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The Best Mission: Impossible Action Sequences, Ranked

Photo-Illustration: Vulture. Photos: Paramount Pictures; Murray Close/Getty Images

Through the myriad tonal shifts and personnel changes of the Mission: Impossible films, one element has remained consistent: the power of its self-contained action sequences. Some are distinguished by their intricate disguises, miraculous computer work, and split-second timing; others are noteworthy for what can only be described as the death wish of producer-star Tom Cruise, whose dangerous stunt work and on-set injuries have become as much a part of the series’s promotional lore as in the golden age of Jackie Chan.

With the series’s seventh installment, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One, in theaters, we revisited the entire series to select the absolute best of its big set pieces so far.

12. Rome car chase, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One

Even when a Mission: Impossible movie indulges in what seems like a typical action sequence — in this case, our intrepid hero, Ethan Hunt (Cruise), and his reluctant ally, Grace (Hayley Atwell), leading cops, killers, and spooks on a car chase through the streets and stairways of Rome — the filmmakers will throw in a clever change-up to turn a familiar situation into something new. Here, they give us two: Grace is a thief, not a stunt driver, so she’s a lot more dangerous behind the wheel than Ethan is (his nervous instructions are a comic highlight), and they change vehicles mid-scene, from a standard police car to a comically small yellow Fiat, which also creates a striking contrast to the oversize, tanklike Land Rover that’s in hot pursuit. And while the sequence is wisely played mostly for laughs, director Christopher McQuarrie (helming his third M:I picture) uses breathless cutting and camerawork to give it the thrilling, ground-level intensity of similar scenes in Ronin and The Bourne Identity.

11. Paris chase, Mission: Impossible — Fallout

In the kind of double-twist false identity setup that the M:I series does so well, Mr. Hunt must masquerade as a dangerous international criminal and lead a mission to break another dangerous international criminal out of a tightly controlled police motorcade. He’s presented with a plan, which involves a lot of casualties, so he comes up with an alternative. McQuarrie uses gliding camerawork and razor-sharp cutting to heighten the excitement of Hunt’s improvisation, which results in a car-and-truck chase down the very narrow streets of Paris, followed by some white-knuckle motorcycle work by Cruise; his ride through a roundabout, seemingly sliding within inches of dozens of other vehicles, is truly terrifying.

10. Bridge ambush, Mission: Impossible III

J.J. Abrams’s third installment seems to take genuine pleasure in deflating the achievements of its baroque set pieces — the extraction of Agent Farris (Keri Russell) goes like gangbusters, yet she dies during the getaway, and though Ethan and his team pull one of their most elaborate ruses to kidnap super-villain Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the bad guys manage to steal him right back in this breathtaking sequence. Abrams, meanwhile, puts any questions of his big-screen bona fides to rest, throwing in choppers, explosions, gunplay, void leaps, and a Cruise fast-run that’s exhilaratingly interrupted.

9. Motorcycle chase/beach fight, Mission: Impossible II

John Woo’s 2000 sequel is widely acknowledged as the least successful film in the series, and it’s hard not to agree — the pacing is choppy, the villain is weak, and there’s a sense, in some of the action scenes, that Woo is just going through the two-gun motions (though, to be fair, they’re still pretty entertaining). But his climactic action sequence is energetically bonkers, tossing aside all precepts of logic and physics in pursuit of a cool visual, and there are plenty of them: Hunt shoots a guy off of a flying motorcycle, rides away from flames in slow motion, and executes a move where he pulls a front wheelie, spins around, shoots a pursuing car’s gas tank, and flips it. Even better, his pursuit of villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) culminates in an honest-to-God motorcycle joust, in which each man leaps from his bike in midair (leaving the bikes to crash into each other and, obviously, explode) so they can engage in a fierce bout of hand-to-hand combat on a conveniently handy beach. To be clear, it’s ridiculous. But it’s a lot of fun.

8. Underwater chip exchange, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation

The best of the IMF operation sequences tend to follow a particular pattern. First, we marvel at the clockwork efficiency of the team’s planning and execution, as everything seems to fall into place. Then, we share in their horror as it all goes down the tubes, thanks to an unexpected complication or the failure of a piece of technology. And then we can gasp at the cleverness with which they improvise their way out of it. That’s certainly the construction of this tip-top sequence in 2015’s Rogue Nation, in which Benji (Simon Pegg) attempts to infiltrate a high-security computer lab as Ethan and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) perform a complicated swap-out maneuver in an underwater computer facility (sure, that’s a thing) that will enable Benji’s entrance. And then — well, as Ilsa puts it, “No no no no no no no.” Cruise reportedly held his breath for six full minutes during the shooting of the scene, and that’s the kind of wide-eyed promotional tidbit that, if it’s not true, should be.

7. Kremlin infiltration, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol

The mission is simple: retrieve a file from an archive room. The (to put it mildly) highly secure location is what makes it impossible. The setup recalls the Langley heist in the first Mission: Impossible (see below), and Ghost Protocol director Brad Bird certainly seems to have studied the earlier sequence, borrowing its patient approach and risky but wildly effective decision to forgo musical underscoring. The central device, a projection screen that hides Hunt and Benji from the eyes of the archive’s security guard, is jaw-dropping in its ingenuity — and the source of a huge laugh, when Benji’s big ol’ face unexpectedly splashes across the screen. Pegg’s presence is the primary addition here, and it’s a good one; Benji’s nerves, and his enthusiasm about working with Hunt (“It’s a bit of a dream for me!”) adds a welcome bit of human interest and comic relief to the sequence.

