Cruising Altitude: the high-flying escapades of Tom Cruise

For inSing

Cruising altitude: the high-flying escapades of Tom Cruise

Tom Cruise plays a pilot in American Made – here are five other times planes and other flying machines have figured in his movies

By Jedd Jong

The story of pilot Barry Seal is one that’s stranger than fiction: Seal went from being a commercial pilot for TWA to becoming a drug courier for the Medellín Cartel, a gunrunner for the Contras and the CIA, and a DEA informant. In the biopic American Made, Seal is played by Tom Cruise, and it’s easy to believe that Cruise can smirk and wink his way out of any sticky situation. Seal makes various daring take-offs from remote Colombian jungles, the underbelly of his cocaine-laden plane scraping the tree tops. One of the film’s most memorable scenes features Seal crash-landing on a residential street after he’s pursued by the DEA, tumbling out of his plane covered in cocaine, handing a bundle of cash to a bewildered kid and escaping on said kid’s bicycle.

Cruise is a certified pilot in real life, and owns a collection of planes including a WWII-era P-51 Mustang. The actor has built a reputation for doing more of his own stunts than any insurance company would be comfortable with, and he pulled off yet another hair-raising feat in American Made. Not only did Cruise do some of his own flying in the film, he left the cockpit with no one else in the plane for scenes in which Seal had to dump cocaine out the back of the plane. Director Doug Liman, who was flying alongside Cruise in a helicopter shooting the scene, was both terrified and thrilled by the commitment displayed by his leading man. “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,” Liman said. “It was already a stunt before he left the cockpit, it was already a serious stunt.”

Before you watch Cruise wing it in American Made, here are five other times he’s been in the pilot’s seat – or somewhere less safe – on a plane or other flying vehicle in his movie career.

#1: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION

The Mission: Impossible movie franchise has become synonymous with crazy Cruise stunts. 2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation opens with a death-defying feat: Cruise’s Ethan Hunt clings onto the exterior of an Airbus 400 as it takes off from a runway. This sequence became one of the film’s major selling points, featuring heavily in billboard and banner advertising. “There’s no digital Tom, and there’s no fake plane. He’s really strapped to an Airbus,” Director of Photography Robert Elswit declared. The stunt team did tests with a dummy, then with a stunt double, before letting Cruise do the stunt himself. Cruise was strapped into a harness that was wired to the plane through its door, and the runway was carefully cleared of rocks and other debris. “When he wants to do something, he’ll figure out a way to do it,” Elswit said of Cruise, describing him as “the most obsessive artist.” “If it couldn’t actually be Tom on the plane, I think he wouldn’t want the sequence in the movie,” Elswit remarked.

#2: OBLIVION

In the post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller Oblivion, Cruise plays the last man on earth – or so he thinks. It is Jack Harper’s job to repair drones that are attacked by alien scavengers, or ‘scavs’, and he routinely patrols his sector in a gleaming high-tech craft called the Bubbleship. The craft resembles a dragonfly and is inspired by the Bell 47 helicopter. The film features a dogfight during which Jack is pursued in his Bubbleship by hostile drones, with the mysterious Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko) seated beside him. Production designer Darren Gilford and his team built a life-sized Bubbleship. Cruise visited the crew in the workshop while they were constructing the Bubbleship, and had input on design elements like the foot pedals and controls, so operating the craft would look natural. “It’s so beautifully designed. Every piece of it was just smooth and elegant,” Cruise said. A cockpit-only version of the Bubbleship was built to be mounted on a gimbal, which would spin around against a bluescreen backdrop like a souped-up theme park ride. Being a pilot himself, Cruise had no problems with sitting in the rig, but his co-star Kurylenko had never been in a gimbal and was nervous about it. “Olga will tell you today she wasn’t scared. She was scared,” Cruise quipped.

“The Bubbleship is a beautiful creation when it’s just standing on the ground, but you don’t want to be in there when it’s flipping around!” Kurylenko said. “In the end I liked it, I have to admit. But don’t tell anyone, I pretended like I didn’t,” she laughed.

