Mission Impossible’s most iconic scene almost didn’t work
Every week we take a look at a classic movie that’s endured in the cultural landscape, and remember why we were all so obsessed with it in the first place, and why it’s worth another look today
If Tom Cruise’s team is to be believed, the only reason the superstar skipped the Oscars earlier this week was because of production issues on Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part Two.
While speculation swirls Cruise’s no-show was more related to the fact he wasn’t nominated in the acting categories and that Top Gun: Maverick, for which he was nominated as a producer, was not expected to win, the mooted story almost holds.
It’s semi-plausible because Cruise has built a reputation as being ridiculously devoted to his films, especially the Mission Impossible ones.
He does his own highly ambitious and increasingly outlandish stunts. He understands that the enormous spectacle of hanging off the side of a plane, climbing up skyscrapers or halo-jumping out of a plane is what seduces audiences into cinemas.
Given what the Mission Impossible franchise has become, it’s easy to forget that’s not exactly where the franchise started in 1996 when director Brian De Palma spun a paranoid spy thriller out of the popular 1960s TV procedural.
If you’re doing the maths, yes, Cruise will have played Ethan Hunt for 28 years by the time the eighth and final instalment is released into cinemas mid-next year.
Think about that for a hot minute. When you first watched Cruise dangling from that ceiling, sweat dripping down his face and about to set off the censors on the ground, John Howard had been elected only two months earlier, everyone was freaking out about Mad Cow Disease and Cruise was still married to Nicole Kidman.
One thing that hasn’t changed from De Palma’s first instalment to the eighth, helmed by Christopher McQuarrie, who has been on the franchise since the fifth movie, is the propensity to start with the stunts and set-pieces and then work backwards to the actual script.
McQuarrie had previously revealed the team started rolling the cameras on Fallout (number six) without a script, merely an outline. The working relationship between McQuarrie and Cruise is such that sometimes the actor tells the filmmaker what stunts he’s interested in trying and McQuarrie writes around those desires.
That philosophy clearly started early, with De Palma’s movie. Cruise said in a video interview to mark the 25th anniversary that De Palma pitched him two very clear ideas, now the film’s most iconic sequences – the CIA vault heist and the climactic train set-piece – and later worked out how to fit them into a story that wasn’t yet on the page.
Cruise recalled when De Palma raised the ideas, “I remember the train. He was like, ‘I wanna do a train’ and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s fantastic’. And so, how do we do it? How are we going to shoot this thing?
“And we didn’t have the story – surprise! – and we were like, ‘This is a cool idea, how do we, what could happen, what shots? He would set up shots and then we would go back and work on the story, who would be in it and then go back and forth.”
Cruise also recounted how De Palma called Cruise while the A-lister was stuck in traffic in Japan, and pitched him that intense CIA vault scene – “This movie is really cool, this guy is brilliant. It was a phenomenal idea”.
But when it came to shooting it, it wasn’t working – gravity can really work against you – and Cruise kept faceplanting on the floor on every take.
Cruise explained in another 25th anniversary video that they were running out of time before they had to move on, so he went up to the stunt guys to ask for coins to stuff into his shoes to recalibrate the balance.
De Palma gave Cruise one more take, and Cruise replied he was confident it would work this time.
“I said, ‘I can do it’. It was very physical, like straining, and I’m going it. So I went down, starting at the computer, went all the way down to the floor and I didn’t touch it. And I was holding it, holding it, holding it. I’m sweating and he just keeps rolling.
“And I just hear him off-camera and when he laughs, it makes me laugh, I could just hear him start to howl and he goes, ‘Alright, cut’.”
Still, not every light bulb moment ended up being the right idea.
Mission Impossible originally had a different beginning and it was cinema legend and De Palma’s friend George Lucas who told him to scrap it.
De Palma told the Light the Fuse podcast in 2021 that Lucas had seen an early cut and berated him for not having enough set-up.
“When George saw Mission Impossible, you know he said, ‘There’s no set-up to this thing, you’ve got to set this thing up! You’re going to do this, you’re going to do that, you’ve got to have that scene where that scene where they’re all sitting around the table and everybody gets their instructions about what’s going to happen.”
The original start was scene involving jealous tension between Ethan Hunt and Jim and Claire Phelps, the married spy characters portrayed by Jon Voight and Emmanuelle Beart. Even De Palma now conceded it was a “very strange scene”.
Following Lucas’ advice, De Palma went back with the cast to reshoot the beginning.
While Mission Impossible clearly proved its enduring power, there were at least two salty critics – Peter Graves and Greg Morris, who starred in the original TV series.
Graves played the TV version of Phelps, who remained a do-gooder to the end, and took umbrage with how they changed the character for the film. Morris was even more scathing in his indictment when asked if he seen the movie. “I left early,” he told AP. “It’s an abomination.”
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