Determined to prove that actors in their sixties are entirely capable of risking life and limb for the perfect shot, actor Tom Cruise is promising his most impressive stunt ever — in a late career defined by them — in the awkwardly titled Mission: Impossible: Dead Reckoning, Part One. Cruise says the movie features “the most dangerous thing we’ve ever attempted,” and it involves driving a motorcycle off of a cliff and leaping off of it into a BASE jump. Better him than me.
Cruise has been upping the ante for practical stunts with each subsequent film in the M:I series, so his claims don’t seem like mere hype. Since at least the fourth instalment, the films have featured at least one sequence each that could rank on the all time list of most impressive movie stunts. (Perhaps it’s best that the saga is coming to an end before it kills its star.)
No modern movie doesn’t involve at least a little digital trickery, if only for safety, but even the current CGI-drenched landscape, there’s still a market for death-defying practical stunts — and in most cases, we really can tell the difference. And of course, in days of movie yore, real-life stunts were all that there was. Here are 18 of the wildest ever captured on film.
Aerial Transfer — Cliffhanger (1993)
Holding the Guinness World Record as the most expensive aerial stunt in history, British stunt performer Simon Crane was paid around $US1 ($1) million (closer to $US2m in 2022 dollars) for this scene involving crossing between two aeroplanes flying at around 4,572.00 m with nothing more than a mask (to protect his face from the wind chill at -90 F) and a concealed pair of parachutes. The planes had to maintain not only their distance from each other, but also a precise speed. Any slower and the larger DC-9 would stall, any faster and poor Crane would likely have been torn from the line. Fortunately, the stunt was performed in one take, but just barely: a sudden gust of wind meant that Crane couldn’t enter the second plane as planned, and he had to parachute away at the last second.
The Chariot Leap — Ben-Hur (1959)
An entire team of directors was responsible for the famous chariot race sequence in this biblical epic/queer romantic tragedy, above and beyond the movie’s primary director William Wyler. (One of those directors: a young Sergio Leone, soon to helm a classic of his own in A Fistful of Dollars). The scene required a year of preparation, five weeks of filming, 78 horses, and 7,000 extras. Though figures vary, it’s estimated that the roughly nine-minute scene ate up somewhere in the neighbourhood of a quarter of the film’s $US15.2 ($21) million budget. It was inarguably worth it. Though Ben-Hur was one of the most expensive films ever made in its time, it was hardly a debacle — it made a significant profit, and that chariot scene has been a staple of Oscar montages ever since. The key moment comes under a minute into the scene, when stunt performer Joe Canutt (choreographed by his father, Yakima, and doubling for Charlton Heston) flips from his basket while riding over two crashed chariots.
Chariot Crash — Ben-Hur (1925)
The 1959 Ben-Hur was a remake of a silent-era spectacular starring Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman (two of the biggest stars of the 1920s). That film was also the most expensive film of the silent era ($US4 ($6) million in 1925 dollars), and a big chunk of the budget went into the chariot sequence, including building the entire track at the current intersection of Venice and La Cienega Boulevards in Los Angeles (after a location in Italy proved to be deadly to both horses and a stuntman). The scene formed the basis for the 1959 version (including moments that were recreated shot-for-shot), and has been paid homage to in numerous other films, including the pod race sequence in Star Wars0 The Phantom Menace. A crash of two chariots was captured by a record number of cinematographers and cameras, and was viewed live by a number of stars of the era, who were invited to sit in the stands as extras.
Hanging On — Death Proof (2007)
Stunt performer Zoë Bell, who’d worked previously with Quentin Tarantino as Uma Thurman’s double in the Kill Bill movies, plays herself (more or less), in this film about a stunt driver (Kurt Russell’s Stuntman Mike) who uses his tricked-out car to kill women. In the film’s most impressive moment, Bell hangs on to the hood of a 1970 Dodge Challenger while Mike (in his “death proof” stunt car) chases and repeatedly collides with the vehicle. The scene was filmed entirely practically, and tested Bell to her limits as an actor and stunt performer.
Clearing the Tracks — The General (1926)
Buster Keaton was never one to scrimp on stunts sequences, typically placing his own body in the greatest danger when exciting (and often hilarious) business was called for. His most expensive bit of work involves the destruction of a pursuing train in The General. But, arguably, his most impressive physical stunt (though there’s plenty of competition) is also in the same film. From the cow-catcher of the titular train, Keaton first clears one wooden beam from the oncoming tracks, and then, while holding on to the train, perfectly tosses that beam so that it bounces off another that’s obstructing its progress. If that description is confusing, just watch the clip above, and marvel that it was performed by one of the most famous actors of its day.
Pole Slide — Police Story (1985)
Sliding down a pole surrounded by exploding light bulbs into glass beneath: Just another day on the job for Jackie Chan. But this particular moment serves as one of his most spectacular stunts in a career known for them, and in a movie full of them. It’s even more impressively death-defying given what was going on behind-the-scenes: The production was running out of time to shoot in the mall location, so there was no time to rehearse the stunt, which involved no harnesses nor safety wires. The light bulbs were real, and really plugged in, posing an electrocution hazard; that didn’t happen, but the lights did heat up the pole to the extent that Chan suffered second-degree burns on his hands. Landing on the candy-glass kiosk dislocated the actor’s pelvis, but neither that nor the burns stopped him from leaping up and continuing the scene’s fight. You can hardly blame the film for showing the entire stunt from three different angles.
