Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Mission Impossible Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Mission Impossible Edition

*scroll down past the introduction to get straight to the rankings
I really enjoyed revisiting the Mission: Impossible (yeah, there's a colon there) franchise. I counted 32 action sequences (I'll qualify later) spread out over the six movies from the summer of 1996 to the summer of  2018. In general, there's not a bad film to be found in the franchise. The use of various directors (four different directors) filtered through Cruise's production team gives the franchise a very high floor when it comes to consistency, but has given us various ceilings and quirks based on each director. I'm not sure there's a "masterpiece" in the franchise, but it is remarkably consistent over the six film run so far. For those interested in knowing before you get into the ratings, here's how I would rank the six films:

6. Mission: Impossible II (C+)
5. Mission: Impossible III (B-)
4. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (B)
3. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (B)
2. Mission: Impossible (B)
1. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (B+)

As you will see represented in the sequences below, the franchise has evolved from a more grounded noir'esque spy film punctuated by some action (Cruise never fires a gun in the first film) into an all-out action/stunt extravaganza where Cruise plays the contemporary equivalent of Craig's James Bond mixed with Jackie Chan filtered through the team dynamics of The Fast & the Furious franchise. As I watched the films, it was clear there were three major categories of "action" sequences: heist sequences, stunt spectacles, and traditional action set pieces. Normally, I wouldn't count heist sequences like the iconic CIA break-in sequence from the first film as an "action" sequence, but this franchise really does treat them like one, so I will. Similarly, there are some sequences that are focused primarily on a stunt and not traditional action, I'll also include these since they are a vital part of the franchise formula. Some sequences blend these categories and I think the #1 entry on this list blends all of them perfectly for the perfect Mission: Impossible sequence.

I've written a decent bit of commentary for each sequence, so I'll keep the introduction short. If this were a tier list, I'd say you're really getting to the best of the best around sequence 6 or so. Enjoy!

(32-26)
32. “Getting the Satellite Codes from an Indian Playboy” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol 
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: My least favorite sequence in the entire franchise. The entire “jump” magnet gag and server room stuff is miserably redundant being the third time in the same film they’ve hacked computer systems. The other major beat in this sequence is the attempted seduction of the Indian playboy, which is also far-fetched and not that entertaining. This entire sequence feels lifted out of some of the worst Bond movies. To up the stakes of the scene they randomly give us several timers and countdowns as well, including a stupid “Cobalt is gonna shut down the server before we shut down the satellite!” Then they get the code and it fails and it still doesn’t matter. It's my least favorite part of what I think is the worst 3rd act in the entire franchise.

31. “Plutonium Exchange in Berlin Goes South” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout
- Category: Action
- Commentary: Brief, a bit unclear and messy, feels like a victim of the editing process.

30. “Finale: Stopping Cobalt's Launch Ends at an Auto Parking Garage” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
- Category: Action
- Commentary: The second half of the third act begun by the billionaire playboy sequence mentioned earlier - It’s so sad to see so much talent and so many good intentions get drowned in a sea of increasingly ludicrous moments (topped by Ethan’s what 70ft car drop survival) wrapped in the context of a writer who has to be trolling us trying to milk the same formula over and over: the team fails, but there’s one more chance, they fail, but there’s one more chance, etc. It’s numbing by the end. I really don’t like this sequence. In my opinion, the entire third act of Ghost Protocol is one of the worst, high talent/production, sequences in major blockbuster cinema.

29. “Finale: Shanghai Showdown with Davian” -Mission: Impossible III
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This finale is a bit of a mess. It’s hard to tell if it was intended to be this way or they just wrote themselves into a corner and were forced to come up with what feels like such an ad hoc and small-scale ending. The death of Owen Davian is anti-climactic, the "kill me with a shock and then shoot the bad guys on your own" role Ethan's wife plays is not close to satisfying, and the hilarious way in which the rabbit’s foot literally just rolls into their presence at the end has to be the writer trolling us. One good thing to come out of this sequence is a fantastic stretch of Tom Cruise running down a Chinese waterfront. 

28. “Kidnapping the Prime Minister” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: Coming late into the film, this heist sequence has no right being as quick as it is. The way the plot unfolds it is sometime in the morning/afternoon that Hunt is told he is required to kidnap and get information from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. For something of this scale/gravity to not come off as cheesy you need time to lay it out and unfold it. Unfortunately, we are to believe that somehow Ethan concocts the entire plan, gets admission to the private event, can copy the likeness of someone he’s never met, trick and manipulate multiple smart people, and still come out entirely clean - all within a few hours before the event he had no idea about before the day. Entire movies are devoted to getting kidnapped Presidents or Prime Ministers to launch missiles or say the word and release prisoners – but this sequence just handles it all in 6-10 minutes. It’s neat the way it plays out, but it is so clean, easy, and quick – that it’s actually comical and creates a bit of whiplash to the viewer who has hanging in with the more methodical and measured take the movie had chosen so far.

