The Best ‘Mission: Impossible’ Action Scenes

best Mission Impossible action scenes

Brian De Palma‘s first Mission: Impossible film wasn’t packed with action setpieces — there are only three, really, but those three are all top-tier action filmmaking, and one of those three defined the series for years to come. In the two decades since, the series has been tackled by a variety of directors — John Woo, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and now Christopher McQuarrie — each of whom bring a slightly different balance of action and espionage to their respective mix.

Paramount in all the best Mission Impossible setpieces, however, is the physicality of Tom Cruise (and, at times, his co-stars) and a direct simplicity that lets Cruise and many stunt performers shine. We’ve examined the major action concepts in the five films in the series to find the best Mission Impossible action scenes and show-off setpieces. (And, OK, we’ve highlighted a couple of the worst, too.)

Note: Below we talk about scenes from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, but the stills used are from the trailer, and we’ve kept spoilers to a minimum. That said, there are still some spoilers here for Rogue Nation.

mi-2-opening-car-chase

20.

The Movie: Mission: Impossible II (2000)
The Setup: Ethan Hunt meets Nyah (Thandie Newton) and their cars dance.

The second film in the series doesn't take long to establish itself as vastly different from the first. That could be a very good thing, but warning bells go off during this goofy and visually incoherent flirt-turned-car chase that quickly becomes a literal dance with spinning cars. A better version of this scene may exist in John Woo's rumored long initial cut of the film, but this final version is laughable.

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MI-2-opening

19.

The Movie: Mission: Impossible II (2000)
The Setup: On vacation, Ethan climbs a mountain with no safety harness.

It's a great idea: re-introduce Ethan Hunt for the second film with a long push-in on his free-climb in Moab, Utah. The first shot is terrific, but the bulk of the scene is lensed and cut in a way that undermines the performance of Cruise and his doubles, and dispels any sense of danger. It’s meant to convey exhilaration and casual danger, but there’s no rush of adrenalin. There’s mostly just a sense of safety and even weightlessness — precisely the opposite of the feeling that should coil in your gut while watching.

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mi-3-factory

18.

The Movie: Mission: Impossible III (2006)
The Setup: Drawn back into action when a colleague is engandgered, Ethan’s operation leads to a helicopter chase.

A routine but well-executed gunfight leads to a helicopter chase that is anything but routine as its path veers into a field of giant wind turbines. At this point J.J. Abrams and his crew didn't have the action chops we'd see later in the Star Trek films, though the seeds are planted, especially in the helicopter chase. There is an ever-escalating series of dangers to evade as copters veer through giant spinning blades, but there's no spontaneity; each beat feels calculated as a riff on the basic visual pun. Each beat is planned, of course, but the best sequences in the M:I series keep us from thinking about it in the moment. Keri Russell’s performance is the highlight of this sequence, along with the sense of impending doom her story provides.

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mi-2-cycle

17.

The Movie: Mission: Impossible II (2000)
The Setup: It’s the end of the movie so there has to be a big fight, and this one is nuts.

In a different movie, say, Torque, this foot chase with spinning leaps of gunplay, followed by a motorcycle chase (with spinning leaps of gunplay) followed by a knife fight might be a "get the audience on their feet" showstopper. Here, it's a tangle of choppy silliness that has exactly the wrong effect. Let's recognize the stunt driving, wire work, and editing, which together provide the goofiest highlights, while also accepting that the feel is all wrong.

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mi-4-sandstorm

16.

The Movie: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
The Setup: After a document transfer goes wrong, Ethan chases Hendricks into a sandstorm.

Much of Ghost Protocol's action holds up outside the confines of an IMAX theater, but the sandstorm sequence suffers in home viewing. The concept is terrific. The impending arrival of massive storm clouds is set up at the beginning of the setpiece prior to this, so on some level we're waiting for this sandstorm chase to happen. On an IMAX screen the effect is great, but at home this is the one place where Ghost Protocol looks excessively digital and murky, and where Cruise and the stunt performers get a bit lost.

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mi-3-shanghai

15.

The Movie: Mission: Impossible III (2006)
The Setup: The IMF locates the MacGuffin in Shanghai, and drops in to steal it.

After a cutesy "distract bad guys with baseballs" opening, this sequence offers its showstopper moment: Cruise (and/or a double) leaps from a rooftop with only a safety wire — that we don't see at first — preventing his death. That series of shots, together with another set showing Ethan swinging from one building to another, are great. While the concept is done well here, it is perfected in Ghost Protocol, and this sequence leads to a street chase that has Cruise running like a very muscular puppy after the rolling MacGuffin, er, Rabbit's Foot. In retrospect, this feels like a rough draft for the Burj Khalifa + sandstorm couplet in Ghost Protocol.

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mi-5-syndicate

14.

The Movie: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
The Setup: Ethan escapes the Syndicate.

This sequence does double-duty, establishing Rebecca Ferguson as a vital player in Rogue Nation, and giving Cruise a similar opportunity to flex and fight that we see in the hospital escape from Ghost Protocol. It’s simple stuff done very well, and gives Ferguson the first chance to show her own chops. Her work, combined with the limber power of one particular move from Ethan Hunt, seen as he extricates himself from being handcuffed to a pole, are the highlights.

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