Tom Cruise and the “I always wanted to do it when I was a little kid” philosophy

The daredevil actor’s new stunt features him riding a motorcycle over a ramp mounted at the top of a cliff, then dumping the bike and parachuting to safety down below.  He said he’s always wanted to do it since he was a little kid, because who hasn’t and who couldn’t use living out a crazy childhood dream today?

Tom Cruise, the world’s last movie star, is riding as high as he’s ever been, literally and figuratively, across a four decade career.  The long-awaited Top Gun: Maverick broke box office records last year and went on to be his highest grossing movie of all time.  The film has recently been honored with several Academy Award Nominations, but Mr. Cruise has never been one to stand still.  Late last year, he released a promotional video for the second to last Mission: Impossible film, Dead Reckoning Part 1, detailing what is being described as the most dangerous stunt in cinema history.  Mr. Cruise himself rides a motorcycle off a ramp mounted on the top of a cliff and then parachutes to safety down below while the bike itself hurtles toward its own destruction.  The incredible, scary just to watch sequence was filmed in Norway, but required a year of preparation beforehand during which Mr. Cruise jumped out of a plane some 30 times per day for over 500 skydives overall, working in tandem with a professional skydiver to ensure he had as much control as possible in the air.  A test motorcycle ramp was also built where Mr. Cruise could safely crash land and “get comfortable jumping 70- to 80-foot table tops.”  He would ultimately complete some 13,000 jumps in total, but nothing could truly prepare him or the camera crew to do both at once.  Things look quite different from the top of a ramp overlooking a cliff, the mist at the base preventing you from seeing the ground below. For the stunt to be successful and the star to survive, Mr. Cruise had to both perfectly execute the jump and nail the skydive.  “I have to get so good at this that there’s just no way that I miss my marks,” he said.  A mistake or problem with either one would result in disaster, one which could easily kill the superstar.

Of course, the crew also had to make sure they could film this successfully, or else the entire feat would be for naught.  As Mr. Cruise put it, “Because if we do it all, but we don’t capture it, what is the point?”  Director Christopher McQuarrie explained, “Coming up with the stunt is only one of the technical challenges.  The other is putting a camera in place that you can see where Tom is doing it.”  He added, “Finding the right lens, the right platform, the right medium. Even two years ago, the cameras didn’t exist that would allow us to do what we are trying to do today.”  During the practice runs, Mr. Cruise was outfitted with GPS and surrounded by drones to track his movements.  The key was to ensure the actual jump occurred at the exact same speed to produce the same trajectory.  “We have to be able to consistently predict where Tom will be in three-dimensional space,” Mr. McQuarrie noted.  At the same time, the actor could not be distracted by anything, and so the motorcycle itself wasn’t even equipped with a speedometer.  After doing it thousands of times, the “sound and feel of the bike” was all that was needed to determine the optimal speed.  The actual sequence was filmed in 2020 in Hellesylt, Norway, a small village in fjord country.  Following the pattern of previous Mission: Impossible movies, the production always begins with the biggest stunt.  The actor himself began with a series of test jumps from a helicopter to warm up and ensure the weather was ideal.  “Of course, when something is being done for the first time, you can’t help but worry about how it’s really going to turn out,” base jump coach Miles Daisher explained in a candidate for understatement of the year. “The only things that you really have to avoid while doing a stunt like this is serious injury or death.”  Once the tests were completed, it was time to do it for real, on the motorcycle, over the ramp, let go of the motorcycle, freefall over a cliff, and then open the parachute.  “I always wear my earplugs, so I don’t have to hear myself scream,” the actor joked, and then proceeded to perform the stunt six times before calling it a wrap.

This is all in a day’s work for Mr. Cruise, but when asked why, at 60 years old, he continues to push the limits of both his body and movie making technology, ratcheting up the danger each and every time, he said, “No one asked Gene Kelly, ‘Why do you dance? Why do you do your own dancing?’”  This particular stunt was, apparently, something close to his heart as well.  Gazing over the ramp and the cliff with a gleeful look in his eyes before attempting the jump, Mr. Cruise said “I’ve wanted to do it since I was a little kid.”  It might sound like a ridiculous statement, but honestly, what red blooded American growing up in the 70s and 80s didn’t imagine such things?  Our television screens were filled with no shortage of inspiration for feats of daring, the sort of things that would likely have killed us if we tried.  Rare is the member of Generation X who did not see themselves in the General Lee, jumping a river in the Dukes of Hazzard, or fancied ourselves Michael Knight in KITT, pressing the turbo boost button and launching the car over a tractor trailer.  Tom Cruise’s own Top Gun introduced us to the world of flight in 1986, putting us in the cockpit of a fighter jet for the first time.  A few years later he did the same for a race car in Days of Thunder.  This was also the early boom of extreme sports, and many teenagers constructed their own bicycle and skateboard ramps, others tried skiing and snowboarding for the first time, launching themselves as far in the air as physics and their own sense of mortality allowed.  Action Park was a thing, where anyone could try some of these stunts on their own, with no training and little supervision.

