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SYFY WIRE Mission: Impossible

The 8 Most Memorable "How Did They Do That" Moments from the Mission: Impossible Franchise

Let's take a look at the craziest things Ethan Hunt has done on behalf of the Impossible Mission Force.

By Josh Weiss

For close to three decades, Tom Cruise has laid his life on the line for our entertainment, driving off cliffs and hanging onto ascending airplanes, continually upping the ante with the release of each Mission: Impossible film. Spanning seven films (soon to be eight) and five directors, the big screen reimagining of the classic espionage TV show refuses to cut Ethan Hunt and his fellow IMF operatives a break.

Not so great for the spies tasked with saving the world, but pretty awesome for those of us who get to watch these characters "choose to accept" each assignment in an effort to prevent everything from a viral pandemic, to all-out nuclear war, to the spread of a rogue artificial intelligence. But as these global threats grow ever more fearsome, so do the stunts and set pieces that have come to define the blockbuster series. After all, a Mission: Impossible movie is not a Mission: Impossible movie if it doesn't have a moment — or collection of moments — that have you on the edge of your seat, wondering: how the heck did they pull that off?!

With the first four installments now available to stream on Peacock, SYFY WIRE decided to rank our favorite set pieces from all eight adventures!

For More on Mission: Impossible:
Tom Cruise’s latest stunt? A ‘Mission: Impossible’ thank-you skydive for ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ fans
Oops! Tom Cruise apologized to couple after interrupting their hike with 'Mission Impossible' stunt
Why you should give J.J. Abrams' feature debut, Mission: Impossible III, a second chance 

Ranking Our 8 Favorite Set Pieces of the Mission: Impossible Franchise

Breaking into the Chimera Lab - Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

Despite director John Woo's distinctive eye for action and visual flair, Mission: Impossible 2 wasn't exactly the best entry in the franchise. Nevertheless, the whole viral threat posed by wayward IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) feels more relevant than it did 24 years ago, now that we've all lived through a global health crisis.

The sequence of Ethan breaking into a Sydney lab to destroy all samples of the Chimera pathogen tries to repeat the cable-dangling magic of the CIA set piece from the original (see below), and while it doesn't fully succeed on that front, it's still an enjoyable time, especially with Cruise striving for as much realism as possible when it comes to the stonework. "I want to make it exciting for [the audience]," Cruise says in a behind-the-scenes featurette, referring to how he strived for as much realism as possible when it came to the stunts. "I want to scare 'em, I want to thrill 'em and I think that adds to it."

Watch Mission: Impossible 2 right here.

Infiltrating the Vatican - Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Whether it's Danny Ocean outsmarting a Vegas casino or Goldfinger breaking into Fort Knox, audiences love to see characters breaking into places with a reputation for being nigh-impenetrable. Similar to the Kremlin infiltration in Ghost Protocol five years later, the entire Vatican City sequence — up to and including Ethan's kidnapping and impersonation of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Owen Davian — is a great example of how masterfully the franchise often balances danger, suspense, and intrigue with plain old escapist fun.

"A sequence like that requires so many pieces," director J.J. Abrams told MovieWeb in 2006. "It's a very intricately, visually intricately told sequence and in television, you just never have the time to do the kind of pieces that you need to really sort of tell it properly."

Watch Mission: Impossible III right here.

The Dangling Train - Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning (2023)

As the Mission: Impossible films have gotten bigger and bigger, some fans have wondered whether Ethan will ever blast off into outer space. While Christopher McQuarrie, the only filmmaker to helm more than one entry in the franchise, doesn't rule out the notion, he continues to prove that there are still plenty of Earthbound dangers to be explored.

The dangling train sequence near the end of Dead Reckoning is a great example of how you turn an ordinary — and ordinarily safe — mode of transportation into a magnificent deathtrap, even if it does feel a little derivative of Steven Spielberg's The Lost World. With that said, setting the final act aboard the Orient Express is a great nod to the deceit, intrigue, and murder of Agatha Christie's classic novel.

"This sequence has to be the most complicated thing ... we've ever had to execute in terms of the logistics of shooting it [and] getting the sequence to actually work as a climax to a movie." McQuarrie states in the director's commentary track. "There's so much sensational photography, so many sensational stunts ... just amazing shots that were the work of so many people."

