By now, Tom Cruise’s penchant for performing his own stunts is known the world over. It’s a practice that has helped to keep the Mission: Impossible movie franchise afloat for nearly 20 years; in each successive film, Cruise has managed topped the high-wire dare-devilry of the last.
The descent through a horizontal shaft into a pristine computer facility in Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible was topped by a terrifying-looking bout of safety-rope-free rock climbing in John Woo’s Mission: Impossible 2. Mission: Impossible 3’s leap from a Shanghai skyscraper was thrown into the shade by Cruise’s climb up the side of Dubai’s Khalifa tower in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.
All leading to this summer’s latest jaunt in Rogue Nation: the sight of Cruise clinging to the exterior of a military aircraft. It’s an image so powerful that it’s appeared consistently in the movie’s promotion. And once again, coverage of the film has been dominated by talk of Cruise’s stunts – his antics even made the local news in your humble writer’s home town, where reporters talked excitedly about Cruise hanging from a plane flying over a field somewhere in Norfolk.
In an age of CGI and seamless digital trickery – where it’s easier than ever to remove safety wires, or even map an actor’s face onto that of a stunt performer’s – Cruise stands out among Hollywood’s modern stars. Sure, some of them might dive over the odd car bonnet or take a header through a pane of stage glass, but it’s difficult to think of another actor who’s quite so willing to put themselves into scary-looking situations as Cruise.
The closest I can think of, off hand, are Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron, the two stars of Mad Max: Fury Road. They performed some of that film’s stunts themselves, with Hardy gamely strapping himself to one of those bendy poles that flexed terrifyingly over the side of a moving car. But still, stunt doubles were still on hand to perform some of the most dangerous sequences.
Cruise’s commitment to performing a large percentage of his more high-profile stunts reminds me of an article from a few years ago (the author escapes me, unfortunately), which dedicated several hundred words to the actor’s trademark run – that frantic, arm-pumping sprint he does where you almost wonder whether he’s about to take off or simply explode. The run, the article said, summed up Cruise’s ethos as an actor: I may not be the best, but I’ll put every fiber of my being into this performance. Through sheer force of will, I’ll make you believe I really am Ethan Hunt, or Major Cage, or whatever character it is I’m playing in this particular blockbuster.
But do actors necessarily need to do their own stunts? Could it even be foolhardy for an actor to put themselves at risk in a multi-million dollar movie? For Arnold Schwarzenegger, who’s been in more than his fair share of action films over the past few decades, his answer’s simple: “If you can get injured or killed, you let a stunt guy do it.”
“Some actors turn around and say they do everything themselves,” Schwarzenegger told us on the set of Terminator Genisys last year. “I think it’s nonsense, because the fact of the matter is, that’s why we have a director – you let him direct. You have experts in wardrobe. You have publicists that deal with the media. You have the stunt people with the ways of making this crazy action a reality.”
Schwarzenegger goes on to say that, while moviegoers like to see practical stunts, they don’t necessarily need to see their favourite actors risk life and limb while creating them. He also argues that actors doing their own stunts can do more harm than good – particularly if they end up with a production-derailing injury:
“That’s why you’ve got to be very considerate, take your ego out and just say, ‘This is what I can do,’ and rehearse and practice then you do as much as much as you do, and you let the stunt actors take it from there.”
Certainly, the practical argument that an injured actor can jeopardize a film production is a sound one: it’s one of the reasons why the stunt acting profession is so well established. In 2012, we spoke to James and Andy Armstrong – stuntman Vic Armstrong’s sons who’ve followed their father into the same profession – and they share a similar view to Schwarzenegger:
“Sometimes there’s danger involved, and it’s better if the stuntmen do it, because if they’re hurt it’s a sad thing, but we can replace them,” Andy Armstrong says. It’s a harsh reality that filmmakers and stuntmen commonly have to deal with.
It’s also fair to say that some of the most thrilling action sequences of all time have been performed by stunt performers, and the use of a substitute hasn’t affected their entertainment value one iota.
Take Vic Armstrong, for example – famously, he played Harrison Ford’s double for much of the star’s career, and stood in as Indiana Jones in many of that series’ most celebrated action sequences. Remember the incredible bit where Ford climbed under the Nazi truck in Raiders Of The Lost Ark? That was Armstrong.