Throughout it all, the knowledge that there was the potential  for injury, was overwhelmed by a combination of a childlike belief in our own mortality and an irresistible drive to one up our friends, to show that we, in fact, were even more daring than they were.  If nothing else, the era as a whole can generally be defined by a need for speed, to use Maverick’s own quote. Of course, none of us are Tom Cruise, even without the movie star looks, international celebrity, and the hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank.  We did not find a way to do this for a living, and would surely have killed ourselves if we had.  For obvious reasons, Mr. Daisher described him as an “amazing individual.”  “You tell him something, and he just locks it in,” he explained. “His sense of spatial awareness, he’s the most aware person I’ve ever met.”  All the same, this need for speed and the visceral thrills that came with it meant something equally special to us, at least to me, both then and now.  Nobody has ever described me as an athlete.  At 150 pounds soaking wet, I am not fast or agile, strong or particularly coordinated.  I was a reasonably good swimmer as a child, but never grew into the body.  Otherwise, my greatest moment as an athlete was pitching my corporate softball team to a win complete with three scoreless innings, aided by one instinctual catch on a comebacker to the mound where the ball basically appeared in my glove through luck and will alone.  I still have the ball in my bedroom.  My brother once said that I had an almost indescribable combination of spasticity and control, evidence is in the picture of me rope swinging below.

Here I am, an indescribable combination of spasticity and control.
Here I am, an indescribable combination of spasticity and control.

This, however, never prevented me from trying, from pushing myself to further “heights” as I saw it then.  There was a skateboard ramp we built in middle school and hid behind the woods of the local elementary.  Wise, we were not, because rather than simply jump the ramp on our own, we would line up people underneath it and see how many would clear at a single go.  The opportunity for disaster was undeniable.  We were in a parking lot, not any set facility.  A single rock could have sent me or another skater tumbling even before reaching the ramp, or right into it, an occurrence which certainly happened many times resulting in no shortage of scrapes and bruises.  The ramp itself was built by 13 year olds out of wood we scavenged, the pieces barely fitting together.  There was no inspection or testing, other than by ourselves attempting to clear it.  The lower portion wasn’t precisely flush with the ground and there was no molding at the top, merely exposed wood.  There was only the flat surface of the parking lot itself to land on, no easy downward glide to soften the blow like they have on snowboard and skateboard parks today.  We wore no pads or helmets, didn’t even think about it.  In short, it was colossally stupid in almost all respects, but when I tell you there was little better at that age than a good up and over, I am not exaggerating in the slightest.  Somehow, someway, this homemade piece of crap had the magical ability to launch a teenager well over 6 feet into the air.  In an era before skateboard parks or snowboarding runs specifically designed to achieve vertical height with something resembling safety, it was a marvel in the neighborhood.  Other kids who didn’t ride would gather to watch, not a lot, merely a handful but there were girls in the group as well, and sometimes they too would lay down their lives beneath it, allowing me and a select group of friends to pretend we were a combination of Tony Hawk and Evil Knievel.

Incredibly, we didn’t think too much about it at the time.  It was something we did in that phase in between, when you were not quite a child, but not yet saddled with the responsibilities of work and truly preparing for the future.  Those were the days where we also played manhunt, running rampant throughout the neighborhood in and out of everyone’s yards at night.  Around the Fourth of July, we would celebrate by aiming fireworks at each other instead of the open air, pretending a bottle rocket was a missile and we were at war.  Throughout the summer, we would alternate between our skateboard ramp and the local pool club, attempting to break every rule without killing ourselves on the old-school three meter diving board, since removed from most public facilities.  Financially, it was not an easy period for my family after my parents got divorced, but as a thirteen and fourteen year old, I can’t say I really cared.   We had a ramp, dreams, and some friends to help make them so, and that was all that mattered.  There was a sense of adventure that I think all of us from that generation carry to this day.  A knowledge that there might be danger, but with enough skill, practice, and luck anything was possible. Practice is likely an underrated portion of this equation, then and now. Mr. Cruise himself dreamed of the stunt as a kid, but actually doing it required thousands of hours of effort, a valuable lesson that making dreams come true is not an easy task. Whatever your choice of thrills, one is not likely to excel without investing the time. No one shows up at a race track ready to drive for an F1 team, or a ski slope ready to do aerials. To the extent those things come at all, they come after a lot of practice and hard work. It was the same when we were kids. My skateboard friends and I didn’t build a ramp on a lark and then decide to learn how to ride a skateboard. We were already all over the neighborhood for hours at a time, and then decided the ramp was the next best thing, the big idea hour teenage brains were waiting for. Those big ideas change over time, but the knowledge that time needs to be invested to succeed remains.

Today, we are certainly not going to ride a motorcycle off a cliff like Mr. Cruise and we might not be jumping people on skateboards anymore, but other adventures await. It is an irony of our era that there has been an explosion of options in the decades since, even as our culture has increasingly prioritized safety over almost all other things.  Anyone with a little cash on hand can easily take a supercar out on a race track, jump out of an airplane, bungee jump, raft down a rapids, ski above the tree line, snowmobile through the forest, and more.  All that is required is the drive to do it, the desire that likely began when you are a kid, when you said to yourself “I always wanted to do that,” just like Mr. Cruise, and, of course, a little hard work.


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