"Mission: Impossible" premiered on CBS in 1966 as an upside down "Topkapi" riff that left the conniving to the good guys. For creator Bruce Geller, expertise was the point. Characters and plots were left blank and blurry, forcing viewers to join the Impossible Missions Force or be left in the high-tech dust. Fun only got in the way; Geller famously scolded star Peter Graves for smiling at the end of an episode.
In 1996, director Brian De Palma reinvented the series as a star vehicle for Tom Cruise, and it's nothing but fun. The second film even includes a joke about how its star can't stop smiling. The fuse burns brighter than ever and expertise remains the native tongue, but "Mission: Impossible" has carved a new legacy in theaters -- mainly, its reputation for showing off knuckle-whitening, insurance-defying stunts, often performed by Cruise himself. Factoring in franchise importance and danger inherent, the following 14 examples are the best stunts "Mission: Impossible" has to offer.
Aquarium Explosion — Mission: Impossible
The bottom of the list is also the beginning, when Tom Cruise became an action hero and Ethan Hunt became Ethan Hunt. Before he can process the death of his IMF team, Hunt is politely accused of betraying the entire organization. He decides that the only way through is out and, in what will soon become a tradition, goes rogue. All it takes to make his escape is one well-placed stick of explosive chewing gum and 16 tons of aquarium water. Director Brian De Palma savors the subsequent wave in luscious slow-motion, letting the audience get a good, long look at his star.
The stunt's provenance is still in question, with some sources claiming that Cruise volunteered to do the stunt himself, while others say De Palma volunteered him. Regardless, minus a face-replaced stuntman take in which the falling glass gave a better performance, it's really Tom Cruise in the line of fire. The scope of this scene may seem quaint now, but it's still an impressive spectacle, made historic with age. Cruise's first big "Mission: Impossible" stunt, in his first film as producer, lit a fuse longer than anyone could've possibly imagined in 1996, and remains among his best.
Parking Garage Parkour — Ghost Protocol
The Burj Khalifa sequence in "Ghost Protocol" was so tantalizing that it dominated the movie's ad campaign and so iconic that it drowns out the rest of the movie in memory. Of all the setpieces that suffer by immediate proximity to the scene, none fare worse than the climactic parking garage fight.
The location, inspired by Volkswagen's original "auto silos," is an oversized Hot Wheels playset invaded by action figures. Due to the impracticality of using a real auto silo, the production built its own working facsimile in a Vancouver warehouse.
There is no standout moment in the scene -- even Cruise's three-story jump between moving platforms is just another bruise in a symphony of them -- but the overall effect is dizzying. Cruise has more than proven his mettle in the star-as-stuntman pantheon, but this is the only sequence in the series that could be transplanted wholesale into a Jackie Chan film. On a list of the greatest fights, not stunts, the scene's Rubik's Cube geography and lockstep timing would make this one rate higher, but the brawl is still a dark horse in this crowded stunt race.
Arc De Triomphe Runaround — Fallout
Like the parking garage fight in "Ghost Protocol," the Arc de Triomphe motorcycle chase in "Fallout" is a great sequence rendered merely good by more impressive stunts nearby.
It's low on the relative risk scale, the stakes being no more exotic than a head-on collision. Still, there's a bone-deep anxiety to watching somebody speed against traffic. Some of the greatest chases in cinema history are built on little more. What elevates this example, though, is how returning director Christopher McQuarrie shoots it. Or, rather, when.
Given that the Arc marks the intersection of twelve major streets, the city of Paris was none-too-pleased about diverting traffic. The production got two hours to film. Minus camera setup, stunt driver choreography, and roundabout rehearsal, that translated to a 15-minute window of actual filming. Thankfully, that was all the time McQuarrie needed. The results, as agonizing as they are effortless, speak for themselves.
Underwater Heist — Rogue Nation
Faced with the unenviable task of following "Ghost Protocol," instead of looking up, McQuarrie looked down.