27. “Elevator Escape: Ethan Eludes IMF Custody” -Mission: Impossible III
- Category: Action 
- Commentary: After the Vatican heist sequence the third movie settled into a series of smaller sequences like this one. It’s minor, but well executed.

26. “Shootout: Breaking In to Destroying the Virus and Escaping” -Mission: Impossible 2
- Category: Action 


(25-21)
25. “Ethan Attempts to Recruit During a Cliffside Car Chase” -Mission: Impossible 2 
- Category: Action
- Commentary: Here’s a sequence that easily punches above its weight. It’s short and it’s not meant to be “action” necessarily but it includes some amazing car stunts in its short span. It’s really quite enjoyable, but not quite believable.

24. “Opening: Russian Prison Breakout” -Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is one of those action sequences that are just meant to be “fun” and kind of re-build the myth and image of Ethan at the beginning of a new movie, but it just never clicked with me. Ethan being in a Russian prison, breaking out by causing the harm/possible death of inmates and guards just feels a bit reckless and cheeky without giving us some kind of wow spectacle, tension, or genuine action. Instead, it’s an action sequence that riffs on the heist template, except the heist is of Ethan getting out, not getting in. Its pulled off with relative ease and almost totally with gadgetry. It just comes off to me as trying to be too cool without much substance – something that would have been criticized if it was John Woo, but since its Brad Bird, it gets talked up more without criticism.

23. “Opening: Cliff Climbing” -Mission: Impossible 2
- Category: Stunt/Spectacle

22. “HALO Jump Over Paris” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout
- Category: Stunt/Spectacle
- Commentary: This is a tough one because the actual stunt of the halo jump is fantastic and the photography of it is perfect. The extra weather dramatics like lightning added on top of the realism feels really unnecessary and against the idea of doing the HALO jump for real. Why not show off the realism? Isn't that spectacle enough? Instead, it feels a bit over the top and hard to swallow the unnecessary dramatics of the sequence. Looks great though.

21. “Moroccan Power Plant Heist” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: The main heist sequence of Rogue Nation is a pretty big misfire for me. They do a good job laying out the obstacles and creating a new take on Cruise having to do something athletic to get to information, but the setting feels too CGI heavy for my tastes. The location ultimately feels fake and invented purely to present Hunt with novel obstacles. Additionally, the tension of getting the information uploaded before Benji reaches the profile analysis is completely arbitrary since Ethan could have uploaded the information hours before hand and there would be no significant difference to the logic of the scene. Doing it right before Benji arrives is pure writer room invention. In other words, most of the drama and tension here feels manipulative rather than organic. Still, there’s a practical element to Cruise’s performance underwater that feels genuine and is still appreciated here.

(20-16)
20. “Shanghai Heist: Getting the Rabbit's Foot” -Mission: Impossible III 
- Category: Stunt/Spectacle 
- Commentary: The second half of Mission: Impossible III is given over to a lot of small action sequences. In a normal film, this would be considered a huge set piece and we’d devote 20-30 minutes of time to the setup, execution, and aftermath. However, this film gives about 7-10 minutes for the whole thing. What we get is good and competent, but there’s a kind of inability to get engaged when the movie presents you with a challenge and immediately begins to overcome the "impossibility" of it. We need time to soak in the scale and difficulty, but this one just pushes through. The jump stunts in Shanghai look great but the sequence skips over the actual acquiring of the rabbit’s foot and just gives us Ethan leaving the building with it and we get a mediocre car chase to end it. Great start, meh ending.

19. “Ilsa Helps Ethan Escape Syndicate Custody” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is a fun little sequence where we are introduced to Ilsa as another undercover agent whose motives are unclear. I love how they highlight just how well Ethan and Ilsa work together, almost instinctively. Coming near the beginning of the film, smaller little mini action scenes like this work well for setting tone and introducing characters.

