The Best ‘Mission: Impossible’ Action Scenes



The Movie: Mission: Impossible (1996)
The Setup: Ethan Hunt blows up a big restaurant fish tank in order to escape the antagonistic Kittridge.

It’s so simple: blow up a big fish tank in a restaurant so the hero can escape. But putting Cruise front and center for the aftermath of that blast, with the actor clearly running like hell in front of a crashing wall of water, does everything to sell the sequence. It’s also effectively the announcement of a standard for the entire series: “we’re doing this for real (to the degree we can.) As the first big event in Brian De Palma’s movie, this sequence, small as it may be in comparison to what comes in later movies, establishes everything about Mission: Impossible event scenes.




The Movie: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
The Setup: Ethan Hunt must replace a data card to facilitate an operation, but the receptacle is underwater, and security measures force him to free-dive the operation.

Cruise reportedly learned to hold his breath for six minutes to prep for this sequence, which takes place in an underwater server/data storage unit. Whether that was necessary is open to question, but the effect of this sequence is significant regardless, and I held my own breath watching it. Christopher McQuarrie and his editor keep the tension high with Ethan Hunt battling his own minuscule oxygen reserve and the physical structure itself in order to accomplish his goal. This also has the benefit of an unusual ending compared to other scenes in the series.




The Movie: Mission: Impossible (1996)
The Setup: The climax of the first film features a chase atop a train complicated by a pursuit helicopter.

As mentioned above, there are really only three big setpieces in the first Mission: Impossible, but incredible resources must have been saved for this blend of studio work, digital and miniature effects from ILM, and real-world supertrain photography. Sure, this opens with some glaring studio/rear projection footage, but it’s also De Palma operating with the pedal to the metal, with a lot of old Hitchcock thrown in, all so well conceived and constructed that it works. Even though much of the action is atop a giant model train, having a 140-mpg wind machine in Cruise’s face does wonders, and the money shot (above) of Cruise being thrown forward from an exploding helicopter is just about perfect.




The Movie: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
The Setup: Multiple forces converge on an opera performance hoping variously to take out or preserve a high-ranking official target.

The most Brian De Palma sequence in this series that wasn’t actually directed by De Palma is this opera-house thrill ride that features many characters lining up at the Vienna Opera House to take shots at a target, or prevent others from doing so. The cinematography and editing are pitched just right as the action moves from the lobby to backstage, to the tech rooms and finally platforms high above the stage. It’s not just De Palma, but Hitchcock that comes into play here, with several parallel lines of movement never losing sight of the main objective, despite hairpin turns in the action and opulent cinematography that captures the operatic setting.




The Movie: Mission: Impossible (1996)
The Setup: Ethan infiltrates a closed room in CIA headquarters to steal data.

The wire hang from Mission: Impossible is the signature of this series to the extent that three sequels that followed either copied or riffed on one signature shot: Cruise, suspended by a wire, is arrested in a fall just before hitting the ground. (Cruise did the wire trick again in II and III; in Ghost Protocol it is emulated by Jeremy Renner when he drops towards a huge turbine.) It’s a near-perfect piece of event filmmaking with incredible technique (including De Palma’s trademark split diopter, employed when Jean Reno sees a rat) and a spectacular performance from Cruise. There’s a meta- aspect to this wire act, too, as the sequence is nearly silent for much of its running time. This is certainly among the most quiet “action” setpieces ever made, and one of the best.




The Movie: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
The Setup: The only way to reach the server room of the world’s tallest building is to approach from the outside, over 100 floors up.

There’s nothing quite like the kickoff shot of this sequence, when Tom Cruise leans out of an empty window frame to slowly wrap himself around to the outside of the tallest building in the world. The camera is just over his shoulder, ready to follow him out. Projected in IMAX, this sequence, and that shot in particular, captures everything big-ticket filmmaking hopes to do. The sequence could probably work even emulated through studio builds, clever second unit shots, and CG. No doubt, cinematic tricks help build this sequence, especially when Cruise’s gloves start to fail.

The legitimacy of the spectacle, however, as captured by Brad Bird and crew is jawdropping. Ethan Hunt’s own reluctance to undertake the climb establishes high stakes. Intrigue inside the building provides parallel action. And Cruise’s decent back down the building provides a high-energy capper for the stunt. This is one of the most grand sequences in big-budget film, and the best of the series.

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