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Ranking the Mission: Impossible Stunts

Mission: Impossible: Tom Cruise’s Best Stunts

With Tom Cruise around still making action films, anything is possible. Consider his career metamorphosis from solid Hollywood actor, to superstar, to superhuman action stunt person. It is only fitting that he stars in the Mission: Impossible movie series. Albeit to varying degrees, the films feature action beats and feats of human resilience and courage so astonishing, it’s enough to make one gasp aloud “That’s IMPOSSIBLE!” You should be right, given the series name, and yet there goes Cruise, defying the odds yet again. 

The teaser trailer for the 7th installment, Dead Reckoning Part One, was released at the end of May to coincide with Paramount’s latest blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick (also starring Cruise). While the marketing is cagey about the two-part adventure’s story, one thing is for sure: Dead Reckoning will make moviegoers feel tense in all the right ways. Bonus points for eagle-eyed viewers who can spot the action scenes inspired by James Bond movies!

At the time of this writing, however, there is still almost a full year until audiences learn how Ethan Hunt gets out of the ludicrous jams he’ll inevitably stumble into. Or how he stumbled into them in the first place. To temporarily distract us until then (until also rewatching all six films as fans will inevitably do. And we’ll enjoy it to!), Tilt Magazine demonstrates the gusto, the nerves, the courage to rank the Mission: Impossible stunts. Most likely not the same level of courage Ethan Hunt needed to do some of these, but it takes nerves of steel to face hate comments!

Honourable mentions: Cool Moments

With so many death-defying gymnastics performed by the series protagonist, and very often by the actor himself, it can be easy to forget certain moments. These instances aren’t worthy of induction into the Impossible Hall of Fame Top 10 (copyright Edgar Chaput 2022), but they’re nifty, flashy examples of how incredibly audacious, and lucky, Ethan Hunt often is. 

See Tom run
Image: Paramount

Red Light, Green Light (M:I)

One of the lasting images of the original M:I film, used extensively for its marketing, was when Hunt blows up an aquarium at a restaurant in Prague to escape the agency’s envoy, Kitteridge (Henry Czerny). Certain pre-explosion shots of the tank suggest it doesn’t contain as much water as seen post-explosion when Hunt jumps out the window, but it’s pretty cool.

Mission Impossible II

Blown Away (M:I:III)

The bridge sequence when arms dealer Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is snatched away from team IMF by his cohorts is decent overall. Hunt takes down an air jet a bit easily, and Davian doesn’t seem to be bothered by getting shot at whilst sitting aside a helicopter’s side opening. The downsides are made up for when the aforementioned jet launches a rocket onto the bridge, prompting Hunt to run away. He gets as far as he can before the weapon erupts onto a car, the force of which sends the protagonist flying into the side of a nearby vehicle. 

Pipe climb (Rogue Nation)

Pipe climb (Rogue Nation)

Rogue Nation kicks things up several notches regarding the stuntwork, leaving this cool moment in the dust. Hunt is captured by villains in a hidden London room when a mysterious woman, later to be revealed as Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) helps him escape. Hunt’s handcuffs are roped around a tall horizontal pipe. He grabs said metal protrusion with his hands and motions his horizontally spread body upwards in little jumps, his hands consistently climbing the pipe higher and higher. It’s completely insane. 

I Left My Ankle in London (Fallout)

I Left My Ankle in London (Fallout)

For disciples of the franchise and Tom Cruise, the moment is now the stuff of legend. Ethan Hunt is madly chasing after August Walker (Henry Cavill) around London. The latter has a considerable head start, prompting Hunt to heed Benji’s (Simon Pegg) guidance, who is telling Ethan where to go from a distant location. The unorthodox method leads Hunt to a rooftop where the only way to keep pace with Walker is to jump to the next. He does just that. In the next shot, Hunt is briefly seen limping away. That’s because Tom Cruise really broke his ankle!

Rogue Nation

Fight like a Girl (Rogue Nation, Fallout)

Anytime Ilsa jumps onto a person’s shoulders and wrestles them down with a vicious twist. It happens so fast it’s hard to know what exactly she’s doing the first time. She even performs it wearing that divine yellow opera dress in Rogue Nation. Suffice to say, when Ilsa climbs onto you, it may not be for some rumpy-pumpy. 

