It’s hard to believe, but the Mission: Impossible film franchise is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. A big screen continuation of the classic 1966 TV show of the same name (and its less fondly remembered follow-up), each entry in the series has seen superspy Ethan Hunt tackle espionage assignments that anybody else would consider, well… impossible.
It’s not just Hunt that’s risking life and limb, though; star Tom Cruise has famously performed many of the franchise’s most hair-raising, largely CGI-free stunts himself! So to celebrate Mission: Impossible reaching the quarter century mark – and in anticipation of upcoming instalment Mission: Impossible 7 – here’s a round-up of the 10 most heart-stopping stunts in the Mission: Impossible series (so far).
10. The CIA vault heist (Mission: Impossible)
Ethan Hunt’s infiltration of a CIA vault in the first Mission: Impossible movie is easily one of the most iconic (and parodied) set pieces of all time – but that alone wouldn’t be enough to earn it a spot on this list. Fortunately, its fame is well deserved, and what it lacks in scale it more than makes up for in nail-biting thrills, with director Brian de Palma wringing every last ounce of tension from proceedings.
That’s what really sets the CIA vault heist set piece apart from other, more bombastic sequences in the Mission: Impossible franchise: suspense. Sure, Cruise is only dangling from the ceiling, but the staging is so well-executed that you’re left sweating like Ethan Hunt himself the longer the scene runs!
9. The HALO jump (Mission: Impossible – Fallout)
A parachuting manoeuvre pioneered by the United States Air Force, High Altitude Low Opening (HALO) jumps are extremely risky – even for highly trained military personnel. True to form, this wasn’t enough to deter Cruise from insisting that he perform the spectacular HALO jump seen in Mission: Impossible – Fallout (an opportunity his less experienced co-star Henry Cavill wasn’t afforded).
Filming the stunt required Cruise to complete more than 100 jumps at 25,000ft, only opening his chute a mere 2,000ft from the ground! So, even though Fallout’s HALO jump was stitched together from three separate takes and the intense weather effects were likewise the result of post-production trickery, the stunt itself is 100% legit – and marks the first (and to-date, only) time an actor has performed such a feat for real.
8. Free solo climbing (Mission: Impossible 2)
Tom Cruise performed many of his own stunts on the first Mission: Impossible flick, but Mission: Impossible 2 is where his obsession with death-defying derring-do really began to take off. Take the film’s opening free solo climbing set piece: Cruise demanded that he be allowed to clamber around the Utah rockface without a safety net, to the horror of studio executives terrified at the thought of their A-list star suffering a fatal mishap.
They weren’t the only ones put out by Cruise’s decision, either. Director John Woo also wasn’t thrilled, since Cruise – despite wearing a concealed harness – could have injured himself badly enough to derail the entire picture. Cruise nevertheless got his wish and ultimately emerged unscathed (not counting a torn shoulder muscle), delivering a memorable re-introduction to Ethan Hunt for his first sequel outing.
7. The underwater vault heist (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
The Mission: Impossible franchise all about upping the ante, so when Rogue Nation recycled the first film’s vault heist concept, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie raised the stakes… by filling it with water! The scene – which sees Ethan Hunt tasked with recovering a computer chip from a submerged safe, all while a robotic crane arm sweeps the parameter – required Cruise to hold his breath the entire time.
To pull this off, he trained to hold his breath for three minutes, and Rogue Nation’s stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood later reported that Cruise held his breath for twice as long in at least one take. Funnily enough, though, Cruise’s training and on-set exertion wound up being largely unnecessary. While the underwater vault heist was initially meant to run as one long, uninterrupted take to add to the tension by showing the stunt unfold in real-time, McQuarrie and editor Eddie Hamilton ultimately decided the scene played better with cuts!
6. Riding an explosion shockwave (Mission: Impossible)
Another of the (comparatively) modest set pieces from the first Mission: Impossible movie, the moment Ethan Hunt is propelled from an exploding helicopter onto a high-speed train remains the stuff that blockbuster trailers are made of.