18. “Finale: London Tower Showdown with Lane Ends in a Glass Box” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- Category: Action
- Commentary: As a stand-alone sequence, this is decent chase/shoot-out/fight stuff; not great, but decent. As the finale of a movie with some thoughtful and methodical action sequences, this is a disappointment. Not only is it just decent for a finale, it’s too hard to swallow that Hunt planned all along to lure Lane to one particular spot in London so we can get our great glass box ending or would even be able to set it up in the time they had. Coming at the end of several little mini-action sequences that essentially all take place within hours of each other, stuff that requires so much prep and setup just smacks too much of the writers room and not an organic ending.

17. “Transporting Damian: Attack on the Bridge” -Mission: Impossible III
- Category: Action
- Commentary: I consider this sequence a great missed opportunity. What we get is really good. The setting and most of the execution is done well, but much of the “action” consists of a circling drone and Ethan running to and from vehicles to mostly no end. He doesn’t accomplish much and while that’s probably one of the ideas behind the sequence, it makes for a rather kinetic but pointless scene as Hunt essentially just watches his prisoner taken away. I think that a couple minutes more of well-designed give and take action with some strategy adaption by both sides, could have made this a defining sequence.

16. “Nighttime Warehouse Rescue of Agent Ferris Goes Wrong” -Mission: Impossible III
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is a very technically competent sequence and it features all of the obvious techniques to ramp up the tension and drama. It’s a good and effective sequence that ends on the very memorable and affecting death of Keri Russell’s Agent Farris. The issue with this sequence is something that plagues much of J.J. Abrams work to me – it’s shot mostly in medium, is a lot of sound and fury and technique, but rarely does it feel substantive or stand out from its peers.


(15-11)
15. “Kremlin Break-In Goes Wrong” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol 
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: I find this heist sequence a tough one to rate. Brad Bird’s vision of Mission: Impossible spycraft was to try and fill it with an edgy coolness and load it down with a lot of “fun” gadgets. I don't think he's able to successfully pull it off here, despite some good moments. In this heist, there’s some stuff that works well, the fake projector is neat, and it all feels fun – but it also feels like they have a gadget for every little unique circumstance that just comes out of nowhere. Upload their fake identity?  Gadget, for that. Need a key card? Gadget for that. Get past the hallway unseen? Gadget for that. Need to distract the guard? Gadget for that…get the idea? It works mostly, especially when they raise the stakes by having the gadgets almost fail, but it just never feels as risky or skillful as other heists in the series. The double-cross ending and explosion is a nice ending however.

14. “Code Exchange: From Burge Khalifa into a Sandstorm” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
- Category: Heist 
- Commentary: This sequence blends heist and traditional action, but I think is a heist scene at its core. The goal here is to heist the missile launch codes by tricking two parties at once. As far as the heist goes – it’s pretty good. The audience is given just enough information to be engaged, but enough kept away from us that we aren’t sure how it is all going to go down and remain surprised throughout the sequence. There's a major fault here though - once the team realizes they have to give away the real codes, the entire ruse becomes unimportant – they could let the real exchange take place and then detain or follow them as necessary. That’s a bit of a plot hole to me – but they do it to up the stakes (something Bird tries to do ad nauseam leading to that awful third act). That said, the chase into the sandstorm is a bit of a miss for me as well. It’s shot well, but the sand (so obviously CGI) really mucks up the sequence and makes it uninteresting and not really worth re-watching in my opinion. At least we get another classic Cruise run from the sequence!

13. “Team Ambush: Prague Mission Goes Sideways” -Mission: Impossible
- Category: Action
- Commentary: I love this mission gone haywire. It's probably more of a dramatic sequence in the end, but they really film it as if it was action. I love how thoroughly De Palma lays the mission out to the audience, briefs us on the different roles, and walks us through the basic mission as it plays in real time. I love how it doesn’t feel like it has technology that’s too far high-tech to feel like arbitrary nonsense (as many later ones did), but it all feels very grounded in spycraft with the tech pushed just a little. When things start to go wrong, there’s enough chaos to make us uncertain, but enough clues to give us insight. The way the team goes down like dominoes and the ambush builds is well edited and laid out. By the end of the sequence, the audience is hooked and ready for the follow-up.

12. “Underground Shootout & Foot Chase Through London” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout
- Category: Action
- Commentary: You'll notice the blending of categories (that really began in film five) here as traditional action turns into a stunt/run sequence across London. This sequence starts off on the wrong foot though with a dark, chaotic, and somewhat sloppy shootout with multiple different parties with different agendas (nightmares of the worst Pirates of the Caribbean habits). I get that 'chaotic' is a desired tone, but much of the beginning just ends up being confusing and unenjoyable. However, once Ethan gets out from underground and on the chase for Walker we get some of the finest Cruise run moments of all-time as he strides through London landmarks: St. Pauls, over the Thames, and ending at the Tate Modern. All of this is shot beautifully to emphasize the sheer speed and scale of the run with London in the background. It’s too bad the run is sandwiched between a kind of lackluster and chaotic shootout and a bit of an anticlimactic elevator ending. Otherwise, this run is legendary. 

