'Mission: Impossible' at 25: How Tom Cruise saved the CIA heist stunt and stopped hitting his face

Tom Cruise performed wildly impressive stunts introducing his superspy Ethan Hunt in 1996's "Mission: Impossible."

Then 33 and one of the world's biggest movie stars, Cruise had Hunt escape a restaurant's exploding lobster tank and battle in the high-speed train finale. 

Yet as "Mission: Impossible" turned 25 on Saturday, the scene in director Brian De Palma's thriller that continues to shock and awe is Cruise's controlled aerial stunt as Hunt breaks into an impossibly secure CIA vault in Langley, Virginia. 

The 11-minute scene – with Cruise floating from lines in the ceiling as Hunt avoids sound, touch and temperature monitors – turbo-boosted the $3.6 billion "Mission" franchise and set the blueprint for action films to come.

The instantly recognizable CIA heist remains the most iconic moment in a franchise that boasts an overabundance of spectacle (naturally, the cover art for the anniversary remastered Blu-ray features Hunt's vault break-in).

"It's the precision, the timing and the daring," says film historian Leonard Maltin, host of the "Maltin on Movies" podcast. "Actors doing their own stunts is a Hollywood cliché that's not literally true. But Tom Cruise wants you to know that's him doing the stunt, and he throws down the gauntlet to other filmmakers and audiences."

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Tom Cruise shooting the famed Langley break-in scene for "Mission: Impossible," which turns 25.

There was no hiding who was on the wires with close shots from three cameras on the austere set. No stuntman, but Cruise in a black, short-sleeved T-shirt. The body control commands respect.

"It's very difficult to hang straight out like that," De Palma said in a 10th anniversary "Mission: Impossible" interview. "It takes a tremendous amount of muscle control. Tom was able to do this and bring a kind of reality to it and really grab the audience. You see the tremendous tension he's under."

The tension is enhanced by De Palma's slick direction in the scoreless scene, as he flashes over to cohort Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) silently straining to hold Hunt's pulley system from the ceiling air duct.

The reality wasn't far from the film version. At Pinewood Studios outside London, two set workers behind the fake CIA walls utilized weights with carefully marked cables to control Cruise's movements, moving the actor up and down.

"That looks effortless, but that's a really difficult stunt. If you drop him too far down, that's not good," Sherry Lansing, then CEO of Paramount Studios, said in an interview for the film's 10th anniversary. "That's one of the hardest stunts Tom's done."

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Cruise, producing his first film from the 1970s TV series, and De Palma worked out the vault break-in details over a small model of the CIA set. These included Hunt's inverted ceiling entrance and potential heist problems to amp the drama  – such as a rat in the air duct that startles Reno's Kreiger, who lets the cables loose, lurching Hunt towards the wired floor. 

But the near-drop was problematic to shoot as Cruise had trouble keeping his body balanced from the wires with the sudden stop inches from the floor.

"I kept going down to the floor and bam, I kept hitting my face. And the take didn’t work. And we’re running out of time," Cruise explained in a 25th-anniversary interview from the set of the upcoming "Mission: Impossible 7" with director Christopher McQuarrie. "And it’s very physical, I’m straining."

Cruise said he asked the English stunt crew for heavy pound coins which he placed in his shoes for needed equilibrium. Naturally, in Cruise's retelling, De Palma gives his star one more chance to pull the stunt off.

"I went down to the floor, and I didn’t touch. And I remember thinking, my God I didn’t touch! And I was holding it. And I’m sweating and sweating," Cruise recalled, explaining the strain seen on Hunt's face onscreen. "(De Palma) just keeps rolling. And I was like, I’m not going to stop."

Filming Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Cruise scaled Dubai's Burj Khalifa which, at more than 2,716 ft, is the tallest structure in the world.

Scene accomplished and "Mission: Impossible" went on to be a box-office smash. Action stars from Matt Damon in the "Bourne" franchise to Charlize Theron in "Atomic Blonde" have picked up the thrown-down gauntlet for performing their own action stunts. Cruise, now 58, has worked to stay one sensational step ahead of the pack, compelled to push the stunt envelope in each successive "Mission" film.

He scaled the top of Dubai's Burj Khalifa skyscraper and soared strapped to the side of a flying A400M military aircraft in riveting consecutive "Mission: Impossible"  installments. During one infamous "Mission: Impossible - Fallout" stunt, Cruise overshot his jump from a London building and broke his ankle landing. Viral paparazzi video showed he finished the shot, limping. 

Tom Cruise jumps between buildings in London for "Mission: Impossible - Fallout."

Production was delayed for three months as Cruise healed. But global fascination over the stunts went next-level in the aftermath as if proving the star was putting himself on the line. 

"The mishap became the thing everybody knew. It raised the awareness stakes." McQuarrie told USA TODAY. "It reminds people that there are no small stunts."