The First Mission: Impossible Still Has One of the Greatest Action Set Pieces

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It was a rare thing even back then. Inside movie houses across America, the silence was so acute you could hear a popcorn kernel drop—never mind pens. That was because on the big beautiful cinema screen, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt was performing what 25 years and six Mission: Impossible movies later may still be his greatest stunt. And there weren’t any motorcycles revving up, nor was there a plane taking off. All we needed was an actor dangling from a wire over a glass floor. If you looked closely, too, out of the corner of his eye there suddenly would be a single drop of perspiration, which if it hit the floor meant game over. Trust us, Tom, you weren’t the only one sweating bullets that day.

This crackerjack sequence is the centerpiece of Brian De Palma’s first Mission: Impossible, and it remains a marvel today: an exercise in tension and a showcase of the benefits that come from letting a true master of his craft handle a summer blockbuster. It certainly became the calling card for Tom Cruise’s burgeoning reinvention of himself in the 1990s as an Übermensch action hero, and perhaps more importantly a movie producer. Indeed, Mission: Impossible was the first film Cruise produced with Paula Wagner via his new production company. It’s not a coincidence, then, that is where Cruise’s new clout began allowing him to work with auteurs who could rarely say no to his demands that he do his own stunts, sometimes at 25,000 feet.

Of course that more extravagant derring-do came later. In 1996, Mission: Impossible was all about the crafting of a sleek and wonderfully knotty thriller that tied itself up in circles while delivering perfectly calibrated thrills. Even for all the script’s high pedigree, with talent like Steven Ziallian (Schindler’s List), Robert Towne (Chinatown), and David Koepp at the peak of his post-Jurassic Park glow working on the screenplay, this movie only ever wanted to be a basic framework on which to hang one De Palma showstopper after another.

And the payoff of that approach is never clearer than in the buildup and execution of “the vault” sequence in the original movie. Narratively, there’s some mumbo jumbo reason for Mission: Impossible suddenly turning into a heist movie: Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has been burned by the CIA after a frame job suggests he killed his own team to steal half of the NOC List—a data file that comprises every undercover American agent operating in Europe. But for reasons that are never exactly clear, the list is worthless without its other half, which is stored in the belly of the CIA beast at Langley.

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To clear his name, Cruise is basically going to have to double down by actually stealing the other half of the NOC list. If you’re wondering why, you’re asking the wrong question. The entire appeal of the Mission: Impossible movies is how. And the how is a wonder to behold here.

Five years before Steven Soderbergh got credit for reinventing the heist genre with his Ocean’s 11 remake, many of the conventions were implemented by De Palma first: a voiceover narration by the protagonist, listing the obstacles and worst case scenarios his team is about to face? Check. The film then cross-cutting the actual mechanics of the heist with the team still discussing how they’ll pull it off? Yep. And an emphasis on a mark whose life they’re about to ruin? Just look at that poor bastard played by Rolf Saxon, a nine-to-five schmuck who after letting himself be momentarily distracted by Emmanuelle Béart (it happens) spends the rest of his screen time vomiting in trash cans and being banished to the North Pole by superiors.

It’s all here, but most of all there is an almost giddy embrace of filmmaking craft and tension-building. For most of his career, De Palma has chased the long shadow of Alfred Hitchcock and his masterful cinematic games of suspense. While this particular Mission: Impossible scene doesn’t dabble in doppelgangers and murder—two other De Palma motifs taken from Hitch that recur elsewhere in M:I—he nonetheless achieves one of his greatest suspense sequences inside the CIA vault, and it feels wholly original.

As Saxon’s CIA analyst struggles with repeated emergencies in the bathroom, Cruise is forced to dangle from an air vent over a CIA vault with such high security that in addition to the floor being pressure sensitive, he must keep as still as possible or risk his body raising the overall temperature in the room. Meanwhile if a sound louder than a whisper is made, the computer Ethan is hoping to hack will be shut down, and all the exits in the building will be locked.

So Cruise dangles from the air for a grueling nine minutes, floating with graceful, willowy precision in a cold, sterile vacuum. With a binary color scheme of white walls offset by Cruise’s tight black shirt and silvery gray gloves, the visual palette is as intentionally muted as the characters’ lips. There is no score, almost no dialogue, and each time the decibel counter on Ethan’s wrist rises, or the temperature in the room increases by a fraction of a degree, the audience gasps.

In the same summer movie season that gave us aliens blowing up the White House in Independence Day, and a tornado roaring like it’s a goddamn lion in Twister, the restraint and intelligence of this Mission: Impossible showstopper was shocking. It still is, as the commercial side of the industry continues to go the other way—to the point where the idea of a blockbuster starring scientists chasing a tornado seems downright highbrow.

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Similarly, action spectacle has leaned with an ever heavier hand on computer generated nonsense. Perhaps it’s a key reason that the Mission: Impossible movies remain a generally celebrated breath of fresh air in the Hollywood tentpole landscape. Twenty-five years since the original movie’s release, Cruise is still doing these Ethan Hunt adventures, and narratively they’ve only gotten better, with the most recent two written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie being the best in the series. Their commitment to in-camera stunts and sophisticated action set pieces that put the focus on Cruise doing dazzling feats, however, feels even more vital now than then, as action sequences costing tens of millions of dollars, with digitized superhero sprites fighting hordes of animated robots, has come to dominate multiplexes more than ever before.

By contrast, Cruise’s memories about the difficulties of shooting the vault scene in 1996 are illuminating.

“I wasn’t really balanced that well [in the air],” Cruise said in a junket interview at the time. “So there were a few times where you hit the ground and you’re holding that position. It was exhausting. Brian was ready to finally say, ‘Okay, I’m going to have to divide this into two different shots.’” Today, it’d be worse: they’d say they could do it all on a computer. Yet it was Cruise’s idea (at least by how he tells it) to turn his body into a proverbial scale, and use British currency coins as his counterweights.

“I had them hook me up, hang me, put a couple of pounds in each shoe to balance myself, because I kept falling and smacking my head on the floor,” Cruise said. “I couldn’t balance it, physically. Finally, when we did it and I got the balance right… it worked, and Brian just left me hanging there just to get all of it. We had three different cameras going.”

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Cruise and his director ended up skipping lunch that day so they could get every shot they needed of Ethan hanging over the pressure sensitive floor, operating the computer terminal, and even catching that lonely bead of sweat. The insistence by the star and director to get it in camera, to the point where Cruise was carrying a few quid in each boot, was a rarity then and is nearly unheard of now.

Here’s to hoping that Cruise work ethic, which carried him from that vault to genuinely scaling the world’s largest building in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, never touches the floor.

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