Since it first arrived on the big screen in 1996, the Mission: Impossible film franchise has thrilled audiences with increasingly ambitious practical stunts. Star and producer Tom Cruise won’t be satisfied until he’s shown gravity who’s boss once and for all, diving off of increasingly high platforms at increasingly deadly speeds. The daredevil feats have become such essential parts of the Mission: Impossible films and their marketing that one could almost forget the stories that these stunts are meant to service.
In most M: I movies, at least one of those miraculous action set pieces is attached to some sort of heist or caper. Ethan Hunt is a spy, after all, and his quests typically require that he infiltrate a highly secure location and intercept an important item, person, or piece of information. With respect to the remarkable craft put into each of the daredevil actions, how often is the payoff equal to the setup? Is there a correlation between the magnitude of the danger to Tom Cruise and the stakes to Ethan Hunt? On the occasion of Dead Reckoning Part One’s theatrical release, we’re ranking the action scenes in the Mission: Impossible series and our preferences might surprise you.
7. Stealing the Rabbit’s Foot (Mission: Impossible III)
Mission: Impossible III gets a bit of a bad rap for its efforts to ground the series in something approaching reality, and it can definitely be argued that director J.J. Abrams’ more TV-style aesthetic was an overcorrection from John Woo’s unrestrained bombast. We’ll stand behind M:I-3’s more human and emotional characterization of Ethan Hunt, the romance subplot, and of course, the outstanding performance of Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the villain, but we do have to admit that the choice to essentially skip this movie’s main heist sequence is pretty disappointing.
In the second act of M:I-3, Ethan’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) has been kidnapped by terrorist Owen Davian (Hoffman), who promises to kill her unless Hunt retrieves the mysterious “Rabbit’s Foot” weapon from a secure facility in Shanghai. Hunt goes rogue and, with the help of his team, plans a daring swing between two skyscrapers, using a third, taller building as a fulcrum.
However, while we see Ethan’s leap and his tricky landing on the roof of the facility, we don’t follow him inside for the rest of the heist. Instead, we remain with his teammates Zhen (Maggie Q) and Gorley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) as they wait to hear whether or not he’s acquired the Rabbits Foot. We only catch up with Ethan once the mission has gone sideways, and Zhen, Gorley, and trusty tech wizard Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) participate in a wild, shaky-cam car chase away from the building’s facility. It’s a cute subversion of the franchise’s usual structure and it allows the plot to continue at an even clip, but for the purposes of this list, we can’t put it anywhere but dead last.
John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II is, in some ways, the total opposite of Tom Cruise and Chris McQuarrie’s modern take on the series. Where Cruise and McQuarrie want you to marvel at how real their action is, Woo is all about artifice. Everything is heightened, in slow motion, and on fire. Appropriately, some of the bio-lab heist from M:I-2 is an exaggerated version of the CIA HQ heist from the first movie, with Ethan Hunt diving out of a helicopter through a vent on top of a skyscraper and into a well-guarded facility several stories down.
Once inside, it’s a totally different animal, as Hunt uses his incredible acrobatic and mixed martial arts moves to non-lethally subdue a number of guards and destroy all but one sample of the deadly engineered super-flu known as Chimera. It’s a video game sneaking mission that becomes a firefight when Ethan runs into a second team that’s been capturing the building from below. This being a John Woo movie, the shootout is super dramatic and wicked fun, but this is really the point at which it stops being a heist and becomes a conventional action sequence.
To M:I-2’s credit, the Chimera heist is an early example of Ethan Hunt’s altruism outweighing his pragmatism, establishing that part of what makes his missions so impossible is his own unwillingness to accept collateral damage. While Ethan is performing a death-defying dive out of a helicopter and doing bicycle kicks to knock out security guards, his nemesis Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) and his gang simply walk through the front door and start shooting. Until the two operations meet in the laboratory, Ambrose and his men haven’t broken a sweat, but Hunt will always choose the more difficult path, even if it means saving just one more life. This is, however, somewhat undercut by the sheer number of people Ethan blows away over the course of the film.
At the climax of Dead Reckoning Part One, sneak thief Grace (Agent Carter actress Hayley Atwell) must embark on her very first IMF mission, aboard the famous Oriental Express. Aboard the train, she must incapacitate and impersonate black market broker Alanna “the White Widow” Mitsopolis so that she can make contact with an unknown agent who has the final clue to a mystery of apocalyptic import. While Grace plays the role of the White Widow, wearing one of the IMF’s famous lifelike masks, Ethan Hunt must find a way aboard the speeding train so that he can extract both Grace and the intel she’s acquired before her deception is uncovered.
Grace’s obstacles are Alanna’s brother/bodyguard and her own inexperience, as well as her untested loyalty to Ethan and the IMF. Ethan’s challenge is to jump his motorcycle off of a cliff and parachute onto the top of the speeding train. The physical and narrative stakes continue to ratchet upward as each of the film’s subplots converge on the train and both Grace and Ethan are forced to make some difficult choices.
The Orient Express heist is unique on our list in that it is the climax of its film, doubling as the main infiltration mission and the action finale. Typically, a Mission: Impossible movie’s big caper occurs around the midpoint, in which the characters acquire a crucial piece of information that directs them towards a more explosive event in the third act. However, since Dead Reckoning Part One is essentially half of a longer movie, the biggest set piece of the film is also a signpost toward the plot of Part Two. This gives the heist a grander canvas and a bigger impact than most of its peers.