All Hunt has to do is swap a computer chip with an IMF-tampered copy to allow Benji (Simon Pegg) safe passage through a cutting-edge security system. Unfortunately, the storage unit for these chips is completely submerged and constantly scanned for unexpected metals. As a result, the only gadgets allowed are Hunt's own lungs.
The one-take sequence is so daring, so blatantly self-destructive, that the effort almost does the effect a disservice. If not for the press surrounding this scene, the average viewer would never even consider that Cruise was capable of it. But he is, and he spent two months training for it with co-star Rebecca Ferguson, then two weeks shooting it. In the end, Cruise spent a sustained six minutes underwater on a single breath. His dedication was enough to scare stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood.
Train Chase — Mission: Impossible
The ending of the original "Mission: Impossible" gets a bad rap, even from the people who made it. Brian De Palma wanted to film a train before there was a scripted reason for it. Cruise agreed, until the train sequence became a train-and-helicopter sequence. It was too far for what he considered a reasonably grounded cloak-and-dagger story. And yet, De Palma stood firm, even in the face of arguments from effects supervisor John Knoll about the laws of physics.
For all its scientific faults, the sequence hasn't lost a step. The combination of miniatures, blue screen inserts, and projection-mapped location footage was a high-water mark for a kind of action scene not long for the world in 1996. Anyone squeamish about dated effects need only watch the 140-mph wind machines beat Tom Cruise back to puberty.
The biggest stunt was Cruise's baptism by fire. There was no clearer way to show the star being flung from an exploding helicopter to a speeding train than by strapping him in a harness and throwing him until he landed right. After many takes, most of which he requested, Cruise was bruised and bleeding. The only way to satisfy Cruise's frustrations about realism was to do it for real, whatever the bodily cost. He hasn't been the same since.
Knife Trick — M:I-2
"Mission: Impossible" may be synonymous with spectacle now, but the franchise's most uncomfortable stunt comes from a much simpler time -- the year 2000 -- and a much smaller effect: an ordinary boot knife.
All the action in John Woo's maximalist "M:I-2" was choregraphed down to the doves, but Woo remained flexible on set. During the mano-a-mano finale, Cruise came up with an additional flourish: a knife-first dive from the villainous Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) that would land within an inch of Hunt's retina. As usual, Woo tried to talk his producer-star down. There was no time to fake it, and no money to hand it off to the effects department. Cruise countered that they didn't need to fake it at all.
A real knife was hastily tethered to an overhead bar, allowing the attacker to hang their full weight on the hilt and let it fall no further than measured. The resulting shot, with the blade shaking no more than a knuckle-length away from Cruise's unblinking eye, made the entire crew squirm. The stunt endures 20 years and four sequels later as, millimeter for millimeter, the most immediate danger Tom Cruise has ever faced, as well as a sick reminder that even the small stuff can be worth sweating.
Leaning Into The Skid — Rogue Nation
Of the franchise's three motorcycle chases, the mountainside pursuit in "Rogue Nation" pales by comparison. It doesn't have the dueling Triumphs of "M:I-2" or the postcard obstacle course of "Fallout." What it does have, however, is blistering, nauseating speed.
Immediately after surviving a car crash, Ethan Hunt crawls out of the wreckage and onto a BMW S 1000 RR. In motion, it's a redline ballet, the machines evolving into earthbound speeder bikes on loan from "Return of the Jedi." The striking purity of this sequence, especially compared to the shaggier scrapes around it, is by early design. Here, the bikes came first.
Inspired by "Ghost Protocol" stunt coordinator Greg Smrz's desire to do "a real motorcycle movie," McQuarrie and Cruise brought him back as the second unit director and shaped the entire story around this chase. Camera cars, usually limited to a top speed of 25 miles per hour, were tricked out to keep pace with the bikes at 100. "Rogue Nation" opens with a faster stunt, but due to that craftsmanship, this smokes it on the starting line and makes the simplest case yet for the franchise's modern appeal: when Tom Cruise self-consciously checks his knee after it grazes asphalt somewhere near Mach 1, that's what "Mission: Impossible" is all about.
HALO Jump — Fallout
Art is getting as indistinguishable from life as one of the IMF's peelable disguises. The line between Hunt and Cruise has been blurry for a while now, but each superlative stunt takes a bigger team of highly trained experts, working in perfect communion, to pull off. No set piece better demonstrates this spy-worthy prep and execution than the HALO jump.
At 25,000 feet in the air and 225 miles per hour, it would've been a risky maneuver even if Cruise didn't have a broken ankle. In addition, because shooting practically at that altitude was unprecedented, the stunt was pushed to the end of production -- McQuarrie had no way of knowing how long it might take to get the three necessary shots in the can. Every day for weeks on end, the director would break away from editing the rest of the film to review footage from the day's rehearsal jumps, then fly up with the crew at dusk to call action. All in all, it took 106 jumps to complete the sequence and another three months in post-production to paint Paris beneath it, all for two minutes of a 147-minute film. Mission, somehow, accomplished.
Hanging Out — Rogue Nation
By contrast, the first stunt of McQuarrie's "Mission: Impossible" run was a walk in the park. It only took eight flights to get the necessary footage, though none were nearly as comfortable for Cruise.
There's a beautiful simplicity to strapping a movie star to the fuselage of an Airbus 400 and rolling camera, but only over popcorn. The crew painstakingly cleaned the entire runway of objects; at 185 miles per hour, even acorns are lethal. Any precipitation at all was a non-starter. Cruise wore protective contacts as insurance. Though he claimed he lost sleep in a featurette detailing the production of the stunt, he still insisted on keeping his harness slack to make his performance authentic.
It was impressive moment in the trailers and downright astounding in context; Cruise lands on the wing of the Airbus within three minutes of the Paramount logo appearing on screen. Christopher McQuarrie made his entrance to the franchise in assured style by doing the impossible: putting the big bang before the fuse.
Shockwave — Mission: Impossible III
Tom Cruise getting thrown into the side of a Dodge Stratus is more than just wirework; it's sooth.
The stakes in "Mission: Impossible III" remain, to date, the most personal in the franchise. That focus extended to the stunts. To Abrams's credit, "Mission: Impossible III" was the first "Mission" to recognize that Tom Cruise running as a special effect unto itself. During one of these sprints -- this time, escaping from a strafing drone -- a missile hits close enough to send Ethan flying. The stunt only lasts two seconds from take-off to landing, and spans the height of a car door, yet it became a touchstone for the franchise.
The effect was pieced together from six different shots, only two of which included Cruise, and a healthy smear of digital dirt, then was given the famous Abrams shake after the fact. All that invisible work came together to craft the film's mission statement in miniature: Hunt is unstoppable, maybe even indestructible, but he's also human. He still is, even if the explosions have gotten bigger and the falls a lot farther as the franchise has continued.
Cliffhanger — M:I-2
To make up for lost time caused by delays in filming Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," "M:I-2" hits the ground running as a treatise on the inhuman cool of America's would-be Bond. Hunt is reintroduced spending his vacation doing something even more dangerous than his day job. By the power of his own hands, feet, and, briefly, knees, Hunt scales the mile-high crags of Moab, Utah. After a misjudged jump, he turns himself around and hangs, Christlike, above all creation.
Minus a digitally erased-safety harness and his slide off the edge, it's all Cruise. Woo was too terrified to watch the seven takes as they happened. The producer-star refused to share any footage of the stunt until they wrapped, lest anyone at the studio try to pull the plug. The peril, paranoia, and torn shoulder were worth it -- the stunt not only became the film's signature, but pop-culture shorthand in spoofs everywhere from the "2000 MTV Movie Awards" to "Austin Powers: Goldmember." The ego that made the sequence such a popular target at the time has aged into awe -- and Cruise into an endangered species.
Dueling Helicopters — Fallout
In a gauntlet of stunts either tediously captured (the HALO jump) or wincingly performed (Arc de Triomphe), the helicopter finale in "Fallout" bests both the movie's crown jewels.