Admittedly, the compositing effects leading up to the big moment haven’t aged well and the physics involved are dubious at best, however, none of that matters. Thanks to Cruise’s committed physical performance – not to mention wind machines whipping up 140 mile per hour winds – we’re able to buy into the scene and appreciate it for what it is: top notch popcorn entertainment.
For a slightly more plausible (yet equally effective) spin on this stunt, see the bridge attack sequence in Mission: Impossible III. Here, Cruise once again sells the reality of being blown through the air, this time by being yanking into a nearby car while running full tilt!
5. The rooftop chase (Mission: Impossible – Fallout)
Tom Cruise famously broke his ankle filming Fallout’s rooftop chase, and in hindsight, it’s not hard to see how it happened. After all, this scene – where Ethan Hunt races across the rooftops of central London, leaping through windows and bounding between buildings along the way – had “risky” written all over it.
Still, the practical stunt work was worth it, as it lends proceedings a verisimilitude that simply can’t be replicated on a studio lot or soundstage. The peril feels real – mostly because it is! And honestly? The money shot of Cruise standing atop the Tate Modern’s 325 ft chimney is totally worth the fractured fetlock leading up to it.
4. Motorcycle duelling (Mission: Impossible 2)
Mission: Impossible 2 cops a lot of flack from fans for its underwhelming plot and lacklustre love story, but director John Woo sure did cram it full of killer set pieces. The best of these is also the most downright bonkers: the scene where Ethan Hunt and Dougray Scott’s rogue agent Sean Ambrose engaging in a wheelie-based duel astride their motorbikes!
It’s at least as ridiculous as it sounds, but this sequence’s high-octane charms and popcorn movie bravura make it easy to appreciate. It’s also a notable early showcase for Cruise’s considerable skills as a motorcyclist – something that Woo’s successors took note of when planning set pieces for later entries in the franchise.
3. Motorcycle chase through Paris (Mission: Impossible – Fallout)
Speaking of Tom Cruise’s motorcycle riding prowess, nowhere is it more evident than in Fallout. The sixth instalment in the Mission: Impossible canon sees Ethan Hunt and Henry Cavill’s August Walker assault an armoured convoy in Paris, before Hunt leads both the authorities and underworld goons on a merry chase through the city.
McQuarrie expertly ratchets up the tension the longer the scene goes on, with Cruise eventually forced to ride against the flow of traffic! Interestingly, this is also one of the few set pieces where Hunt doesn’t get the job done. Instead, he wipes out in spectacular, CGI-assisted and is forced to leg it when the fuzz arrives – a thrilling, unexpected finale to an electrifying action scene.
2. Scaling the world’s tallest building (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol)
Mission: Impossible has grown more and more preoccupied with verticality and extreme athleticism with each new entry. So, it was only a matter of time before we saw Ethan Hunt scrambling up the side of the Burj Khalifa as he did in Ghost Protocol.
In the film, Hunt dons futuristic adhesive gloves to climb the world’s tallest building, but in reality, Cruise had to make do with a few safety cables which were digitally removed later. Even so, that’s really him up there, 2,722 ft off the ground – as the bracing cross winds and in-camera reflections can attest.
It’s a jaw-dropping stunt taken purely on its own merits, but it also marks a watershed moment for the series. From here on out, Mission: Impossible would double down on its commitment to serving up increasingly outrageous, practical set pieces, although few have lived up to this one.
1. Catching a plane… literally (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation)
The greatest stunt in Mission: Impossible history to date, Ethan Hunt clinging to the outside of an Airbus A400M Atlas in mid-air in Rogue Nation remains the feat to beat. As with the other stunts on this list, Tom Cruise eschewed the use of a double or extensive visual effects; instead, he really did strap himself to the plane’s fuselage while it climbed to an altitude of 5,000 ft.
Now, most people wouldn’t want to subject themselves to such an ordeal once, however, Cruise endured eight take-offs to ensure that director Christopher McQuarrie could nab the perfect shot. The megastar even told the crew to ignore his stricken facial expressions and keep rolling, explaining that his apparent fear was all part of his performance!