Ethan Hunt’s second act and Tom Cruise’s third: The unending impossible mission

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If there’s a “before” and “after” in the Mission: Impossible franchise, an obvious dividing point is the Burj Khalifa. This now-iconic sequence in the fourth film, 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, revolutionized the series around spectacular set pieces centered on Tom Cruise actually performing jaw-dropping, death-defying practical stunts on location. By contrast, in 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, when Ethan Hunt needed to access the roof of a heavily guarded Shanghai skyscraper, while Cruise really did the swing and the wirework the stunt called for, he did it on a stage with green screens, not in the steel and glass canyons of Shanghai. What set the bar for the future was actually going to Dubai and climbing on the face of the Burj Khalifa; every subsequent big set piece, from clinging for dear life to the fuselage of an ascending turboprop military aircraft to riding a motorcycle over the edge of a cliff, has sought to clear or even raise that bar.

However, there’s an even more crucial before-and-after moment in Ghost Protocol, some 20-odd minutes before the Burj Khalifa sequence: not as flashy, certainly, but in a way just as momentous. The scene finds Ethan on a fourth-story ledge of a hospital building in Moscow, looking down into a roll-off dumpster. It was here that I first realized that I was seeing something new — something that would ultimately mark the beginning of Ethan Hunt’s second act, and of Tom Cruise’s third.

It is reportedly “entirely possible to survive a high fall (five stories or more) into a Dumpster, provided it is filled with the right type of trash (cardboard boxes are best) and you land correctly.” Ethan is only on the fourth story, and obviously if anyone can land correctly, it’s him. Yet who would count on a dumpster outside a hospital to contain the right type of trash?

The first three Mission: Impossible movies all have memorable set pieces and images, above all the iconic CIA vault sequence in the inaugural 1996 Brian De Palma film: a nail-biting tour de force of both tonal and literal suspense. They also have, for me, significant drawbacks, varying as much as the styles of their very different directors — but one limitation common to them all. In the early films, we see Ethan leap from an exploding helicopter to a bullet train in a tunnel, jump from one face of a red sandstone tower to another while free soloing, and yo-yo over the exterior wall of Vatican City. What we never see before that hospital ledge, though, is Ethan blink in the face of a death-defying challenge. 

Ghost Protocol actually opens with another Impossible Missions Force agent, Hanaway, leaping off a rooftop and executing a series of midair maneuvers so outrageous, with such all-in-a-day’s-work panache, that, watching for the first time, I resigned myself to two hours of casually weightless cartoon superheroics. When Hanaway is murdered moments later, the sudden reversal feels like rapid-fire moves in a game of speed chess — a feeling that persists as Ethan winds up hospitalized, handcuffed, and guarded by a Russian intelligence agent named Sidorov, only to escape the cuffs using a paper clip and, Batman-like, vanish from the hospital ward within seconds. Until, that is, Sidorov leans out the window and incredulously spots Ethan on a ledge, wearing only torn slacks, looking down at a dumpster dozens of feet below.

Action, Mission: Impossible, Spy vs. Spy