Tom Cruise's best stunts — from Mission: Impossible to Top Gun: Maverick

Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible
(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

Thank goodness more actors aren’t like Tom Cruise or the entire stunt industry may have been out of a job a long time ago. Cruise is well known for performing his own stunts, but what makes him stand out from his peers is that he does stunts that toe the line between hair-raising and a possible death wish. But the end result showcases some of the most incredible stunts that have ever been put on screen.

The Mission: Impossible movies are the motherlode for many of these incredible Cruise stunts, but the actor has been pushing the envelope for a long time. And, based on reports of Cruise standing on top of a World War II plane for Mission: Impossible 8 and footage showing crazy Mission: Impossible 7 stunts, it doesn't seem that Cruise — who turns 60 in 2022, mind you — is slowing down at all.

We’ll be watching those M:I films, as well as the upcoming Top Gun: Maverick, to see if any stunts from those will make this list (it's a pretty safe bet, yes) but in the meantime here are What to Watch’s picks of Tom Cruise’s best stunts. We promise they’re not all from Mission: Impossible.

Mission: Impossible, wire hanging stunt

Tom Cruise wire hanging stunt in Mission: Impossible

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures / United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)

Mission: Impossible's evolution since the franchise’s first movie in 1996 is pretty incredible. The sandbox that Cruise and company play in has grown considerably, as have the feats they pull off. However, Cruise’s wire-hanging scene from the first Mission: Impossible remains one of the most iconic stunts from the franchise (and the actor’s career) even if it now seems tame by comparison with more recent stunts. That doesn’t mean it was easy, as Cruise apparently kept faceplanting during the scene.

Beyond the physicality of the stunt, what makes it stand out is its inbuilt narrative tension — as any noise Cruise makes will sound the alarm.

Mission: Impossible II, the knife fight

Knife near Tom Cruise's eye in Mission: Impossible 2

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures)

We could have easily gone for the free climbing sequence that Cruise does in the opening credits of Mission: Impossible II, but again a smaller moment proves to be more memorable. In the big fight scene between Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and Dougray Scott’s Sean Ambrose, the two get into a knife fight and at one point Hunt has to stop a knife mere inches from plunging into his eye. CGI right? Wrong. Master of perfection, Cruise wanted to use a real knife (albeit dulled) for the shot. Per The Wrap, the knife was attached to a cable so it would stop just centimeters away from Cruise’s eye.

The Last Samurai, the sword fight

Tom Cruise sword fight in The Last Samurai

(Image credit: Warner Bros. / Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

Cruise upgraded from a knife to swords for The Last Samurai. He reportedly trained for more than half a year on samurai and martial arts skills so that he could be the one to perform the swordfight sequences, including one where he takes on multiple enemies in the streets of Japan. Cruise has said, in press junkets for the movie, that the sequence has more than 70 points of contact, which not only requires great choreography but excellent fight coordination to make sure nobody was injured. 

Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Burj Khalifa climb

Tom Cruise climbing Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures/Entertainment Pictures)

When Ghost Protocol came out, many thought Tom Cruise could be passing the torch of the franchise over to new co-star Jeremy Renner as the last two movies had seen some diminishing returns. However, Cruise climbing the Burj Khalifa — the tallest building in the world — not only became an iconic set-piece but proved he was essential in pushing the limits of what the series could do. The daring sequence is all the more impressive when you learn that it was done on a limited schedule

Edge of Tomorrow, the exosuits

Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow

(Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures/Village Roadshow Pictures/PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive )

Edge of Tomorrow underperformed at the box office but, over time, has rightly become a respected entry in Tom Cruise’s credits. The draw of the movie is its video-game-like feel — as Cruise’s character keeps dying and reliving the same battle, getting further and further along in the storyline each time. What’s impressive about it all though is the exosuit that Cruise and co-star Emily Blunt wear during the intense battle sequences. They were entirely impractical for action sequences, weighing between 85 and 135 pounds. Meaning Cruise and company were lugging around all that extra weight as they dodged explosions. 

Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, the plane take-off

Tom Cruise holds onto side of plane in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures/Photo 12/Alamy Stock Photo)

We have now reached the "Tom Cruise does crazy things with planes" section of this list. First up, him holding onto the side of a plane as it takes off in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation. This was a heck of a way to start the fifth film of the franchise. Simon Pegg’s Benji serves as an audience surrogate when he shouts, "Oh my God" as the plane took off with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt hanging on for dear life. 

While this is the marquee stunt, it probably wasn’t the most dangerous for Cruise in Rogue Nation. An underwater heist scene saw Cruise train to hold his breath for as long as possible. His commitment to acting fooled the stunt coordinator a few times into thinking that Cruise might actually be drowning. 

The Mummy, plane crash

Annabelle Wallis and Tom Cruise in The Mummy

(Image credit: Universal Pictures/Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

The Mummy may be one that everyone (including Cruise) wants to forget, but credit should be given where it's due to a great stunt and that’s exactly what the plane crash sequence in the movie is. In order to nail the stunt — that saw Cruise scramble to survive a plane crash with no gravity — everyone involved had to do a real zero G flight (often referred to as the "vomit comet") to capture the look of a free fall.

American Made, the empty cockpit

Tom Cruise flies a plan in American Made

(Image credit: CROSS CREEK PICTURES / Album / Alamy Stock Photo)

Tom Cruise is actually a pilot (as he showed when he landed a helicopter at the global premiere of Top Gun: Maverick), which came in handy when making American Made which is about an American pilot who becomes a drug runner for the CIA in the 1980s. However, in one memorable stunt sequence Cruise was on the plane (dumping cocaine bales) with no one actually flying the aircraft. Director Doug Liman told Yahoo! Movies that it was nerve-racking to watch. "It’s one thing to have Tom Cruise alone in the airplane flying it — that’s already outrageous — now he’s alone and he’s not even in the cockpit so he’s gone beyond." 

Mission: Impossible — Fallout, HALO jump

Tom Cruise HALO jump in Mission: Impossible - Fallout

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures and Skydance/ PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

Tom Cruise has held onto a plane, he’s dumped bales of cocaine out of a plane no one is flying and did a free fall crash sequence, so jumping out of a plane with a parachute shouldn’t be all that impressive, right? Well it is when it’s an infamous “HALO” jump. A HALO jump is a military maneuver where you jump out a plane at 30,000-40,000 feet and don’t open your parachute until about 800 feet above the ground. Tom Cruise did this in Mission: Impossible — Fallout, as did the camera crew, impressively enough. A reddit video clip shows just how they captured the scene. 

Top Gun: Maverick, canyon flight

Tom Cruise in the cockpit in Top Gun: Maverick

(Image credit: Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films)

One of the biggest parts of Top Gun: Maverick's promotional tour was the actors talking about the rigorous training they went through so they could be filmed in the cockpit of the F18s used in the movie as they did these incredible aerial sequences. None of which is more impressive than the canyon run that Tom Cruise's Maverick does in the movie.

Most of the movie is training for what has been described as a nearly impossible mission (something Cruise is familiar with) to fly through a mountain canyon, low to the ground and at a high speeds to try and avoid the enemy. Jon Hamm's Cyclone doesn't think it can be done and is ready to offer new instructions to the pilots, but Maverick does the run and proves him wrong. It's an incredible sequence as we feel like we're along for the ride with how the camera is positioned.

While Cruise is a pilot himself, the plane was actually flown by a real-life Navy pilot for the scene. But Cruise is living just about every other part of this scene and it is a true joy to watch on the big screen.

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.