Defying Death With “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” Second Unit Director & Stunt Coordinator Wade Eastwood
“The action evolves with the story — I’m not trying to invent action just to invent the next big stunt. It’s got to be emotionally engaging through action and fit the character,” says second unit director and stunt choreographer Wade Eastwood of Mission: Impossible’s brand of character-driven action choreography.
An accomplished fixed-wing and helicopter pilot, Eastwood is also a licensed skydiver, rescue scuba diver, black belt martial artist, master stunt driver, and Formula Racing competitive driver. “Growing up, I’ve always wanted to do everything that was exciting. That’s why I got into movies; it’s the perfect job,” shares the South African native. After completing compulsory military service at 19 years old, a local film crew was looking for “a few guys to jump out of a helicopter into this [crocodile-infested] river” in his hometown, Durban. Ever since then, he has been drifting, crashing, flying, and diving through a long list of actioners like Spectre, Edge of Tomorrow, and Men in Black: International.
The opening salvo to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s two-part finale, Dead Reckoning Part One digs deeper into Ethan Hunt’s (Tom Cruise) emotional psyche and backstory. “We live and die in the shadows for those we hold close and those we never meet,” the weary yet indomitable super-spy quietly utters his oath to unlock for-his-eyes-only orders after the latest global threat is unleashed. “Ethan Hunt is all about doing the right thing — looking after his team, saving his team and loved ones, and protecting the world from disaster,” says Eastwood, who has worked on four Mission films since 2015’s Rogue Nation.
If Ethan has one weakness, it is his loyalty to his friends. As he tells a newcomer to the franchise, the sly thief-turned-ally, Grace (Hayley Atwell): “Your life will always matter more to me than my own.” And that’s why Eastwood thinks audiences around the world have connected with the IMF agent for almost three decades: “He would jump off a cliff to save someone and then figure out how to save himself. They respect and admire that.”
It also helps that Mission has always thrilled audiences with adrenaline-inducing action, setting a high bar in action cinema, particularly when it comes to capturing practical effects in-camera. To maximize audience engagement, Cruise famously performs just about every stunt in these films. We have seen him scale the 2,700-feet Burj Khalifa (Ghost Protocol), clutch onto the outside of a cargo plane mid-takeoff with his bare hands (Rogue Nation), and in 2018’s Fallout, he became the first actor to perform a HALO (High Altitude Low Open) jump on film.
“Tom, McQ [McQuarrie], and I hash out the best way to do it. Ethan’s got to get from point A to point B; what’s the coolest way he can do that but also be practical? What can the audience relate to? If we jump into space, the audience can’t relate because no one’s really been to space. But people have ridden motorbikes and have been in the mountains. So, that’s relatable action,” Eastwood says, referring to the jaw-dropping sequence where Cruise jumps off a vertical cliff 3,900 feet above sea level in a motorbike. “And once they can relate, they’re on board with the character. Now, they’re invested.”
In Fallout, Eastwood helped cast stuntman and Wushu champion Liang Yang in the savage bathroom brawl against Ethan and Henry Cavill’s turncoat, August Walker. “We hadn’t done that style in a Mission fight before, but Wushu is one of my favorites. It’s like a dance, just mesmerizing, and Liang’s style is fluid and intensely beautiful. For that sequence, I wanted a hard, grungy fight but with traces of Wushu. Throwing that wildcard into the mix meant that August and Ethan had to adapt their fighting styles,” he remarks on one of the most popular Mission stunts. “Tom playing Ethan wasn’t scared to get his ass kicked a bit and not be the hero, which made it so brutal. You could put yourself in that fight and go ‘God, what would I do against such a powerful, talented fighter?’ You’re getting your ass kicked! Now, you’re engaged with the story.”
With a main lead performing all of his own stunts, the line between main unit and second unit is almost non-existent. “My second units have always had the actors; I like to shoot subjective action, which you need the actors for,” says Eastwood. “Tom does literally everything, so it works differently on Mission. We come up with a story together, and then I’ll work out the choreography with my fight coordinator, Ruda Vrba, assistant stunt coordinator Scott Armstrong, and my team. Then we’ll come back to show everyone and tweak it.”
After the vertiginous highs of Fallout, this latest installment has Ethan going up against the most uncannily topical adversary yet: a sentient AI dubbed “The Entity” has accessed all of the world’s digital data and targeting intelligence networks on a global scale. With governments and criminals alike clamoring for it, he has to locate a two-part bejeweled cruciform key to unlock and destroy the algorithm. The visually discernible villain — Esai Morales’ diabolical Gabriel — serves as the human proxy to the AI, with help from ice-cold henchwoman Paris (Pom Klementieff).
