Ethan Alter·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
It’s the stunt that made the Mission: Impossible franchise… possible. Midway through Tom Cruise’s maiden assignment — which premiered in theaters a quarter-century ago on May 22, 1996 — his daredevil espionage agent, Ethan Hunt, executed the first of many impossible missions by breaking into a supposedly impenetrable CIA black vault via a literal high-wire act. Lowered into the vault on a thin cable, Hunt has to download crucial information off of a then-state of the art (and now hilariously antiquated) computer, while making sure he doesn’t speak, slip or even sweat.
It’s fair to say that Cruise’s stunts have gotten more elaborate across the subsequent 25 years and five Mission: Impossible movies (with two more on the way), which require him to outrun missiles on a bridge or hang off the side of a plane. But the vault scene, which was dreamed up by director Brian De Palma, remains the franchise’s quintessential set piece, and the first indication of how committed the star was to make this his signature franchise. In the words of CineFex’s Art of the Scene appreciation, the vault stunt single-handedly “transformed the boyish Tom Cruise into a man of action.”
According to Cruise, this transformative sequence was something of a happy accident. In a new interview with current Mission: Impossible director, Christopher McQuarrie — who joined the series with Rogue Nation, and went on to helm 2018’s Fallout as well as the seventh and eighth films that are currently in production — the actor says that De Palma came up with the idea before they even had the movie’s plot in place. “There was no story,” Cruise remarks in a featurette that’s included on the new 25th anniversary Blu-ray edition of the first film. “[Brian] would just start setting up shots, and then we’d go back and try to work on the story.”
De Palma first mentioned the vault sequence to Cruise on a long-distance call when the actor was in Japan promoting another movie. “He pitched me the whole CIA scene on a phone when I was in the back of a car,” Cruise explains, confirming that the director modeled the stunt after the classic 1955 French film Rififi, which boasts one of the all-time great movie heists. “I just went, ‘OK, this movie is really cool.’ It was a phenomenal idea.”
When it came time to stage the break-in, De Palma and Cruise depended on the expertise of legendary stunt coordinator, Greg Powell, who has put such action heroes as James Bond, Jason Bourne and Harry Potter through their paces. The scene called for Hunt to be lowered in on a cable operated by his partner-in-espionage Franz Krieger (Jean Reno). In fact, Cruise performed the scene without his co-stars on a soundstage in England populated only by De Palma and the rest of the stunt team. “It was all done by hands and weights,” Powell remarked on a 2006 DVD featurette that shows behind-the-scenes footage of two crew members raising and lowering the star on high-strength Tech-12 rope.
“I hung on the cable to see if I was level,” Cruise said of that fateful last take. “I went all the way down on the floor, and I didn’t touch! I was there holding it, and I’m sweating. [Brian] just keeps rolling … and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to stop.’ Then I hear him off-camera start to howl [with laughter] and he goes, ‘All right, cut!'” reality to it, and really grab the audience [with] the terrific tension he’s under.”
As the Art of the Scene breakdown notes, Cruise’s choice to perform the stunt himself is one of the keys to its success, along with De Palma’s choice to not “cheat” the action by cutting around his leading man. But there was one moment where cheating almost became necessary. In his new conversation with McQuarrie, Cruise revealed that he couldn’t nail the pivotal moment where Krieger lets his grip on Hunt’s rope slip to attend to a minor rat problem, and the agent plunges toward the pressure-sensitive floor, stopping barely an inch before his body would set off the alarm.
In reality, though, Cruise frequently didn’t stop before hitting the ground. “I kept hitting my face,” he confesses. As the blown takes continued to mount, De Palma warned Cruise that they’d have to move on and pick up the shot later. But the actor refused to give up and devised a novel way of keeping his body balanced — by putting one-pound coins in his shoes.
“I hung on the cable to see if I was level,” Cruise said of that fateful last take. “I went all the way down on the floor, and I didn’t touch! I was there holding it, and I’m sweating. [Brian] just keeps rolling… and I’m like, ‘I’m not going to stop.’ Then I hear him off-camera start to howl [with laughter] and he goes, ‘All right, cut!'”
All that work paid off — Mission: Impossible dominated the Memorial Day weekend box office and finished its theatrical run with a worldwide gross of over $450 million. And the vault sequence was singled out as the film’s crowning achievement. It certainly set the tone for what Cruise hoped to achieve with the rest of the series in terms of challenging himself to take part in bigger and better stunts… even when they resulted in major injuries.
“I hadn’t done sequels, and I kind of had a rule not to do sequels,” he said to McQuarrie, who, funnily enough, also collaborated with Cruise on another upcoming sequel — Top Gun: Maverick. “With Mission, I thought, ‘It’s a challenge for me.’ We’re working on the highest level because we have practical action [sequences].”