11. “Finale: Escaping with the Virus, Motorcycles, & Beach Fights” -Mission: Impossible 2
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is Ethan Hunt filtered through the style of John Woo. Does it work? Eh, mostly. The second film ends with a lengthy action finale that is standard John Woo stuff, but is a little incongruous with the Ethan Hunt we knew from the first film. It’s such a drastic and obvious change that I would submit, despite their clear good faith effort, it never fully clicks. The finale sequence is anchored by a motorcycle chase filled with gunplay and stunts. A reason why the sequences generally hold up, despite their ridiculousness, is that Woo films them primarily in wide and everything looks real and practical. There is a lot of cool looking stuff here that still looks great on screen. The downside is that I think it crosses the line into silliness a little too much. The slow-motion fight at the beach after the two enemies jump off their bikes into each other keeps pushing the over-the-top envelope until it really hurts the sequence as a whole. I’m glad the series didn’t return to this well again.

Top Ten Action Sequences
10. “Opening: Ethan Hunt hangs outside a plane” –Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation 
- Category: Stunt/Spectacle
- Commentary: A great stunt based opening sequence for the fifth film. If you are going to do a “mini-action” scene and not a set piece, then this is how and when you do it. There’s almost no way to tell what was done practically and what was CGI’ed, and that’s exactly how it should feel. It feels real. It feels amazing.

9. “Finale: Train, Tunnels, & Turmoil” -Mission: Impossible 
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is one of the more underrated action sequences of the franchise. Like the CIA heist sequence earlier in the film, the gambit of Hunt having something of high value and trolling it out to bring out the bad guys while hoping it “doesn’t get out in the open” is a template the series would go back to over and over. Watching this sequence again, I’m struck by how good the top of the train stuff looks even decades later. It was the first time, in the cinema in 1996, I’ve ever seen “top of a train” action be so impacted by the wind - the way the face and clothes are visibly impacted is such an important part of the sell here. Once you can get past the ridiculousness of the helicopter following the train into the tunnel, the rest of the sequence looks so visually real that I can’t help but find it immensely compelling. That the sequence manages to wrap up Phelps, Kittridge, and Max at the same time makes it all the better.

8. “Mountain Duel: Helicopters and Hand to Hand” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout 
- Category: Action 
- Commentary: Unlike the Paris sequence from this film, this is one that gets a bit worse for me every time I revisit it. First, the helicopter stunts are incredible and blew me away in the theater. Still, we despite the amazing commitment to doing as much practical work with the helicopters, we have to admit it’s a bit over the top. It’s amazing stunt stuff, but it becomes such a zany sequence (admittedly, well done zany) that it doesn’t quite feel at home with the general tone of the rest of film and the rest of their more grounded action sequences. Second, the helicopter stuff, despite my gripes, would still be an A- sequence in my opinion, but unfortunately it’s intercut A LOT with Benji and Ilsa trying to track down the other bombs and stop Solomon Lane. I get intercutting it a bit, but it’s given equal time and it’s just not at all as interesting as the Ethan stuff. Third, the sequence just goes on forever – making it harder and harder to believe the 15 minute countdown. I know the countdown is a laugh, but for a film trying to be so grounded, they milk it way too much. Gripes aside, man is this sequence fun. 


7. “Bathroom Carnage: Fistfight with Lark” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout 
- Category: Action 
- Commentary: Beautifully shot fight sequence here. In the context of the Mission: Impossible films, this is easily the best fight sequence they’ve ever produced and I love that Ethan isn't portrayed as an expert fighter. It takes both he and Walker to equal the opponent. In the grand scheme of fight sequences, it’s very good, but a little short and a little dependent on a dues ex machina ending. I would have liked to see a bit more back and forth and a less arbitrary ending.