In one of the most bone-crunching assaults, Paris and Ethan punch, kick, slash, and pummel each other in an unbelievably narrow vicoletto in Venice, one that is literally shoulder-width. Desperate to get out and help romantic interest and rogue MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) and Grace — both are under attack at a nearby bridge — Ethan begins with defensive moves before shifting into high gear. “Ethan didn’t want to fight. He just wants to get out and save Grace and Ilsa. Having that as the background makes the audience watch it differently. You’re watching the moves and the style, sure, but you’re immersed in what he’s trying to do. So, you’ve got that emotional connection. Tom is a master at keeping that emotional storytelling alive.”
With three decades in the business, Eastwood has seen a lot in the evolution of action choreography, “but the biggest thing that’s helped us is technology, especially smaller cameras that we can get into better places to capture the action more intensely and subjectively,” he says, referring to the Zed miniature cameras. Small and flexible enough to capture kinetic chaos in tight spaces, it was used in the teeth-gnashing car chase through central Rome in a tiny, yellow Fiat 500 — with Ethan steering one-handed because he is handcuffed to Grace. “I love that car chase. We trained at racetracks in England, just like we did for Rogue Nation at Goodwood, Silverstone, Bedford. We set up cones to rehearse all the scenarios that we’d experience in Rome.”
When it came time to shoot, the team might only have access to a highly trafficked area for five minutes at a time, so everything had to run like clockwork. “Logistically, it’s a real challenge. Like in the Arc de Triomphe car chase in Fallout, we only had that for an hour with 70 cars going around and Tom weaving in and out of traffic on the motorbike. It was the same in Rome. I got my stunt drivers set up so that we could be in position within 30 seconds from the side streets. If we get a five-minute lockup, we can be in and out in two minutes filmed.”
The intense training Eastwood puts the actors through is no joke. “I set them up with drills and exercises with scenarios, like what to do if a pedestrian walks out when you’re mid-drift. We drill on all the what-ifs. I train them to the point where I wouldn’t put someone else in that car. We’ve trained them to be so competent and safe that we could safely shoot and put camera mounts all over.” He wants the audience to understand just how tough it is to perform these stunts at that level as an actor. “When I’m drifting a car or flying a helicopter, I’m doing it. But when Tom does it, he has to do it as Ethan while watching out for bogeys or what might go wrong. So, he can’t necessarily look where I would because he’s also got to find the lens and the light, playing to different emotions than what he might be feeling while drifting a car through a narrow street, hitting a wall, or bouncing off a car. To do it at that level requires unbelievable skill.”
For the much-hyped climactic set piece, Cruise drove his motorcycle off Norway’s Helsetkopen mountain and plunged 4,000 feet into the ravine below. The vertical rock face gave Eastwood everything he’d been looking for: it had sufficient height to film the plunge but with a near-vertical cliff face to minimize the risk of Cruise hitting it on the way down. “It gave us the danger and a terrain where we could make it look dangerous on-screen, even though it was so dangerous!”
Once Cruise leaves the mountain and detaches from the motorcycle, he only had six seconds to deploy his parachute, so there was no room for error. “Tom is already an accomplished skydiver, but we had to drill his tracking. If he tracked the wrong way from the bike, he wouldn’t track away from the mountain. If he opened his parachute and had a small twist, he’s going to turn and slam straight into the mountain, and it’s game over. We trained with my skydiver coordinator, Jon DeVore, who’s incredible. They would fly in a helicopter at the speed of the bike and just jump and track, jump and track.”
After training for a year, Cruise had done over 500 skydives and 13,000 motocross jumps. “My motocross team was incredible. Tom did jump after jump to get his body position and rhythm right on the bike. I set up a mock version of the whole stunt in England where we had him on wires and jumped the motorcycle into 20,000 boxes, so it didn’t get damaged,” Eastwood explains. To intensify the visceral and nail-biting experience for the audience, Cruise would push it as far as he could. “Once the bike was airborne, he would try to hold onto the bike an extra half a second or a second to maximize drama, maximize jeopardy, and maximize audience participation. That’s what immerses the audience. What he did there was incredible. He put in the time and did the work, and that’s why it is the biggest stunt in cinema history.”
With Dead Reckoning, Part Two slated for summer 2025, Eastwood only has this to say for the nonstop cinematic thrill ride: “We’re still shooting, but what we’ve already done is absolutely scary. It’s breathtaking.” Unfortunately for Ethan Hunt, the battle against evil never ends, at least not for a man who would move mountains to protect those he holds close.
Dead Reckoning, Part One is streaming now and a nominee at this weekend’s 81st Golden Globe Awards.
Featured image: Base Jumping Coach John Devore, Tom Cruise, Prop Supervisor George Pugh, Christopher McQuarrie and Stunt Coordinator Wade Eastwood on the set of Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning – Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.