The First Mission: Impossible Almost Had A Prison Break Sequence Involving Ethan Hunt Hanging From A Helicopter

The process of getting any film made can feel like an impossible mission, but it's hard to argue that Tom Cruise films have always faced a monumental level of pressure. Take "Mission: Impossible," the Brian De Palma-directed spy thriller that launched Cruise's career into an entirely different arena and gave birth to a franchise that grows aggressively more ambitious with each installment. "Mission: Impossible" has evolved exponentially since that first outing in 1996, which makes the stunts in that very first film almost tame in comparison. Take the HALO jump in "Mission: Impossible — Fallout," for example. 

For its time, though, "Mission: Impossible" was hugely ambitious — at times even too ambitious for its $80 million budget. Screenwriter David Koepp ("Jurassic Park," "Spider-Man") had big plans for one action sequence in particular. The scene would have introduced some trademark bonkers action to the film, which kicked off with a mission gone wrong. After the death of Ethan Hunt's (Cruise) tight-knit Impossible Mission Force Team, he's got to assemble a new one to help him break into CIA headquarters. "I think, at that point in the plot, it was time for a bit of action and fun," Koepp said on the Script Apart podcast. He and De Palma "wanted each character to get their own introduction, and we wanted some cool scenes."

So what did Keopp — now famous for his out-of-the-box approach to exposition — have in mind exactly? A prison break sequence, of course.

What could have been

Koepp's prison break would have followed Ethan and Claire Phelps (Emmanuelle Béart), the last surviving member of his team, on a mini-mission to recover a particular character — possibly Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) — from a "very creepy, drippy, nasty" prison in India. Claire would have posed as Luther's wife who, after meeting Luther in the visiting room, would covertly render him unconscious. "He passes out; the screen goes black for a good while," Koepp explained. "Then you hear jostling and voices ... He's in a black space and he can't figure out what it is." Koepp continued:

"He can hear the head of the prison and Claire talking and saying, 'Yes, of course, it's so unfortunate. Our deepest sympathies. I wish we could send him back with you, but we absolutely can't. Because of the heat and infectious disease, the only possibility is immediate cremation.' And the bottom of the box opens up and you just see fire, and it starts to tilt upward. So he's clinging to the inside of the thing to avoid being dumped into this incinerator. Then all of a sudden, the box is jostled and crashed and there's fighting and gunshots and the box splits open."

Luther and Claire eventually end up on the roof of the prison. "Then you see this helicopter coming. She's strapped the two of them together, and she's like, 'Hold on.' And you see Ethan dangling out of this helicopter with a hook, and they fly over them and hook the harness and fly off into the distance. It was so fun!"

The compromise

Unfortunately, as fun as the sequence would have been, it had to be scrapped just a few weeks before the film was set to start shooting. "There was a matter of three million dollars, as there often is," Koepp recalled, which meant that the massive nine-page round-up had to be swapped for something more economical. 

In the final cut, Ethan and Claire meet up with Luther and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) on a train, which Koepp admitted "felt like such a disappointment," both to himself and to De Palma. "Nowadays, they'd get the money," Koepp joked, "[but] they'd probably say, 'This is a bit small!'" 

Koepp's observation is all too accurate, seeing as the franchise eventually did get its infamous prison break scene later on. The fourth "Mission: Impossible" film, "Ghost Protocol," opens with an elaborate scene in which Ethan escapes a Russian prison with the help of Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Agent Jane Carter (Paula Patton). It's one of the film's first set pieces, and it's quickly overshadowed by a disastrous trip to The Kremlin, Cruise's infamous Burj Khalifa stunt, and a white-knuckle final act in Mumbai, India. 

"Ghost Protocol" had an absolutely bonkers budget — roughly $60 million more than the very first installment's — and that's likely because the plot is equally bonkers. It's one of the main reasons why the first "Mission" just feels so ridiculously tame by today's standards. "Ghost Prtotocol" really reoriented the franchise into the stunt-filled spectacular it is today. But Koepp and De Palma's work in "Mission: Impossible" is still a triumph in every sense. Of course, there was still quite a big helicopter sequence at the end of the 1996 movie. Maybe not as big as Tom Cruise flying a helicopter himself for "Mission: Impossible – Fallout," but it holds up just fine without it.