the signs are seriously encouraging, with Paramount doing something largely unheard of, pulling the movie forward from Christmas and into the lucrative summer blockbuster season. We are promised something approximating a ‘greatest hits package’ of all that has gone before, with sets, dialogue, props (the rabbit foot will make another appearance) and characters all being brought back for an epic showdown in which Ethan and co’s IMF operation will come up against their evil dopplegangers, a ‘Rogue Nation’ of baddie superspies determined to plunge the world into chaos.
‘I really think that Tom and Chris have turned in something amazing,’ says Simon Pegg, who was also brought on board two movies ago by Cruise, and whose career trajectory since has been such that he will soon return to Dubai to shoot Star Trek 3, which he will both star in and has co-written. He will also, thanks to Cruise introducing him and Abrams on Mission: Impossible 3, have a bit-part in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was also shot in the UAE. ‘These two know what people want and they know how to take that expectation and then exceed it.’
All of which sounds rather lovely, but raises a knotty dilemma: how on Earth can they top that next time? Strap Cruise to a rocket bound for Mars? ‘It’s an interesting question,’ he laughs, ‘that I’m not going to start worrying about just yet. But, you know, anything
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is in cinemas from Thursday August 6.