6. “Stealing the Noc List from the CIA” -Mission: Impossible 
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: This sequence not only went on to spawn a million imitations but would become the basic template for so many of the heist sequences throughout the rest of the series. The setup is all “there’s no way this can be done” but we are going to cleverly chip away at each defense through technology and clever subterfuge. The high-wire act is this sequence’s unique contribution to the genre and is perhaps challenged only by the Burg Khalifa sequence from Ghost Protocol as the most iconic visual sequence for the franchise. De Palma does a wonderful job amping up the tension and drama and Cruise sells the physical difficulty of the acrobatics perfectly. As great as this sequence is, there are a couple of faults that are difficult to look past (even with the passage of time). For instance, the biggest moment of tension, the sweat drop going across Ethan’s glasses and threatening to hit the floor is resolved by Ethan catching the sweat with an outstretched palm – an act that is physically impossible given his spread eagle nature and closeness to the floor. Additionally, the logic and luck of how they acquire the sign-in password by waiting above the computer attendant makes no sense and is so much luck that the “grounded” nature they are going for here is undercut. Still – despite these and other flaws, this is one of the best “action” heist sequences of the series and in cinema.

5. “Chasing Ilsa in Morocco: Cars & Motorcycles” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation 
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This exotic car chase sequence is great evidence that Rogue One saw itself as the Mission: Impossible take on Bond film. The sequence is an amazing adrenaline filled car and motorcycle chase through the streets and hills of “Morocco” but filtered with the "I'm a superman, but not immune to failing in funny ways" schtick Ethan adopted from Jackie Chan. The chase has the unfortunate distinction of being kicked down from a masterpiece status to just “really really good” with one idiotic stunt – Hunt’s car doing multiple somersaults and landing with a thud and they come out unscathed. It’s a shame because everything else feels so intense, grounded, and enhanced by Hunt’s “I’m recovering from death” obliviousness. 

4. “Vienna Opera House Assassination Goes Sideways” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation 
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This sequence is a breath of fresh air into the franchise. There is nothing quite like it throughout the entire franchise. Instead of being centered on a heist, this methodical sequence is about hunting an assassin and allowing multiple parties to unfold their mysterious agendas to the beautiful backdrop of the Vienna opera. The entire sequence plays much closer to a contemporary take on mashing together Hitchcock (think the opera sequence from The Man Who Knew Too Much) and the more methodical old school Bond sequences featuring a mysterious femme fatale. Commitment to letting the sequence play out slowly, a painterly cinematography, Hitchcockian unfolding of the story, and contemporary action sensibilities make this a standout sequence in the franchise and the best sequence in all of Rogue Nation.

3. “Vatican Valuables: Kidnapping Owen Davian” -Mission: Impossible III 
- Category: Heist
- Community: This is easily the standout sequence of the entire third film and the best beginning to end heist in the entire franchise. It’s often overlooked in the forgotten third film, but this heist is thorough, flashy, fun, and unfolds with enough grounding, practicality, and real life locations to give make it stand out from it's peers. It’s not as iconic as the CIA heist, but it’s more comprehensive, fun, and (within the tone of the film’s universe) logically consistent.

2. “Burg Khalifa: Breaking into the Server Room” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol 
- Category: Stunt/spectacle
- Commentary: This sequence (before the heist gets underway) is best considered and evaluated as a stunt spectacular and on that level – it’s a jaw-dropping masterpiece. Thankfuly, the sequence not intercut to death with other plotlines, and is allowed to mostly play itself out. The whole thing is a visual feast and if CGI was used you can’t tell; it feels as real as possible. The added comedic level and gadgetry breaking at the most opportune moments really works here. As far as pure stunt sequences goes, this is the gold standard of the entire series.

1. “Paris Mayhem: Ambush, Chase, and Escape” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout 
- Category: Action 
- Commentary: I really enjoyed this sequence in the cinema, but have grown to appreciate it more and more with each viewing. This sequence is a perfect example of how the director found a way to blend all three major categories together into one. Essentially, the team is their to heist Solomon Lane. The action and stunts are blended seamlessly between stunt filled car/motorcycle chase scenes and shootouts. The sequence goes on for about 20 minutes and is a masterpiece of action that moves the plot forward and throws multiple enemies and obstacles at our hero. It feels like it progresses through multiple stages and at each stage throws a new obstacle – from the Dark Knight ‘esque heist of Solomon Lane, to the motorcycle chase, a gun standoff for some emotional gravity, and then a final car chase against Ilsa. The entire thing ends with a bit of drama over taking the tracking chip off Solomon Lane that plays like an homage to the original films tracking of the fake noc list. High energy, beautiful cinematography, great stunts with real physical motorcycles and cars (there’s a lot of CGI cars to enhance, but most of the actual stuff is real). This represents the best elements of the series and is my choice for the best action the Mission: Impossible franchise has to offer.


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