There are one or two stars, on the other hand, who’ve made unfeasibly dangerous stunts part of their global box-office appeal. Through the late ’70s and early ’80s, Jackie Chan enjoyed success with such kung-fu comedies as Snake In Eagle’s Shadow and The Drunken Master. But in the fast-moving world of Hong Kong cinema, Chan discovered that other actors and directors were copying his ideas almost as soon as he’d committed them to film. What he had to do was come up with something his rivals couldn’t simply copy. Something people hadn’t seen before. Something death-defying.
Police Story, released in 1985, was arguably the film that launched Jackie Chan as a global super-star. Although still an action comedy influenced by the physical performances of Chan’s American heroes like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, Police Story was punctuated by some of the most startling set-pieces in cinema history. One saw Chan driving downhill in a car, crashing violently through a series of wood and tin shacks all the way down. Another saw Chan use the curved handle of an umbrella to hang from the side of a fast-moving bus.
That Chan was performing these stunts himself didn’t even need to be explained: the audience could plainly see that it was Chan hanging from the side of the bus, or flinging himself from the top floor of a shopping centre and landing painfully on the ground floor.
“Police Story was really my big breakthrough, where even Hollywood was shocked,” Chan told us last year. “‘What kind of person would do this? Is he still alive?’ I really risked my life to make that movie.”
News of Chan’s dare-devilry quickly spread, and throughout the ’80s, it became expected that every film would feature a similar gonzo act – and Chan certainly didn’t disappoint. Indiana Jones-style action adventure Armor Of God, for example, saw Chan leap from the side of a cliff and onto the side of a hot air balloon. (That same film also saw the actor injure himself, almost fatally, when he fell through a tree and hit the ground head-first – proof that Chan really does risk life and limb for his art.)
Jackie Chan is, however, a quite unique actor and performer, having trained at the infamously strict Peking Opera from a young age. His films from Police Storyonwards were also quite different from typical action fare, in that audiences seemed to be attracted by the prospect of seeing Chan perform a new stunt rather than suspending their disbelief. In this respect, Chan’s biggest films of the ’80s and ’90s were akin to the hugely popular events put on by stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel, whose bus-jumping exploits were a common sight on television in the 1970s.
In 21st century America, the closest we have to an action star like Chan is, funnily enough, Tom Cruise: his vertiginous stunts are frequently the selling point for his films, not least those in the Mission: Impossible franchise.
Cruise, perhaps better than any other star in Hollywood, understands the value of a practical stunt. At the dawn of the ’90s, when Cruise helped revive theMission: Impossiblefranchise, it almost looked as though the role of the stunt performer might go the way of stop-motion in mainstream cinema – replaced by CG, which is capable of simulating everything from explosions to collapsing buildings, all without the risk of injuring an actor or their stunt double. But in reality, computer technology has allowed directors to devise and augment ever more ambitious practical effects: the flipping truck from The Dark Knight, the gonzo plane heist from The Dark Knight Rises, or the highway attack sequence from Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
So while there’s no shortage of eye-popping CGI in modern movies, there’s still undoubtedly a place for practical stunts. They engage the eye and imagination in a way that can’t be achieved with computer trickery alone – it’s like the difference between a brutal fight along the lines of The Raid and the balletic wire-fu of, say, Dead Or Alive– both provide a big-screen spectacle, but only one really hits the audience in the viscera.
At the same time, computer technology means that actors no longer have to put themselves in the midst of a dangerous-looking action sequence: as mentioned above, swapping the face of an actor with a stunt double is now a simple task, and is a relatively common practice in modern action films.
So if this is the case, does it really matter whether Hollywood stars perform their own stunts anymore? Ninety-nine percent of the time, the answer’s surely a big no. But for an actor like Tom Cruise, performing stunts has become his unique selling point; the very fact that a star actually hanging onto the side of a moving plane separates Cruise from the Hollywood pack.
Movies may not require actors to put their lives on the line for their art anymore – and notable performers like Harold Lloyd and Jackie Chan aside, they never really did. But Cruise has managed to turn headline-grabbing stunts into his own signature move. It’s possible that ego plays a part; his capacity for climbing tall buildings being an extension of his tendency to remove his shirt in all of his films. It’s a means of saying to the world, “Hey, I may be in my 50s, but I’ve still got it.”
Then again, there’s always the sense that Cruise loves what he does; the burst of adrenaline when he runs, fingers straight, head back. The sensation of the wind whipping at his heels as he dangles high over Dubai’s freshly laid pavements. Cruise clearly gets a thrill from his stunts, which is probably why audiences still thrill to them, too.