#3: THE MUMMY

Universal Studios’ revival of its classic movie monsters in ‘cinematic universe’ form, the Dark Universe, got off to a rocky start with The Mummy. Industry watchers speculated that the film’s failure was due at least in part to Cruise’s “excessive control” over the production. Cruise reportedly personally commissioned screenwriters to fashion the project into more of a star vehicle for himself, reducing the screen time of the titular character, Sofia Boutella’s Ahmanet. The film features a big Mission: Impossible-style stunt: the crash of a military transport plane carrying Ahmanet’s sarcophagus. The production hired a zero-gravity plane from the French space agency NoveSpace, converting its interior to resemble a military transport plane. The plane would fly in parabolic arcs, resulting in brief periods of weightlessness. Cruise, co-star Annabelle Wallis and the crew all floated in zero-G to capture the scene. “We had to prepare as best we could, but then we don’t quite know exactly what’s going to happen,” Cruise said. “We wanted it to be wild and violent and spontaneous for an audience,” he explained. “They’re just seeing it happening in real time. There’s no edit, it’s there.”

#4: EDGE OF TOMORROW

Cruise first collaborated with his American Made director Liman on the sci-fi action flick Edge of Tomorrow, based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s light novel All You Need is Kill. A loving ode to military science fiction mainstays such as Starship Troopers and Aliens with a Groundhog Day time loop folded in, Edge of Tomorrow features futuristic weapons and gadgets, including powered mech suits and Quadcopters. The Quadcopters are the conveyance from which troops are deployed onto the battlefield, and resemble the Bell Boeing Quad TiltRotor. “[Production designer] Oliver Scholl came up with this great idea of this dropship, this futuristic aircraft where the soldiers in their exo-suits would be locked in like human ordnance, and they just drop you,” Liman explained. “That seemed so terrifying and would be a really great thing for Tom Cruise’s character to have to experience.”

Being suspended from the rack inside the Quadcopter might not have been the most dangerous stunt Cruise had ever executed, but it wasn’t necessarily pleasant. “Being inside that dropship, we’re like canned tuna, basically,” Cruise recalled. “I have to say, those days we’re all in there, as actors you’re just hanging in an uncomfortable way for many, many hours.”

#5: TOP GUN

Playing a pilot launched Cruise to superstardom, and 1986’s Top Gun remains one of his best-known films. Most of us might regard the film as 80s kitsch, but in 2015, the United States Library of Congress selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. The film was inspired by an article in California magazine about the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons school, colloquially known as ‘Top Gun’. Mega-producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson hired the late director Tony Scott on the basis of his commercial for Saab, which featured a fighter jet. Bruckheimer and Simpson pursued Cruise for the lead role of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, but Cruise wouldn’t commit even as he received updated drafts of the script. Bruckheimer arranged for Cruise to take a flight with the U.S. Navy’s famous Blue Angels aerobatics team, in the hopes that this would convince Cruise to accept the role. Cruise had just finished filming Ridley Scott’s Legend and still had a long ponytail, so the pilots thought he was a hippie and figured they’d have some fun by flying Cruise upside-down and at three to four G Forces. Cruise was unfazed, and Bruckheimer’s gambit paid off – Cruise hopped off the plane, went to the nearest phone booth and called Bruckheimer to say he was in. The long-awaited sequel is finally coming to fruition – Top Gun: Maverick is due in 2019, reuniting Cruise with Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski.

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Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

For F*** Magazine

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION

Director : Christopher McQuarrie
Cast : Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Zhang Jingchu
Run Time : 132 mins
Opens : 30 July 2015
Rating : PG13 (Violence And Brief Nudity)

These days, it seems that every year is the “year of the superhero” at the multiplex. From Kingsman: The Secret Service to Spy to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Spectre – not forgetting the fifth instalment in the Mission: Impossible film series – 2015 is well and truly the “year of the spy”. 

Here, we find CIA director Hunley (Baldwin) disbanding the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), leaving our heroes Ethan Hunt (Cruise), William Brandt (Renner), Benji Dunn (Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Rhames) in the lurch. Ethan crosses paths with the enigmatic Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), supposedly an MI6 agent deep undercover. Ethan uncovers evidence of the Syndicate, a “rogue nation” comprised of secret agents thought to be dead, the dirty underbelly of the dirty underbelly. With the treacherous Solomon Lane (Harris) in charge, The Syndicate’s tendrils reach far and deep. Pressed on all sides and with dangerous enemies in pursuit, Ethan and his associates embark on their most crucial mission yet.