Tom Cruise Running (M:I:III, Ghost Protocol sandstorm, Fallout London chase)

Tom Cruise Running (M:I:IIIGhost Protocol sandstorm, Fallout London chase)

Come now. Was Tilt going to publish an article about the action in the M:I franchise and not make at least fleeting mention of Cruise’s now legendary sprinting motion? 

The Impossible Hall of Fame Top 10

11-Killer Car Park (Ghost Protocol)

Dubai car park
Image: Paramount

Our top 10 starts off swimmingly with an 11th entry. The single biggest issue with this darned M:I franchise? There are too many amazing action scenes to limit an Impossible Hall of Fame to 10 candidates. The cheat is Ghost Protocol’s climactic fight in between Ethan and lead villain Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist) in a Mumbai garage. That may sound simple enough when written like that, but the “garage” in question is a multi-story car park with several moving parts that raise and lower vehicles on command. 

The set was specifically constructed for the film, thus providing the filmmakers with complete control over the possible dangers. Even considering the safety protocols, the sequence is intricately staged, shot, and edited. Ethan and Hendricks jump on top of cars, roll underneath, launch themselves from one level to another, and a bunch of cars getting trashed in the process. Ethan quite literally goes full kamikaze to access an important computer resting on the lowest level by sending a car crashing below with him in it.

10-Halo Paris! (Fallout)

HALO jump
Image: Paramount

Fallout rarely lets up. The biggest criticism one could potentially lay at the movie’s feet is that it’s not much more than a series of jaw-dropping stunts with a smidgeon of story weaving them together. Given the film’s warm reception, that appears to be just how fans like it. A key moment early in the movie entails Ethan and suspicious mission partner Walker dropping out of a plane over Paris to infiltrate a lavish party. 

This isn’t just any old parachute jump. To avoid detection from security, the duo must perform a HALO jump, which is an acronym for High Altitude Low Opening jump. In layman terms, one falls from very high up but only opens their parachute when perilously close to the ground. Now, there is some significant computer-generated wizardry that enhances the scene, most notably the thunderstorm Ethan and Walker drop through. It’s very nifty, but entirely fake. What isn’t fake, probably to the surprise of no one at this point, is that Tom Cruise really did a HALO jump from 25,000 feet that was filmed on an IMAX camera (albeit not above Paris). Not only is the stunt itself spectacular, imagine the cameraman’s responsibility! 

9-Motor Bike Down Under, Over, Everywhere (M:I-2)

Bike chase
Image: Paramount

How in the world did John Woo’s M:I-2 get on this list? Say what one will about the plot and characters, the Chinese maestro knows how to deliver the goods when it comes to adrenaline-pumping action. His predilections for creating ballets of bullets drag some of the sequences in the second movie down (especially in hindsight, knowing the gonzo action fans get later). They look pretty cool, but the film’s standout moments are when the actors and stunt crew perform audacious tricks with their modes of transportation.

Look no further than the climactic chase between Ethan and IMF agent gone bad Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). Both are rocking moody black jacketts, blasting past cars on the road, then blasting off road, then riding it out on a beach cliff. The speed at which the vehicles go is viscerally felt, and there are some daring close calls with the other cars. Best of all is the big finale when both motorists play a game of chicken. As their bikes approach, the rivals jump upwards, their bodies crash into each other just as both rides connect and erupt in a ball of flames. Some would argue that’s worst of all, but to each their own. 

8-Hold Your Breath (Rogue Nation)

8-Hold Your Breath (Rogue Nation)

Here is an example can’t be ranked higher if only because the environment was highly controlled. How could it not? Whilst in Casablanca, Ethan Hunt must dive into a water tank that houses hard drives containing information vital to the mission The jump alone is stupendous. 

The catch is that the water ebbs and flows with great force, not to mention the large mechanical arms swinging to-and-fro. Director McQuarrie only had 10 days to film the sequence. Underwater footage (a potential safety risk for actors), a limited time to film, and plenty of mini action beats to make it as nerve wracking a watch as possible. What could render the filmmaking easier? Why, have Tom Cruise train himself to hold his breath for as long as possible underwater. By the time the team got to shooting the sequence, Cruise could reportedly hold his breath for six minutes! The training he followed is designed for the military. Although the editing doesn’t allow viewers to truly appreciate just how long Cruise is in the water, the preparation demonstrates his dedication. 