Ethan Holds His Breath - Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

A great movie, particularly one trying to illicit a visceral reaction from the audience, knows how to get a viewer to see themselves onscreen. Almost everyone alive has gone through the experience of trying to hold their breath underwater for an extended period of time. Rogue Nation simply takes that collective feeling of breathlessness to the extreme as Ethan dives into an underwater data bank with no oxygen tanks and a three-minute window to carry out his objective before drowning.

"Imagine Mission: Impossible 1 where Ethan is hanging by a thread. Now, remove the thread and don't allow him to breathe," explains producer Bryan Burk in a behind-the-scenes featurette.

Ethan Scales the Burj Khalifa - Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

One of the great strengths of the Mission: Impossible saga is how each film presents a truly impossible feat before compounding the already-maximum difficulty with some unforeseen roadblock. The famous mask fabricator goes on the fritz, a lone mouse scuttles along a CIA air duct, or, in the case of Ghost Protocol, Ethan's state-of-the-art sticky gloves begin to short out as he begins to scale the tallest building in the world. The production could have gotten away with movie magic tricks to pull off the sequence, but it was Cruise who insisted on doing the thing for real, albeit with plenty of real-world safety measures in place.

"Dubai would like to become a film center and we explained, 'You guys want something fantastic? We have it,'" executive producer Jeffrey Chernov recalls in a behind-the-scenes featurette. "We are going to put Ethan Hunt 144 floors outside the building and we're gonna do one of the greatest stunt sequences ever. They just opened up the doors to the city and said, 'Go and shoot whatever you wanna shoot.'"

Watch Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol right here.

Ethan Breaks into CIA Headquarters - Mission: Impossible (1996)

Ah, yes — the one that started it all. If Fallout wasn't such a gosh-darned masterpiece, this entry would definitely take the top spot on our list because of how iconic it is. A masterclass in building up tension and suspense, Ethan Hunt's acrobatic, Cirque du Soleil-esque performance at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia has been duplicated and parodied dozens of times since 1996. Fun fact, though: the scene is most likely director Brian De Palma's homage to the 1964 heist flick, Topkapi.

What makes the NOC list heist so dang nail-biting is the fact that Ethan's greatest obstacle is not guns or explosives, but his own body: any subtle change in the immediate environment (sound, pressure, etc.) will end in failure. "It's very difficult to hang straight out like; it takes a tremendous amount of muscle control," De Palma states in a behind-the-scenes featurette. "Tom was able to do this and bring a kind of reality to it and really grab the audience as you see the terrific tension he's under."

Poor William Donloe (Rolf Saxon). The analyst responsible for protecting the NOC list terminal will return in the upcoming Mission: Impossible 8 (no longer titled Dead Reckoning Part Two). Turns out Kittridge (Henry Czerny) was as good as his word: following his massive cockup, Donloe was indeed transferred to a radar tower in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness.

Watch Mission: Impossible right here.

Helicopter Chase/Cliffside Brawl - Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

Still the unmatched zenith of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Fallout hits every thriller and action beat with staggering aplomb. The explosive climax, which takes place against the backdrop of India's Kashmir region, never lets up on the throttle as our heroes rush to prevent a nuclear-fomented catastrophe orchestrated by Syndicate mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Lane) and his mustachioed CIA mole underling, August Walker (Henry Cavill). While Luther (Ving Rhames), Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson), Benji (Simon Pegg), and Julia (Michelle Monaghan) work to defuse a collection of radioactive bombs, Ethan goes after the armed detonator in Walker's possession. The sheer suspense of it all will have you chewing your nails until they're nothing but a collection of bloodied stumps.

Once Walker finally bites the dust, Ethan still needs to scale the cliff face and deactivate the detonator. As the clock runs out, the screen cuts to a blinding white, forcing the audience to suddenly wonder if a mission has finally gone wrong. But then the light fades and our protagonist comes back into focus. A cloud has shifted to reveal a dazzling burst of sunlight as a successful Ethan gets rid of the now-harmless detonator. "I'd love to say it was some divine inspiration [but] it was an absolutely practical decision," McQuarrie states on official commentary track. "The only way to really do it was to cut to white. There was no exciting way for Ethan to grab the thing and pull it out with his teeth."

The first four Mission: Impossible films are now streaming on Peacock.