Mainstream Monday: Mission Impossible’s Ten Most Unforgettable Scenes


Mission: Impossible’s Ten Most Unforgettable Scenes

It’s not yet spring, but it certainly feels that way to me. Why, you ask? Because I’m feeling an awful lot like the creatures in Bambi’s forest right now. You see, love is in the air. A new day has dawned and with it the renewal of an old affair between myself and a little film franchise known as Mission: Impossible. I’m only days removed from viewing the fourth and best in the series, Ghost Protocol. It’s been an on-again, off-again romance between myself and this action vehicle that seems to have become not only Tom Cruise’s pet project, but also his personal playground. But having seen Ghost Protocol I am happy to report that the two of us have reunited and are looking for a place of our own. As you may have guessed, our relationship took a bit of a downturn right around M:I2 (way to go, Woo), but a chance meeting at a screening of M:I3 planted the seed of love once again and it has finally blossomed into that full-blown, Shakespearean, spend-years-in-Russian-prison-to-protect-it kind of love one only knows when they’ve met their soulmate. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’m totally back on board with Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his globe-trotting adventures.

There are many things that have drawn me to the M:I franchise over the years (and a few that have pushed me away), but none more so than the life-endangering stuntwork of Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt. In the span of three great films (and one lackluster cartoon), M:I has provided the action genre with stunt after death-defying stunt., constantly raising the bar of expectation for action fans everywhere. In celebration of the spine-tinglingly amazing M:I - Ghost Protocol (or “Ghotocol” as it is known in some circles), I’ve decided to dig back through the M:I annals and rank the ten most jaw-dropping moments. With no further ado, here are my ten favorite “stunted” scenes from the Mission:Impossible series.

*Note: In the interest of avoiding spoilers I’ve left out several great moments from Ghost Protocol, save for the Dubai tower sequence as it is well-documented and has been used as the major selling point of the film.

M:I has provided the action genre with stunt after death-defying stunt., constantly raising the bar of expectation for action fans everywhere.

10. The Motorcycle Chase, from Mission: Impossible 2

The second entry in the Mission: Impossible series is mostly garbage, a disjointed mess of a movie that plays more like snippets from a 9 year-old boy’s action-hungry imagination than a feature film. But hidden amongst the stuff are a few truly great action sequences, one of which being the motorcycle chase and crash that serve as the film’s climax. After using the umpteenth mask in the film to procure samples of a deadly virus and its antidote (conveniently colored red and green), Hunt beats a hasty getaway on a motorcycle, launching into a chase scene that is mostly (like the film) just one stunt setup after another. That being said the bike-work is actually impressive as Cruise, who is a noted motorcycle enthusiast and did most of the stunts in the film himself, pulls just about every bike-related trick your average neighborhood superspy could dream up. He works the throttle and brake just enough to kick up a cloud of dust that dooms the SUV of baddies behind him to crash into the side of a semi. He skids alongside the bike like a circus horse rider, shielding himself from shooters in yet another SUV. All of this leads up to a final motorcycle jousting match between himself and villain Dougray Scott. Their bikes explode as they hilariously fly through the air, crashing into each other and falling thirty or forty feet down to land safely on a bed of beach sand. Is it as outlandish and cartoonish as the rest of the film? Sure. But is it fun to watch? Without a doubt.


9. The Cafe Waterfall, from Mission: Impossible

This scene represents the moment I first fell in love with the Mission: Impossible franchise. After a mission goes horribly awry and results in the deaths of his entire team, Hunt does what any responsible IMF agent would do: he checks in with his superior, Agent Kittrich. He’s surprised to learn that Kittrich is also in Prague; he’s even more surprised when at their restaurant meeting he learns he, being the only surviving member of his team, is suspected of being a mole. Hunt’s response forever cemented his status as one of my favorite action heroes. First he deftly points out the presence of a second IMF team not only with their present locations but also listing where he first spotted them at the party hours before. Then he uses explosive bubble gum (which is way cooler than it sounds) to detonate a huge aquarium in the center of the restaurant. He leaps through a nearby window as a veritable waterfall crashes behind him. It’s probably not the most dangerous of stunts for Cruise, but it’s definitely one of the coolest visuals the series has to offer. Coincidentally this scene also represents the first time I realized Tom Cruise runs like a schoolboy with a bully on his heels.

Coincidentally this scene also represents the first time I realized Tom Cruise runs like a schoolboy with a bully on his heels.