7-Blasting Through Paris by Motorbike (Fallout)

7-Blasting Through Paris by Motorbike (Fallout)

Evidently motorcycle stunt work is of the essence when striving to leave audiences breathless. Although another bike chase will rank even higher than this one, there is no denying the allure of Ethan Hunt’s desperate escape from Parisian law enforcement after dubiously helping to free his old foe, Solomon Lane. Granted, however cool the sequence looks on film, the fact of that matter is that the streets of the City of Lights were tightly controlled during the shoot. Knowing that, actor Tom Cruise and fellow stuntmen were operating in as safe as condition as possible. 

On the flip side, those “safe as possible” conditions were jam packed streets, many quite narrow. Hunt blasts through a brief underground passage and even goes sightseeing around the Arc de Triomphe, all the while zigzagging past traffic going the other way. However controlled the environment, the planning must have been a headache. What matters, ultimately, is how it plays in the movie. It plays just fine.  

6-Stealing From the CIA (M:I)

CIA HQ
Image: Paramount

The Brian De Palma first entry came out so long ago, it’s as if it were a different era. 1996 was a different era! The franchise had not found the groove it would with 2011’ Ghost Protocol, when all bets were off and the intensity of the stunts considerably increased. 

Nevertheless, the crown jewel of De Palma’s effort is unquestionably at the halfway point when Ethan and his rat-tag, B-side IMF team must infiltrate CIA headquarters to retrieve a diskette. It goes without saying that many of the qualities that make up the sequence are studio controlled. The room’s temperature cannot surpass a given threshold, nor can there be any sound. The floor is sensitive to disturbances. Ethan can only get in via the ventilation shaft with a harness that lowers him. The operation is time sensitive. Cruise and Jean Reno are performing the stunt as realistically as possible given that pretty much everything is make-believe. Because of that, it’s difficult to rank it any higher than 6. Even so, as a piece of cinema tension, it’s perfection, to say nothing of its iconic status. Mention the first film and almost everybody imagines Ethan Hunt hanging inches away from the floor, intercepting a drop of sweat just in time. 

5-Going for a Ride on My Motorbike (Rogue Nation)

Speed chase
Image: Paramount

There motorbike chase between Hunt and Ilsa in Fallout is a perfect example of how to make something look simple yet very cool at the same time. Unlike the Parisian motorcycle chases in Fallout, this one transpires outside of a city center. While that may make the sequence feel as if it isn’t as dangerous (reminder that whenever a big action scene is filmed in an urban area where traffic is controlled!), the truth is the stunt people are driving at remarkable seeds. More critically, Tom Cruise isn’t wearing any significant protective gear either. 

The swerves, the wind blowing ferociously, cutting in and out of lanes as cars and large trucks drive by, aided by the new (at the time) BMW S1000 RR bike, the chase is enough to get adrenaline junkies excited. The moments when Cruise leans over to turn and his knee is barely a centimeter above the tarmac are nail-biting in their own right. While the wipeout at the end looks a bit fake, the driving is impeccable. That is if one is insane enough to drive a motorbike as IMF agents do. 

4- The Alpinist (M:I-2)

4- The Alpinist (M:I-2)

In what may be a surprising twist for some, the alpinism at the start of M:I-2 climbs its way to the fourth best spot. John Woo’s sequel had a lot of fanfare behind it when opening in May 2000 but ended up leaving many disappointed. Time can be kind towards films that are at first poorly received. Not that the second entry in the franchise is a misunderstood masterpiece, but this particular moment is enough to make anyone’s stomach curl for the right reasons. 

For those curious for a more extended look at what Tom Cruise does in Moab, Utah, readers may check out the documentary Free Solo. What free soloists do is mind-blowing. The challenge is so detail-oriented that any false move results in instant death. Although he did have a harness to secure him, there was no safety net below. The jump from one cliff to another is the clincher that makes this sequence supremely nerve-wracking. Cruise, as he is want to do, really did that. He even tore his shoulder in the process. 

