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 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 going to Dubai and climbing on the face of the world’s tallest building; 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. It’s not as flashy, certainly, but in a way, it’s 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.
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 tonal and literal suspense. They also have 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.
“How to Jump From a Building Into a Dumpster” is one of the extreme procedures detailed in a small 1999 volume titled The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook, by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht. The contents are based on expert input, though the book is officially classified as “humor.” 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; if anyone can land correctly, it’s obviously him. Yet who would count on a dumpster outside a hospital to contain the right type of trash? Ethan glances uneasily at Sidorov, who gestures invitingly toward the dumpster: Be my guest. Shirtless, barefoot, breathing raggedly, Ethan looks down … and, for the first time since we’ve known him, decides that he doesn’t like his chances. Defeated, he begins inching back toward Sidorov and captivity.
Then comes the electric punchline. A passing delivery van; a quick calculation—and Ethan, leaping from the building, finds a way to street level almost as preposterous as Hanaway’s. The differences, though, are crucial: Ethan is anxious and desperate, and he doesn’t quite (as they say in gymnastics) stick the landing. Throwing his belt over a power line, Ethan ziplines down to meet the delivery van—but when he lets go, he topples off the van and tumbles heavily to the cobblestones. Sidorov, fortunately, is almost as stunned as Ethan recovers, enough to scramble to his feet and dash around a corner.
What the “Mission: Impossible” series discovers at this moment is this: Imperfect stunts can be more thrilling than perfect ones.