8. The Helicopter Leap, from Mission: Impossible 2

In what seems almost a desperate attempt to forge any connections between the memorable scenes from the first film and the second, Ethan Hunt and his team of IMF operatives plan an assault on a near-impenetrable fortress. This time it’s to destroy the virus Chimera, before it in turn destroys the world, or something. In order to pull it off Hunt must suspend himself from a helicopter above the tower and leap at precisely the right moment to glide between a set of closing vent panels. Of course hacker Ving Rhames [that's a fun thing to type] is having a problem getting the vents open in time and Hunt leaps without knowing for sure if they will open. For an action movie, the film’s thrilling moments are few and far between, but this is definitely one of them. After a prolonged shoot-out in the laboratory with Scott and his henchmen, Hunt blows a hole in the back of the lab wall and leaps out into the night sky, free-falling above the city before launching his ‘chute.  

7. The Shanghai Slide, from Mission: Impossible 3

In typical Mission: Impossible fashion, the third entry in the series finds our hero Ethan Hunt again in need of an object he can only get by sneaking his way into a secure building. This time his mission takes him to steamy Shanghai, China, in search of an object called ‘the rabbit’s foot’. With this setup we’re treated to the sight of Cruise swinging his way over an entire city block suspended by nothing more than a cable attached to his waist. Gracefully gliding over the city looks easy enough, until he crash-lands on the slippery slope of his target. So you’re sliding down the slick side of a skyscraper hundreds of feet above the surface with nothing to grab onto…you’re panicking, right? Not if you’re Ethan Hunt, who calmly pulls out his gun and eliminates several security officers before catching himself on the ledge. All in a day’s work.


6. The Knife, from Mission: Impossible 2

This is our last foray into the second M:I film, I swear. And (bonus!) it’s only four or five seconds long! After falling from the motorcycle crash we already discussed, Cruise and Scott engage in a ridiculously long fight to the doom in which both men endure several blows that would knock any man unconscious by themselves. If memory serves me, at some point the whole thing devolved from spy vs. spy to “Thandie Newton was mine first”. But for whatever reason, we’re left with these two jump-kicking each other senseless on a beach. It’s all pretty laughable, that is until Scott gets his hands on a knife and leaps on top of Cruise driving the point of the blade directly towards his eye. Watching the featurette on the making of the film, you learn that they actually did use a real blade and Cruise was willing to let it get as close to his eye as possible. Tom’s willingness to push boundaries results in an amazing, breathtaking close-up of his eye as Scott drives the blade so hard, fast and close to the pupil that reflex forces his eyelids to half-close. The intensity of the moment is only matched by Cruise and Scott as they slowly roll out of the near-miss. It’s the kind of shot that elevates a film by itself; one of the few things M:I 2 has to be proud of.

Tom’s willingness to push boundaries results in an amazing, breathtaking close-up of his eye as Scott drives the blade so hard, fast and close to the pupil that reflex forces his eyelids to half-close. 

5. The Train, from Mission: Impossible

It’s embarrassing confession time: the first time I saw Mission: Impossible I was about eleven years old and staying at a friend’s house. We were so amped up on sugar and mountain dew while watching this film, by the time Tom Cruise follows Jon Voight (!) down the top/side of a screaming bullet train we were nearly frothing at the mouth. We took his mattress off his bed and put it sideways against the wall. Then we laid down next to it and pretended to use suction cups to pull ourselves along, chasing some invisible baddie. But what other response can you expect from a kid who just watched Tom Cruise blow up a helicopter and use the force of the explosion to propel himself some 30 feet onto the rear window of a speeding train?


4. The Bridge, from Mission: Impossible 3

My two favorite things from J.J. Abrams’ franchise-rescuing third entry are Philip Seymour Hoffman’s ridiculously evil villain, and the shootout on the bridge. You know the one I’m talking about. After a daring kidnapping and one of the most intense interrogations in action film history, Ethan Hunt is transporting his prize to the authorities when they are assaulted on a bridge. The ensuing firefight is thrilling enough, with big guns booming and explosions at every turn. What makes it even more memorable is the sight of Tom Cruise running from yet another anticipated explosion and being tossed through the air against a car by the force of the blast. It’s a sudden, powerful reminder of just how much pain and effort Cruise is expending to bring the adventures of Ethan Hunt to the screen. His willingness to be hurled like a rag doll is just one more reason these films are so much fun to watch.


