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'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation': Tom Cruise's latest mission is more risky business

Tom Cruise in a scene from "Mission: Impossible

Tom Cruise in a scene from "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation." Credit: AP / Bo Bridges

In the previous "Mission: Impossible" espionage thriller, Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt scales the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, with Cruise himself doing the stunt work more than a half-mile in the air. Now, in "Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation," opening Friday, July 31, Cruise -- likewise in a digitally erased safety harness, but still -- hangs from an Airbus A400M four-engine turboprop 5,000 feet in the air.

What is he, nuts? What's wrong with, say, 50 feet in the air? Or maybe five. Heck, hanging even five feet off the ground from an airborne plane would be pretty good.

"I was actually there on the day," recalls Simon Pegg, who returns as Benji Dunn, an Impossible Missions Force technician-turned-field-agent. "Whatever altitude they hit," he says, calling from the Vancouver set of "Star Trek Beyond," where he's reprising his role as engineer Montgomery Scott, "it was the lowest it could be, the legal requirement."

Besides, notes screenwriter-director Christopher McQuarrie cheerfully, calling from London, "The smaller the objects look on the ground, the more effective the shot's going to be!" And having Cruise fall from the plane actually wasn't a worry, he avers.

"That was really never the danger" for the strapped-in star, presuming all went according to a meticulous plan. "There were three things that could really have been much worse. The first was debris on the runway: The plane was traveling at such high speed before it took off, with the propellers sucking up everything in their path, that if a small object hit Tom it would have been like a bullet. The second danger was bird strikes. And finally, the takeoff is extremely [steep], because we wanted to get the earth falling away from the camera at its most optimum angle. But we didn't want to go too fast because then Tom would have been ripped off the plane."

Following a test run with a mannequin, they ran the stunt eight times. "For all of us watching," says Pegg, "it was far more nerve-wracking than it will be for people who experience it in the cinema because we didn't know if he was going to survive."

The franchise itself is surviving just fine, with its fifth installment finding the IMF confronting essentially its evil twin, a group of renegade spies threatening to destabilize civilization. Returning alongside Pegg are Ving Rhames as computer expert Luther Stickell, and Jeremy Renner, introduced in the previous movie as IMF agent William Brandt. The new film also stars Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris and, as the CIA director, Alec Baldwin.

Massapequa-native Baldwin even inspired the film's ending, in a way, says McQuarrie.

"Alec had scenes at the beginning and at the end of the movie, so we had to write the beginning and the postscript, but we didn't know what motivated his character in the postscript" since the movie's climactic scene hadn't yet been written by the time Baldwin's scenes needed to shoot. "At the end of the movie -- I'm not giving anything away -- he's sitting in a Senate hearing and he's deep in thought. So I told him, 'I just want you to sit here and be lost in the story.' And Alec said, 'Well, what is the story?' And I said, 'I don't know yet.' And Alec was so wonderful in the scene that Tom and I looked at it and said, 'Now have to make a movie that justifies what Alec has given us.' And that's how the movie came together: While we were shooting it!"

That's more or less also the way McQuarrie -- who gives props to uncredited script doctors Will Staples, Laeta Kalogridis, Patrick Lussier and Dylan Kussman, who touched up scenes -- got the directing gig. Best known as a screenwriter who won the 1995 original-screenplay Oscar for "The Usual Suspects," he made his directing debut with "The Way of the Gun" (2000), a low-budget production that did poorly at the box office but has since become a cult film. He eventually got another shot with Cruise's "Jack Reacher" (2012), for which he wrote the adapted screenplay.

That film earned respectable worldwide grosses and mixed to positive reviews. And so while McQuarrie was working on the screenplay for Cruise's "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014), the star, McQuarrie remembers, "mentioned in passing, 'You know, you should direct the next "Mission: Impossible." ' And I said, 'Well, sure, all right,' and thought we were going to get back to the conversation at hand. So he picked up the phone, left the room and came back about 10 minutes later . . . and said, 'OK, you're directing the next "Mission: Impossible." ' And that was sort of it."

He couldn't have suspected which star would have the really dangerous stunt. "I got punched in the face," Pegg recounts. "I was doing a fight scene [with a German stuntman] and we mistimed a punch and he just caught me. But fortunately he caught me on the cheek and spared my eye, my nose and my teeth. An inch either way and I would have been in trouble. Of course, I was acting all cool, like, 'Yeah, whatever,' and the crew were all worried -- I kind of liked that!"

Cruise's many other 'Missions'

Even though this is the fifth "Mission: Impossible" movie, following the missions isn't impossible. Here's what went on before.

Mission: Impossible (1996) An ill-fated assignment leaves Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) the sole survivor of the Impossible Missions Force. Suspected of being a mole trying to steal classified secrets, he goes underground to clear his name. He's helped by computer expert Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), who later joins him in the revived IMF.

Mission: Impossible II (2000) Ethan, Luther and other teammates battle a rogue IMF agent (Dougray Scott) who has hijacked a biological weapon, intending to make a fortune by controlling the only known antidote.

Mission: Impossible III (2006) Ethan, retired from field work and living quietly with his fiancee Julia (Michelle Monaghan), is called back in to find an arms dealer who's seeking a mysterious object. Joined by Luther and two other agents, Ethan and his team are helped by IMF technician Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg).

Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol (2011) "Disavowed" by the U.S. government but actually deep undercover, a team including newly promoted field agent Benji and IMF chief analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) must stop a nuclear strategist (Michael Nyqvist) from nuking San Francisco. Luther appears briefly at the end.

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