6. Vatican extraction, Mission: Impossible III

Swiping arms dealer Owen Davian isn’t an easy job — he’s rarely seen in public, and never without his security detail — so Ethan and the IMF team determine their one shot will come during a benefit at the Vatican. This requires the team to sneak in surreptitiously (or, in the case of Maggie Q, glide in with all eyes on her), make a mask of Davian’s face, and knock him out in the bathroom so Ethan can replace him. There’s much to love about this one: the way Ethan repels in, arms out, a la the Langley heist; the tick-tock precision of their arrivals and disguises; the logistical details (for the first time, we see how they make those magnificent masks). But the cherry on top is the deadpan exchange between Ethan and Luther (Ving Rhames) at its conclusion: “What’s up?” “Nothin’. What’s up with you?” “Nothin’.” All in a day’s work.

5. Train climax, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One

As you can guess from the title, Dead Reckoning Part One is a “to be continued” situation, so one can only imagine the glee with which McQuarrie and his team crafted a literal cliffhanger for the climax. It’s a killer set piece even before that, and also feels like a mulligan for the dud train climax of the first film (a movie that Dead Reckoning seems especially connected to, as seen in the return of Henry Czerny’s Kittridge). That sequence, criminal considering the eventual direction of the franchise, looks laughably fake, sunk by not-ready-for-prime-time CGI; this one, to put it mildly, does not look fake. Cruise, making like McQueen in The Great Escape, rides a motorcycle off a mountain so he can parachute across a valley onto a moving train, making his entrance with the split-second timing of a great silent comedian; the top-of-the-train fistfight that follows feels genuinely scary. But that’s all just a warm-up for the agonizingly drawn-out cliffhanger, which is just one damn crazy thing after another, an expert filmmaker both thrilling us and winking at us all at once.

4. Vienna Opera House, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation

McQuarrie pays elegant homage to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much with this marvelous mid-movie sequence, in which Hunt and Benji attempt to foil the assassination of a head of state, a mission complicated considerably by Ilsa, whose motivations and allegiances are still unclear. Cruise leaps across ropes and fights in catwalks, Ferguson dominates some of the sexiest images of the franchise, and Pegg again provides ample comic relief from the lighting booth, and while some of the most memorable Mission sequences make artful use of silence, McQuarrie masterfully orchestrates the events to the music onstage (Puccini’s “Turandot”) to give the scene a properly operatic feel.

3. Kashmir climax, Mission: Impossible — Fallout

The top picks here may be more elegant or more daring, but nothing has yet topped the sheer holy shit they’re doing THAT quality of the sixth film’s closing stretch, which includes a helicopter chase, mountain climbing, and not one but two ticking bombs. It’s the series’s most delightfully over-the-top set piece to date, and the sheer relentlessness of the sequence, the manner in which McQuarrie cheerfully keeps piling on complications, stretching out time, and turning the entire situation upside down, becomes an act of sly self-awareness. They know what we’re expecting out of the franchise by now, and they’ll be damned if they’re not going to give us our money’s worth.

2. Langley heist, Mission: Impossible

“Relax, Luther,” Ethan says with a smile. “It’s much worse than you think.” And indeed it is — getting to the file they need from CIA headquarters requires voice ID, changing numerical codes, a double electronic key card, and a retinal scan, all to get into a secure room with heightened sound and temperature sensitivity. And so Hunt is lowered in, by rope from an air duct (an homage to the classic ’60s heist picture Topkapi), in what’s really the opposite of what we think of as an “action sequence”: There’s no gunplay, no explosions, no fisticuffs, and no pounding score to juice up the excitement. In fact, director Brian De Palma’s decision to play the sequence in total silence makes it more involving for the viewer; it’s so quiet, and the stakes are so high, the audience is afraid to make a sound as well. De Palma, playing his audience like a piano (as his hero Alfred Hitchcock used to say), stretches the suspense as far as he can, snaking in to tight close-ups of Ethan’s rope, Jean Reno’s hands, that single bead of sweat — and then the rat shows up.

1. Burj Khalifa climb, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

The camera circles it lovingly, like the phallic object it most certainly is: the Burj Khalifa, the Dubai skyscraper that stands a mind-boggling 2,722 feet, and the setting for the series’s best single sequence (so far). In order to pull off an elaborate double-deception, the team has to access the building’s server, and as Benji explains, “We can get to it from the outside.” And thus Tom Cruise, one of the biggest stars in the world, goes out the damn window and climbs 11 stories on the outside of the tallest building in the world, using only a pair of climbing gloves (one of which fails almost immediately). In this tight-fisted scene, director Brad Bird has our hero both engaging in a horrifyingly dangerous stunt and racing a ticking clock to their targets’ “door knock” (“The countdown is not helping!” he notes), forced to cut and then kick through glass, finally resorting to running down the building before leaping into an open window. Full disclosure: this viewer saw Ghost Protocol on a giant IMAX screen, and suffers from a pretty severe case of vertigo, so that might’ve made the experience a bit more vivid. But that caveat aside, the Burj Khalifa (and the fights, shoot-outs, sandstorm, and high-speed running that follow) is everything you want from a Mission: Impossible movie: death-defying stunt work and ingenious improvisation, played with tension, wit, and precision.

HONORABLE MENTION: Prague embassy mission goes sideways (Mission: Impossible); Atrium dive (Mission: Impossible II); Berlin extraction, Shanghai skyscraper climb (Mission: Impossible III); Moscow jailbreak, Mumbai takedown, robotic parking garage fight (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol); Airplane jump, Morocco car/motorcycle chase (Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation); Halo jump, bathroom fight, Paris rooftop pursuit (Mission: Impossible – Fallout); Abu Dhabi airport interception, Venice knife-and-sword fights (Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One).

The Best Mission: Impossible Action Sequences, Ranked