Helicopter Crash — Terminator 2 (1991)
Though James Cameron has remained one of our foremost technical innovators, championing the use of immersive CGI, he also understands that verisimilitude often requires something more than the latest digital trickery. For Terminator 2, he gave us both: the moments that are most often referenced involve the film’s fluid and face-morphing CGI, but the most spectacular stunt was both practical and much more dangerous to capture. T2‘s impressive helicopter crash was deemed too dangerous by a key member of the camera crew, leading James Cameron to pick up the camera himself to get the shot. The key moment involved a helicopter, flown by stunt pilot Chuck Tamburro, flying under an overpass with just a few feet of clearance to work with.
Polecats — Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
It’s hard not to see hints of Cirque du Soleil in the acrobatic and balletic action set piece in which Immortan Joe’s war boys leap from moving vehicles like pole vaulters — a triumph of stunt coordinator Guy Norris, achieved largely without digital effects.
Motorcycle Chase — The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
Like James Cameron, the Wachowskis tend to blend high-end digital trickery with practical effects, getting the most attention for combining martial arts wire work with advanced bullet-time CGI effects. But the most memorable bit of The Matrix Reloaded is a not-entirely old-fashioned — but still highly dangerous — car chase. What looks like a typical city freeway actually required the construction of a 3 km stretch of pretend road at a cost of something like $US2 ($3).5 million. The scene isn’t entirely practical, as the final product features extensive CGI, but the shoot, which took well over a month, included a lot of stunt work. About midway into the scene, Carrie-Anne Moss performs a bit of her own motorcycle stunt driving — impressive, given that the Moss wasn’t particularly experienced as a motorcyclist, and that she had largely rehearsed and trained without the passenger the scene called for.
Climbing the Burj Khalifa — Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Tom Cruise seems determined to prove that middle age is no barrier to performing death-defying feats that might challenge even professional stunt performers (who would doubtless prefer to take on the work themselves). But Cruise’s brand pretty much demands that he do it himself, and Ethan Hunt’s free climb of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai found the actor strapped to the world’s tallest building for hours each day, with digital effects employed only to erase safety wires.
Plane Grab — Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
More Tom Cruise, this time hanging onto a plane during takeoff. With little more than hidden cables and special contacts that allowed him to keep his eyes open, the scene was filmed eight times before the crew got the perfect shot. Just another 48 hours on the job for Cruise.
The Ski Jump — The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
Stunt performer Rick Sylvester took home $US30,000 ($41,646) (real money in 1977) for his work here, and the entirely practical stunt remains a highlight of the entire Bond series. Bond, being pursued by Russian villains in Aspen, leads the baddies on a merry (and acrobatic) ski chase before flying off a cliff…but (surprise?) this isn’t the end of Bond. Luckily, he’s packing a Union Jack parachute.
The Bungee Jump — GoldenEye (1995)
In one take, stunt performer Wayne Michaels completed the then-record-breaking 219.46 m bungee jump from the Contra Dam in Ticino, Switzerland that opens 1995’s GoldenEye. A gutsy feat, even if Michaels did pass out at the final moment. Even still, he got the shot, and a new era in Bond films was born.
Hallway Fight — Inception (2010)
Christopher Nolan loves a practical effect, and so the loopy, dream-like fight sequences in Inception required the construction of of a giant centrifuge with the hallway at its centre, and actors and stunt performers requiring special training to engage in choreographed fighting in a rotating room. The sequence took around three weeks to capture on film, and involved several hundred crew members and a ton of training for actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose character is at the centre of the scene.
Truck Dragging — Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Terry Leonard doubled for Harrison Ford in one of many great Raiders moments, including the film’s most dangerous stunt. Even with some of the safety measures visible (there’s a bit of a ditch under the truck to allow for extra clearance), it’s still a breathtaking bit of work.
Horse Leap — Stagecoach (1939)
An inspiration for Indiana Jones, Stagecoach spotlights stunt performer Yakima Canutt, who would go on to choreograph stunts for the 1959 Ben-Hur, and whose son Joe followed in the family business. With all the safety precautions of old Hollywood (meaning: minimal) Canutt leaped onto a team of horses pulling the titular stagecoach, hung from them, and was then passed by when the horses and coach rode over him. Imagine relying on even the best-trained horses not to step on you as you’re tumbling beneath several of them at a gallop.
Waterfall Fall — Deliverance (1972)
Burt Reynolds might have not been as talented a stunt performer (his first job) as he was an actor, but he gets credit for choosing to do things the hard way. In a crucial moment of Deliverance, and against the wishes of pretty much everyone, he chose to careen down a waterfall rather than allowing director John Boorman to toss a dummy into the churn. Caught in the river’s flow, Reynolds cracked his tailbone and lost all of his clothes. When he woke up to see Boorman and asked how the moment looked, the director replied that: “It looked like a dummy going over the falls.” It’s actually an impressive moment, though, especially considering the lack of doubles or safety considerations involved.
House Comes Down — Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928)
Leave it to Buster Keaton to create one of Hollywood’s most memorable stunts by standing still…after a protracted action sequence involving a hurricane. The moment required Keaton to position himself so perfectly that crew members walked off set, refusing to take part in the clearly lethal stunt. Fortunately for us, them, and Keaton, what might have been a tragedy remains a triumph to this day.