3. The Canyon, from Mission: Impossible 2

Speaking of Tom Cruise hurling himself through the air, let’s discuss the rock-climbing cold open from Mission: Impossible 2. Yes, I know I promised we were done with this least respectable of the four films, but what’s a Mission: Impossible retrospective without a little bit of deceit, right? This scene has to be seen to believed. It’s harrowing enough watching a wire-less Cruise climb the side of a cliff wall, but that’s nothing to the sight of him leaping across the open air and barely snagging a one-footed landing on a narrow rock ledge some fifteen feet down and away. After this pinpoint landing he slips and slides his way to the lip of the rock and dangles one-handed over the canyon floor. After catching his breath (and allowing us to chase ours), he swings around and grabs the lip with his other hand, still hanging. What makes the whole thing more fun is the realization that this is Ethan Hunt’s idea of a relaxing getaway after a rough week at the office. Of course this is followed up with exploding sunglasses, and it’s all downhill from there. What a shame.

 I know I promised we were done with this least respectable of the four films, but what’s a Mission: Impossible retrospective without a little bit of deceit, right?

2. The Burj Khalifa Tower, from Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Speaking of the “coolest of the four”, let’s give Ghost Protocol some love, shall we? Apparently the canyon from M:I 2 wasn’t high enough, so Cruise and Director Brad Bird sends Hunt to Dubai to tackle the world’s tallest building: the Burj Khalifa Tower. I won’t give away many details from the scene, so I’ll just tell you my reaction to it. It is one of the first scenes in years that literally had me on the edge of my seat. I was suddenly acutely aware of the elevated speed of my heartbeat. It was almost enough to break me out in a cold sweat. Now I have a problem with heights [apparently, Cruise does not], so that surely added to the suspense. But I’m fairly positive no one can watch Tom Cruise hang on the side of the world’s tallest tower with nothing holding him but space-age suction gloves and keep a cool head. Suffice it to say this is easily the most exciting sequence in any film this year, if not the last several years. See it on as big a screen as you can, it’s well worth the price.


1. The Archive Room, from Mission: Impossible

It’s not as dazzling as Dubai or as breathless as Cruise’s canyon leap, but the most memorable scene from the entire franchise remains (for me at least), Ethan Hunt dropping from the ceiling into the archive room at Langley. After several minutes of build-up into how impossible it is to break into this room successfully, Hunt is lowered down to hang just above the desk. If he makes any noise, the alarm is triggered. If his exertion causes his body heat to raise room temperature a single degree, the alarm is triggered. If there is even the slightest change in pressure along the floor, even the size of a single drop of sweat, the alarm is triggered. Director Brian De Palma uses every one of these tools to form a scene so suspenseful it’s impossible to remove your eyes. If things aren’t hard enough, a troublesome rat causes Hunt’s partner to lose his grip for only a moment, dropping Cruise to mere inches above the floor. Displaying his incredible athleticism and balance, Cruise’s Hunt manages to avoid contact with the floor, even catching that single drop of sweat as it beads from the rim of his glasses. It’s my favorite moment from an action franchise that has earned every ounce of respect it is given, and probably more.

What’s your favorite Mission: Impossible moment? Have you seen Ghost Protocol yet? Why not, jerk?! You better work up a good excuse for the comments below…

Greg Foster

Host of Next Projection's ongoing Mainstream Monday series. I enjoy the occasional film, but most of the time I just watch movies. I'm no film student; just an old-fashioned homemade addict of cinema.
  • Tony Liccardello

    Fun list. I’m a die-hard MI fan, and am a big fan of the TV series.  I will say, the Cafe Waterfall is more of a moment than an actual scene. I would have probably omitted that and mentioned the Embassy sequence from the first MI. I am a bit shocked you left that out since it pretty much set up the entire movie.  Also, the Minority-Report-esque climactic battle in Ghost Protocol at the parking lot was fantastic. It would have been insanely time consuming to chop these scenes up and throw links to them (not sure if you can do that but), I’ve done the Archive one.

  • Christopher Misch

    The Burj Khalifa Tower sequence is something to behold; glad you placed it where you did. I’m sure the sandstorm sequence would have made an appearance if you didn’t try to avoid any spoilers, right?

  • Zoe Moorman

    Great list! Though M:I 3 remains my favourite ;)

  • Greg Foster

    CM - You’re absolutely right about the sandstorm! Such an incredible sequence. TL - Embassy was great but I tried to focus more on the unforgettable visuals and tried to describe the scene around the cafe waterfall. And the parking lot was left off for the same reasons as the sandstorm :) It was hard to cut the list down with so many great moments. M:I is a franchise full of them that clearly deserves our respect.

  • Christopher Misch

    For me it’s a toss up between the original and Ghost Protocol. MI3 is quite great in its own right!

  • David Neary

    Honestly I thought the most effective action scene in Ghost Protocol was the chase through the sandstorm. You could hear every grain of sand whistle by the camera, and the shadows that emerged through it were simply thrilling. At to that the great safety goggles gag at the beginning and the car smash at the end… I’d take that over anything M:I2 came up with.