In an age where hype counts a great deal, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation has not been hyped as much as other summer blockbusters. It also faces heady competition at the cinemas this year – Paramount shifted the film up from a Christmas release date to late July to avoid facing Bond film Spectre head-on. Helmed by Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie, Rogue Nation proves the franchise has wind in its sails yet. This film series is unique in that there have been five different directors over five films, counting this one. McQuarrie manages to quickly find his footing, acknowledging the events of the previous film, tying it all together quite nicely (though there’s curiously no mention of Ethan’s wife). This is an exhilarating, superbly constructed action thriller, a palpable affection for and understanding of the genre evident throughout. 


          Structurally, perhaps it is a misstep to pile all the action set-pieces on to the front end of the picture, meaning the pace lags a little as the film nears its conclusion. That said, the set-pieces are uniformly marvelous, so credit to stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood and second unit director Gregg Smrz is due. Right out the gate, McQuarrie and star/producer Cruise show they mean business with an opening sequence in which Ethan clings precariously to the exterior of an Airbus A400 M, a stunt Cruise performed for real. The film doesn’t feature globetrotting so much as “globe-galloping” – From Belarus to Austria to Morocco in addition to the United Kingdom and the United States, the exotic locations and the scale of the film lend it a very appealing throwback quality to the heyday of spy-fi. The scene in which Ethan grapples with a Syndicate operative in the rafters of the Vienna Opera House while Puccini’s Turandot is in progress on the stage below is pure class. A white-knuckle sequence with Ethan swimming into an underwater data storage facility called the “Taurus” while holding his breath the whole time is strikingly unique, adding a futuristic touch that makes it seem as if Cruise has temporarily stepped back into Minority Report. There’s also the motorcycle chase that’s far less silly than the one in M:I II. All this is wrapped in Joe Kraemer’s electrifying musical score, which weaves in both the iconic Lalo Schiffrin M:I theme and Nessun Dorma

           His peculiar personal proclivities notwithstanding, Cruise has held his own as a megastar for decades while others have come and gone. From the moment he enters the movie – sprinting, of course – the 53-year-old shows no signs of slowing down whatsoever. The charisma, intensity, spry athleticism, it’s all intact. Cruise has had several duds in recent years (the baffling sub-Mission: Impossible flick Knight and Day comes to mind) but with Rogue Nation, his trademark star vehicle franchise remains right on track. 

The Mission: Impossible television series from the 60s had an emphasis on teamwork. The movies have certainly been all about Cruise, but it is great to see the returning IMF members back in the field. This film gives Simon Pegg’s Benji in particular a meatier role – since the character’s introduction in the third movie, he’s gotten a nice upgrade from the designated techie comic relief, an evolution which continues ahead in this film. Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell, this team’s original techie, is back as well. While Jeremy Renner has a little less to do, spending the first half of the film duking it out with Alec Baldwin in front of a senate oversight committee, he gets his moments to shine too. Speaking of Baldwin, it was a little difficult for this reviewer to see him as anything but Jack Donaghy in some spy movie-inspired fever dream of Liz Lemon’s on 30 Rock. In future movies, it would be great to see some of the female IMF agents return – Maggie Q and Paula Patton on the same team would be awesome! 

Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, best known for her leading role in period series The White Queen but otherwise not a big-name star just yet, was apparently hand-picked by Cruise to star in Rogue Nation. Her Ilsa Faust is meant to remain an enigma throughout, ostensibly an ally yet someone we are never sure whether or not to fully trust. There’s a femme fatale element she doesn’t overplay, as well as a sophistication and intelligence that Ferguson balances out the requisite sex appeal with. Still, she doesn’t quite stand out as strikingly as, say, Eva Green did in Casino Royale. We’ve seen villains like Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane many, many times in this genre – he’s the quietly menacing guy pulling the strings, playing everyone from a distance. It’s not an outstanding character, but he’s functional and his part in the grand scheme of things makes sense.

McQuarrie, who co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce, weaves an intricate plot of gambits and double-crosses which the audience has to make a conscious effort to follow, but which stops a safe distance from being pointlessly convoluted. It harks back to a bygone era of stylish spy movies, but is also a straight-ahead contemporary thriller rather than self-reflexively playing with the tropes of the genre the way Kingsman and Spy do. The chases, shootouts, fisticuffs, daredevil Houdini escapes, ticking bomb suspense and Cruise’s unwavering star power – Rogue Nation has it all.

Summary: Carried by a propulsive momentum and packed with meticulously-assembled thrills, going Rogue has never been this entertaining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong