The Mission: Impossible movies have developed a reputation, over the course of the last few sequels, for spectacular exploits and derring-do on the part of star Tom Cruise. As superspy Ethan Hunt, Cruise has leapt, climbed, swum, motorbiked and run really, really fast in order to deliver the best big-budget action franchise on the market. With the sixth entry, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, putting Cruise in physical danger once again, we thought it was time to look back at the best, biggest and boldest stunts from each of the previous movies.
Mission: Impossible (1995) – Ethan fights a helicopter in the Channel Tunnel
The first Mission: Impossible is a slower, less preposterous film than its siblings, built around a twisty mole-hunt plot rather than the cartoonish spy antics we now know and love. That said, it’s still a Brian De Palma joint, and features a suitably outsized climax: in a fight on the Eurostar, Ethan attaches the villain’s getaway chopper to the train, just as it enters the Channel Tunnel. If the resulting green-screen showdown looks a little ropey by 2018 standards, the spectacle is undiminished – possibly because Cruise really was fighting against a massive wind machine to simulate conditions atop a speeding train.
- Breaking into Langley: Ethan dangling from the ceiling, inches above a pressure-sensitive floor in a maximum-security CIA vault, has become an enduring image of Mission: Impossible and its sequels. For good reason, too – the scene is a masterclass in how to create and maintain tension. De Palma has his audience sweating as much as Ethan when he’s a hair’s breadth from being (as Ving Rhames’ Luther helpfully puts it) “TOAST!”
- Exploding fish-tank: Early on, Ethan escapes an uncomfortable dinner by detonating the restaurant’s fancy aquarium walls. It’s the first big action moment of the series, and resulted in Cruise’s first Mission: Impossible-related injury (to his ankle, for those keeping score).
Mission: Impossible 2 (2000) – Ethan climbs a big cliff for some reason
Even by the opening minutes of the first sequel, Mission: Impossible was pinning its appeal on Cruise pulling off ludicrous feats without a stunt double. Here Ethan is reintroduced doing some free-climbing in the Utah desert for unspecified reasons (it turns out he’s taking an extreme-sports holiday, in true 2000 fashion). The big push-in shot of Cruise in peril that opens the scene is gorgeous – it’s a shame the rest of the scene is kind of a choppy mess. Injury counters: Cruise tore his shoulder hurling himself about the rock face in this sequence.
- Motorbike duel: The climactic showdown is overlong and pretty daft, but it prefigures later two-wheeled fun in Rogue Nation, as well as that bit in Fast & Furious 6 where Dom catches Letty in mid-air. Reshoots for this sequence resulted in Dougray Scott being unable to play Wolverine. Does launching Hugh Jackman’s career count as a stunt?
- Sweet flips: John Woo puts his stamp on the franchise by having Ethan take out a goon with a backflip-kick through a cloud of pigeons. Clearly this movie could have been amazing, if not for the silly editing, wraparound sunglasses and Limp Bizkit of it all.
Mission: Impossible 3 (2006) – Ethan runs fast
Not the most complex stunt in the series, but there’s a reason Cruise is famous for running in movies. He’s just good at going very fast (or at least looking like he is), and it’s used to great effect here. By this point in M:I-3 we’ve spent a good long time hating Philip Seymour Hoffman’s truly horrible villain. To get us psyched for their final confrontation, Abrams and co. only have to let us sit back and watch Ethan barrel towards him at full pace in an impressive long take.
- Attack on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge: Abrams isn’t the most distinctive director, but he’s good at filming chaos. The way he covers the drone strike and shootout on a traffic-packed bridge is comparable to the iconic opening scene of his Lost pilot, as we know where everything is and what’s going on amid the carnage. Cruise’s niftiest stunt here is being thrown into a car by an explosion. He picked up a couple of broken ribs for his trouble.
- Ethan climbs a wall: Perhaps not the most impressive feat in the franchise, except for the transcendent moment when Cruise (now atop said wall) turns straight to the camera and says, deadly serious, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.” End scene. Is there such a thing as a stunt line?
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2012) – Ethan climbs the Burj Khalifa (and runs back down)
The turning point of the franchise, really. Yes, M:I-3 was a lot of fun, and the original was fondly remembered, but Mission: Impossible as we know it today exists because Brad Bird gave us this scene. It marries two of the series’ core strengths – nutcase spectacle and palm-sweat-inducing tension – under the banner of “Tom Cruise actually did this!” Add one stupid gag (“Your line’s not long enough.” “No shit!”) and that’s the whole appeal of Mission: Impossible in about five minutes. Incredible.
- Sandstorm chase: It’s hard to think of the Burj Khalifa stunt without its almost immediate follow-up. The escalation from an on-foot chase, through the sandstorm, into a madcap car chase, is paced perfectly (as is Cruise’s signature run). This double-whammy of great set-pieces puts Ghost Protocol in a league of its own, and clearly inspired its successor.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015): Ethan drowns and then has a motorbike chase
It was always going to be a challenge to one-up the Burj Khalifa. Depending on who you ask, Rogue Nation may or may not nail it. The Morocco sequence follows a similar pattern of escalate-escalate-escalate: one death-defying feat by Cruise, followed by a chase scene of increasing intensity. Director Christopher McQuarrie cuts what minimal fat there was in the Ghost Protocol version of this, diving straight from Ethan’s near-death to… well, some more near-death for Ethan. Cruise learned to hold his breath for six minutes for the underwater sequence, but the really impressive stuff here is on the bikes. Cruise has done great vehicular work with McQuarrie before, but here credit must go to his double(s). When a stunt makes you think “Even Tom Cruise wouldn’t have tried that!” you know there’s a great stunt team involved.
- Ethan enters, then exits, a plane in mid-air: The climbing-a-big-cliff of the latter-day Mission: Impossible Cruise’s well-publicised plane stunt is wholly irrelevant to the plot, but lets the audience know exactly what they’re in for from the get-go. McQuarrie marks his territory early by invoking and besting the classic plane stunt from The Living Daylights and Uncharted 3.
- “Ethan Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny.” Yes, there is such a thing as a stunt line, and this writer is starting to believe they are the secret of Mission: Impossible’s success. The ability of this franchise to drop something patently ridiculous, wholly sincerely, in the middle of an action blockbuster, is its weirdly endearing heart.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018): Henry Cavill reloads his guns
Look. You can define ‘stunt’ however you like. This half-second moment from the Fallout trailer contains the exact same quantity of thrilling spectacle as any tunnel-helicopter or Burj Khalifa you could mention, if not more.
- Ethan gets into a pickle with a helicopter: Sure, the movie isn’t out yet, but we all agree this bit’s going to be thrilling, isn’t it?
- We all collectively forget Tom Cruise is a Scientologist for another blissful two hours: Thank you, cinema.