3-Sight Seeing Along the Burj Khalifa (Ghost Protocol)

Burj Khalifa
Image: Paramount

The grand highlight of Brad Bird’s entry is when Ethan Hunt must crawl outside the Burj Khalifa in Dubai to reach a highly guarded upper level. The building itself became the tallest in the world in 2009, overshadowing the Tapei 101 Skycrapper in Taiwan.

The buildup alone to the sequence is a masterclass of comedy creating tension. The way in which Benji explains that there is a “small wrinkle” in their plan and that the coveted computer room can only be accessed from the outside is perfection. 

Naturally, Tom Cruise was supported by several cables as he climbed the glass walls of the skyscraper. Again, we remind the reader that when enjoying these scenes, some suspension of disbelief is necessary so as to not spoil the fun. Even then, consider the complex planning required to make the scene a reality. Strength of the cables, tightness of their hold on the actor, wind factor, etc. The icing on the cake is something only a few people had the privilege of enjoying. Like most of the action, the sequence was filmed with IMAX cameras. Suffice to say the vertiginous effect in theatres made everybody think “Better Tom Cruise than me!”

2- Helicopter Chase (Fallout)

Image: Paramount

Fallout goes out with a bang. That’s not in reference to the atomic blast threat that looms over the IMF, but the helicopter chase that Hunt and Walker are engaged in. Set in Kashmir but filmed in New Zealand, it features the two rivals giving chase to one another in their respective helicopters. 

Plenty of devilish details make this sequence special. For one, the tricks Hunt does with his aircraft such as the dives and turns, are incredibly risky. The sequence tests the limits of what these vessels are capable of. Sharp turns, dives, intense rises, all of which are done in the gorges of New Zealand mountains. Not only did Cruise have to maneuver the craft to avoid the cliffs, but the wind proved to be a factor as well, as it always is with choppers. Turbulence was but one natural element that could ruin the day, and possibly the actor’s life. Furthermore, because he was the only person in the aircraft while filming, he had to make sure the cameras were capturing what they needed to. He was playing a character, being a stuntperson, and functioning as his own director. 

We didn’t mention the part when he’s on the side of the chopper and or when he falls off onto a cargo hanging from below.

1-Plane Ride (Rogue Nation)

Plane ride
Image: Paramount

The stunt that opens Rogue Nation lands in the number one spot. Lands. Hmm. How does Ethan Hunt land after dropping out of the film with the canisters of toxic gas? No matter.

It seems fitting that this moment starts what will eventually become a 4-film partnership between star Tom Cruise and director Christopher McQuarrie. Many fans felt that Bad Bird’s efforts for Ghost Protocol earned him top marks, hoping he may return for the fifth installment. Rogue Nation opens with such an emphatic bang, it obvious that the new partnership was a match made in heaven.

A Russian A400M carrying dangerous gas is about to take off. IMF must prevent that from happening. Simple enough. Only nothing ever comes simply for the band of heroes. Luther (Ving Rhames) helps Benji patch into the ship’s control (Luther is in Malaysia and Benji is hidden among the grass near the airfield), as Brandt (Jeremy Renner) gets increasingly nervous that their mission is about to crash and burn. Have no fear, for Ethan Hunt races atop a hill, jumps onto the plane’s wing, eventually nestling himself onto the side right next to one of its doors. All Benji needs to do is remotely unlock it. That takes a few minutes longer than expected, leaving Hunt to literally hang on the side of the transport vessel as it takes off. 

The moment earns the highest accolades because it’s incredibly dangerous irrespective of whether one analyzes it from an in-universe perspective or our real-world one. In the film, this is completely bonkers and in no way should ever succeed. In the real world, it’s just as insane, even when considering that Tom Cruise has a harness attached to him to minimize the risk. Minimize the risk? He’s on the side of an A400M travelling at regular speed! If a tiny bird flies into his face he may be a goner. 

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s just Tom Cruise.

-Edgar Chaput

Written By

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar Chaput has written and podcasted about pop culture since 2011. At first a blogger, then a contributor to Tilt's previous iteration (Sound on Sight), he now helps cover tv and film on a weekly basis. In addition to enjoying the Hollywood of yesteryear and martial arts movies, he is a devoted James Bond fan. English, French, and decent at faking Spanish, don't hesitate to poke him on Twitter (https://twitter.com/double_oh_Pop), Facebook or Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/edchap14/).

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