Early in the runtime of Fallout, Ethan Hunt and CIA Agent Walker (Henry Cavill) are assigned to sneak into a Paris nightclub where a broker named John Lark will be purchasing some stolen plutonium. In order to get into the high-class affair undetected, Hunt and Walker must execute a High Altitude Low Opening parachute jump through a thunderstorm, then capture Lark and complete the exchange in his place. When contact with Lark takes a messy turn, Hunt is forced to assume his identity without a disguise or pertinent cover information, but the real coup is the way Hunt manages to convince broker Alana Mitsopolis (The Crown‘s Vanessa Kirby) that the small army of men who have come to kill him is actually after her and that he’s there to protect her.
The sequence is a hoot from beginning to end, with Cruise famously performing a real HALO jump and Cavill nonsensically cocking his fists before the bathroom brawl with Lark. The obstacles set in Hunt’s path are plentiful and imaginative, and it kicks off the plot of the film quite nicely. But, as much as we love it, it doesn’t fit very neatly into the criteria of our list, in which we want to reward creative solutions to breaching impenetrable security and getting out undetected. The HALO jump is neat, but the film never convincingly establishes why it’s necessary for Hunt and Walker to skydive from 25,000 to gain access to a black tie function. A top-notch caper teaches the audience why a mission is impossible first, and then forces the characters to prove us wrong.
The fourth installment of the series uses a heist gone wrong as its inciting incident, as Ethan and his team are framed for the bombing of the Russian Capitol building. Their mission is to infiltrate the Kremlin and locate physical records about an enemy agent known only as Cobalt. Ethan and rookie field operative Benji Dunn (The Undeclared War‘s Simon Pegg) enter the Kremlin disguised as a Russian general and his aide, then sneak undetected into a secure records room with the aid of some very clever technology.
Ethan and Benji set up an adaptive camera and projector screen system in a long hallway that constantly adapts to display the area behind it from the perspective of the nearby security guard. As the guard moves, so does the camera, making it appear as if the screen isn’t there at all, and allowing Ethan to work on the other side of it totally undetected. The operation itself turns out to be a setup, as Cobalt bombs the Kremlin and makes it appear as if Ethan’s team was responsible. Ethan, Benji, and field agent Carter (Paula Patton) are forced to go on the run while they try to clear their name and prevent a nuclear attack.
Beyond being a fun operation to watch, the Kremlin heist sets up one of Ghost Protocol’s prevailing themes: the dangers of IMF agents’ reliance on fancy tech. During this mission, the state-of-the-art gadgets are subject to human error, but for the rest of the film, absolutely none of the gizmos they depend on work properly. Not only are Ethan and company separated from government resources, but what resources they still have are faulty, forcing them to constantly improvise and trust their wits over their usual tools. This becomes particularly relevant during the film’s next caper, during which Ethan Hunt must climb the world’s tallest building with glitching adhesive gloves and impersonate an underworld figure without the aid of one of the IMF’s famous masks.
It’s the scene that launched a franchise, as well as a hundred parodies. Framed for the murder of his entire IMF team, Ethan Hunt has one chance at clearing his name and flushing out the real killer, but to do so, he’ll have to commit some light treason. Aided by hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), mercenary Kreiger (Jean Reno), and fellow field agent Claire (Emmanuelle Béart), Ethan must copy a file from a computer console kept in an insanely well-secured room at CIA Headquarters in Langley, VA. The room is not only locked tight, it’s designed to detect the weight, sounds, or body heat of any uninvited guest.
To steal the file, Ethan is lowered on a trapeze from an air duct twenty feet above the computer and operates it while remaining suspended above the pressure-sensitive floor. Should he make a sound, heat up the room, or let a drop of his sweat drop to the floor, the jig is up. The scene became an instant cinematic meme, particularly the moment in which Ethan’s cable slips and his fall is stopped with his nose half an inch from the floor.
Setting aside the lunacy of this premise (all of these countermeasures are in place, and yet the computer doesn’t shut off while the room?), the original Mission: Impossible movie heist is tough to beat. It’s quiet, tense, and has its own set of ebbs and flows that allow it to accommodate gasps, cheers, and even a few laughs, as the tension inflates and deflates with the integrity of one poor CIA agent’s digestive system. Was Tom Cruise’s life ever in danger while filming this sequence? No. But shouldn’t the ability to create an atmosphere of danger and tension where none exists count in a film’s favor, and not against it?
Rogue Nation‘s central caper revisits the premise of the first film’s heist with the spectacle of the later sequels, as Ethan Hunt and his team once again attempt to access an impossibly secure computer system. Ethan, Benji, and new ally Ilsa Faust (Silo‘s Rebecca Ferguson) need to steal a list of every member of the sinister Syndicate, and the only copy is stored on an isolated computer in an impenetrable vault. The vault’s final layer of security — after a fingerprint scanner and three separate combination locks — is a gait detector, which can read a person’s body language to determine whether or not they’re actually one of the authorized users in its database.
That level of biometrics can’t be faked, so their only hope is to add Benji’s gait information into the security system’s database, and that system is housed in an underwater hydroelectric plant equipped with a metal detector so that no one can bring a scuba tank inside. Hunt will have to free-dive into the plant and swap out one of the computer’s memory cards before he runs out of oxygen, otherwise, Benji’s gait will give him away and he’ll be captured or killed.
The underwater hack may go down as Ethan Hunt’s most impossible mission ever, boasting an insane level of difficulty and dramatic tension not seen since the original Mission: Impossible with the added danger and spectacle that fans have come to expect from the series in the decades since. Tom Cruise reportedly learned to hold his breath for six minutes in order to shoot the scene practically and in a single take. The twin ticking clocks of Ethan’s depleting oxygen and Benji’s progress through the vault keep the tension constantly rising, and Ilsa’s last-second rescue makes it an important moment in her development as a member of the recurring cast. From its concept to its execution to its consequences for the characters, it’s everything you’d want out of a Mission: Impossible caper.
You can stream all the Mission: Impossible movies on Paramount+. Dead Reckoning Part One is now playing in theaters nationwide.