It was shot over six weeks in three different countries. During prep, Cruise condensed three months of helicopter training into one. On set, he was nursing a broken ankle and still had the HALO shoot ahead of him. Custom cameras were fitted all over the aircraft, inside and out, and McQuarrie directed by walkie-talkie. Henry Cavill, playing Hunt's villainous quarry, was strapped into the fleeing helicopter, effectively placing the lives of not one but two movie stars in the hands of Cruise, which were already shivering from the sub-freezing temperatures.
The result is documentary, or as close as "Mission: Impossible gets." There he is. There he goes. The price of a mistake for both Ethan and Tom is never less than equal -- swift, fiery death -- and never less than obvious. With a little imagination and barroom piano, it passes for something that Buster Keaton might've done with $178 million and the right license; for all the technical wizardry on display, there's no bigger gasp in the franchise than when Tom Cruise slips off the skid and just barely catches the cargo net below.
Burj Khalifa — Ghost Protocol
After "Mission: Impossible III" turned in the lowest box office take of any film in the franchise, a fourth "Mission" was anything but guaranteed. When -- or if -- the series returned, Hunt would have to prove himself to moviegoers all over again. The first trailer for "Ghost Protocol" underlined the action and ended with a 2,722-foot exclamation point: Tom Cruise swinging around the tallest building in the world like a plastic army man on a shoestring. There's not only a close-up to guarantee that it's him, but a frustrated retort at Jeremy Renner -- "You're not helping."
When Brad Bird started filming, "Ghost Protocol" was a baton-pass. Ethan Hunt's return was supposed to be his retirement from field work, replacing the assassinated Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) as head of the IMF. Renner's character, William Brandt, was going to be the new face of the franchise. Then, 10 weeks into production, Cruise brought in trusted collaborator Christopher McQuarrie for a rewrite. Changing only the pieces yet to be shot, including the interior half of the Burj Khalifa climb, McQuarrie overhauled the entire second half of the film. There would be no desk job for Ethan Hunt.
Brad Bird's die-cut eye for action, honed over decades in animation, reinvigorated the franchise and challenged it to a game of one-upmanship that audiences are still winning 10 years later. Even if McQuarrie hadn't taken the wheel, the Burj Khalifa stunt speaks for itself and would've made Hunt's promotion all the stranger. This is clearly the dawn of Tom Cruise, stunt man, not the twilight.
CIA Infiltration — Mission: Impossible
15 years before "Ghost Protocol" revised the "Mission: Impossible" blueprint, Brian De Palma and screenwriter David Koepp sketched it out in a tall, octagonal room with nothing more than a computer, a light-up floor nicked from the "Billie Jean" music video, and near-complete silence.
Ethan Hunt's makeshift IMF team must break into the CIA Headquarters at Langley and steal the hallowed NOC List. Unfortunately, it's stored in an ultra-secure computer terminal surrounded by pressure-sensitive tiles, among other absurd countermeasures. Seeing no other option, Hunt rappels from the lone vent overhead. The compounding distractions -- a curious rat, an inconsistent stomach, sweat 00 ratchet along like clockwork. Nobody builds Swiss watches like De Palma. The crescendo, though, is all flesh and blood. Krieger (Jean Reno) drops Hunt's line and only catches it again when the spy is centimeters from the floor.
During filming, Cruise kept faceplanting. The fall wasn't far, but the harness was imbalanced and the sustained exertion of trying to catch himself was adding up. De Palma called it. He'd just cut before impact to a close-up. Cruise asked the director for one more take and the crew for pocket change. With pound notes in his shoes, Cruise fell for the last time and nailed the stunt for all three rolling cameras. His marionette flail is the greatest thrill in a film constructed of nothing else. The sequence is a peerless translation and expansion of the original show's mission to create suspense through hyper-competence. This stunt, within just a few feet, summarizes everything essential about "Mission: Impossible" -- disbelief, suspended.
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