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Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

How - why! - Cruise climbed the Burj Khalifa

The Sunday Times Culture blog

December 2011

Tom Cruise's Mission: Foolhardy

When producers JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk decided to descend on Dubai to shoot a hefty chunk of franchise reboot Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there was only one way to look: up… as in up high in the sky, near the pinnacle of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.

This 2717-ft symbol of Dubai’s towering extravagance and ambition, which from a distance resembles a shiny witch’s finger poking out of the desert, would play host to one of the most mind-bogglingly stupefying stunts in the history of cinema. Tom Cruise, back for his fourth gambol as globe-hopper spy Ethan Hunt, was going to scale the skyscraper’s exterior, then sprint across the face of the building and launch himself into the air to get back to the room where he started. All shot in eye-popping IMAX.

The story mechanics necessary to force Hunt into such a foolhardy, life-risking endeavour are hilariously creaky – a countdown-style race to seize control of the Burj Khalifa’s server in which taking the elevator would be way too dull and easy. But, whatever. “I assumed it was going to be a special effect,” director Brad Bird tells us in Dubai, “but once we realised it might actually be possible – and we had a star crazy enough to do it – you couldn’t stop Tom.”

The undertaking was planned with military precision over several months, encompassing mundane realities from how hot the surface temperature of the glass could reach to testing the harnesses, cables and pullies that would hopefully prevent the airborne A-lister from ending up a human pancake. Reaching the Khalifa’s 124th floor for a press conference with M:I-GP’s star requires taking an elevator that rises thousands of feet in under a minute with such a smooth and quiet motion, you’re barely aware you’re moving except for the fact that your ears keep popping.

“The first couple of times I did it, I slammed into the building,” Cruise says. “I had to figure out how to fly, I had to figure out how to use my feet as a rudder because of the crosswinds…” “I’d kind of forgotten about him because I was having so many conversations,” chimes in Bird, “and suddenly we heard this ‘Wooooo!’ and we saw this body arcing around and then he went out of view and we heard a bang. I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’ve lost Tom!’ And then, laughing... That night, I woke up at three in the morning in a cold sweat going, ‘What the hell are we doing?’”

However daft it may be in plot terms, the results are impressive, if a tad stomach-churning, to watch (especially in IMAX). Which makes it all worthwhile for MI-4’s masterminds, even if the achievement did leave Cruise feeling grumpy. “We were all very quiet and focused through the whole filming of it. When it was all over, though, everyone had this unbelievable unclenching: hahahahaha yeah, yeah, YEAH!!!!! WE MADE IT!” recalls Bird. “The only one who was unhappy was Tom. He was pissed off. He didn’t want to come down from the building. It was over and he knew he would never be back up there.”

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