For a long time, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, the James Bond film series was considered the crème de la crème of action and stunts. Back in the early years of Sean Connery and Roger Moore, there were very few competing franchises at all, let alone one that delivered the same kind of highly choreographed chases, jumps, fights, and explosive battles as the 007 movies.
What’s even more amazing is that there was no CG back then either, which meant that just about everything the Bond stunt and visual effects teams pulled off was practical—sure, there were things like rear projection and miniature work, but nothing was created out of bytes of data inside a computer. That’s all different today, of course. CG is the primary tool through which films now create and execute all kinds of action and visuals. Yet some filmmakers remain resolutely committed to practical effects, such as Christopher Nolan. Another is Tom Cruise, whose Mission: Impossible series might be the single best, most consistent, and most visually compelling action franchise out there right now.
And now, with the newest entry in the series, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, Cruise and director-writer Christopher McQuarrie might have finally outdone a James Bond stunt considered not only the best in 007’s long canon, but one of the most incredible ever committed to film. Yep, they challenged the ski jump in The Spy Who Loved Me.
The Spy Who Skied Off a Mountain
The James Bond films are known for their opening pre-credits sequences, which usually set the tone for the movie with a splashy action set piece. The formula arguably reached its zenith with the 10th film in the franchise, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. Directed by Lewis Gilbert, The Spy Who Loved Me is considered Roger Moore’s best film as Bond and one of the finest in the series. It’s got great villains, one of the best Bond leading ladies, a smart and funny script, and some of 007’s most dazzling action.
It all starts with the prologue, in which Bond escapes a squad of Soviet assassins during a thrilling downhill ski chase on a mountain in Austria, which climaxes with Bond skiing off the side of the mountain, falling thousands of feet before his Union Jack parachute blooms out behind him.
Although the scene takes place in the Alps in the movie, the sequence was filmed at Mount Asgard (yes, named after Thor’s home) on the remote Baffin Island in northern Canada. The mountain reaches an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, and the crew from the movie had to reach the glacier summit via helicopter. The man hired to perform the jump was a climber and professional ski instructor from California named Rick Sylvester, who was reportedly paid $30,000 to make the jump (the entire sequence cost $500,000 to film). Sylvester had previously performed a couple of 3,000-foot jumps from El Capitan in Yosemite Park, but this was new territory. He and the crew stayed at Baffin Island for two weeks before attempting the shot, testing out camera locations and waiting for the exact perfect weather conditions.
Four cameras were deployed to capture the jump, and Sylvester admitted years later that he had trouble getting into position to deploy the parachute—which made it possible that he had fallen out of the view of all the cameras before the Union Jack chute was released.
Once the footage was developed, however (and remember, this is 1976, so the actual celluloid had to be sent away from the location and developed before anyone could see what they got!), it was determined that the footage captured by the third camera was usable—a good thing, since bad weather rolled in immediately afterward.
Although the footage of the jump is heart-stopping to watch even today, it’s dampened a little by the insert of a close-up of Roger Moore, very obviously hanging from strings on a set as he prepares to “land.” Still, it stood for 46 years—until now—as perhaps the most daring film stunt ever successfully attempted.
The Spy Who Rode a Motorcycle Off a Cliff
No Roger Moore-like insert shots here! Over the years, Tom Cruise has insisted on performing most, if not all, of his own stunts, pulling off a series of escalating, death-defying sequences throughout the course of the Mission: Impossible series. But after hanging off ascending planes, helicopters, speeding trains, cliff faces, and the tallest skyscraper in the world in six previous films, Cruise had something even more spectacular in mind for the seventh M:I adventure: while pursuing a train, his Ethan Hunt drives a motorcycle off a massive cliff. Ethan then free falls until he can deploy a parachute to pilot himself safely onto the roof of a moving train.
“This is far and away the most dangerous thing we’ve ever attempted,” said Cruise in a featurette about the shot, which was filmed in September 2020 in Norway. “We’ve been working on this for years.” According to the clip, Cruise trained for a year in BASE jumping, sky diving (doing more than 500 dives), motocross jumps (13,000), and canopy (parachute) control, while a special ramp was constructed at the site of the stunt and new drone cameras were brought online.
Everything had to be coordinated perfectly—the cameras, the weather, the stability of the ramp, plus Cruise’s ability to speed up to the ramp, hit the right speed and angle, let go of the bike at the right second, clear the walls of the cliff, and time the deployment of his chute. Not much, right?
But as you can see in the featurette—and, of course, the finished film—Cruise did it. And he did it six times to make sure that they got the shot exactly as they wanted it. This is the star of the film doing the most dangerous stunt ever conceived. If anything goes wrong at any point, there is no movie. And there is no more Tom Cruise.
But they got the shot, thanks to the hundreds of talented craftspeople who strive to make movies an indelible experience for audiences, just as the 007 crew got their shot halfway around the world 47 years ago. Most of all, thanks to the courage of Rick Sylvester back then, The Spy Who Loved Me paved the way for Tom Cruise and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One to surpass it. That leaves only question: What will they do next time?
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is in theaters now.