That's Not Impossible: The Motorcycle Fight in Mission: Impossible II
Fair or not, the one thing the Mission: Impossible series is known for above all else is the exhilarating action sequences, the lion’s share of which are done as practically as possible. As the series has progressed, so has Tom Cruise’s commitment to performing these stunts himself - with the assistance of an army of stunt coordinators, technicians, and performers on hand. Cruise has become a bonafide stuntman on top of being one of the most charismatic movie stars working today. So with Mission: Impossible - Fallout releasing this week, the TFS staff has decided to focus in on the most iconic and impressive stunt of each film.
What I’ve always admired most about the Mission: Impossible series is its willingness to change, to not merely follow a pattern but to be mercurial, and nowhere is that more immediately apparent than in the divisive 2000 sequel, Mission: Impossible II. The second entry in the series could have easily rested on its laurels and crafted another fine slow burn spy drama, but things were taken in a new direction so bold that it shaped how the rest of the series would play out, introducing a few new characters who would be series mainstays and fully establishing that this series could be drastically altered based on whoever was behind the camera. Not only did director John Woo essentially reinvent the series from the ground up, changing the tone and even the character of Ethan Hunt, it also massively upped the game when it came to the spectacular (largely practical) special effects that the series has become known for.
Perhaps the film’s most famous effect comes within the first five minutes. After a false introduction, Tom Cruise’s iconic character is properly introduced as he’s climbing a massive cliff face on vacation. Cruise is nothing but a speck on this giant mountain in the distance, yet he’s never looked more impressive, performing what may be the most dangerous stunt he’d worked on up to that point. In reality, Cruise was wearing nothing but a thin wire to suspend himself, with no safety net, and refused the usage of a professional rock climber who was on site to perform the climb. In an interview, Woo stated that he was so scared about the stunt, which had to be performed seven times, that he had to look away from the footage as it was being filmed.
But I’m more here to focus on the film’s climactic action scenes, from the bombastic motorcycle chase along the water to the ensuing intense knife fight on the beach. Hunt has captured the only antidote to Chimera virus from rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) and must now outrun Ambrose and make it to Nyah (Thandie Newton) before the virus she’s injected into herself kills her. The volatile space is too dangerous to land the helicopter, so Hunt grabs a nearby Triumph motorcycle and chases after it through a scenic compound full of Ambrose’s goons while the helicopter provides support. Not far behind is Ambrose on a cherry red motorcycle of his own.
Woo films the nearly fifteen minute-long chase and fight scenes with the same elegant poeticism he does for his legendary shootouts. There are larger than life moments, and perfectly timed lulls before more roaring action. Early on, Cruise rides his motorcycle across a flaming bridge, and the action only builds from there as he takes out his pursuers. Set to a remixed version of the Mission: Impossible theme, Cruise does a death defying stoppie right in front of a car, before flipping around and firing a few shots into the gas tank to explode it. To take care of another car, he puts the brakes on to create a cloud of smoke that leads the car into the head of a semi. Rather than simply end the chase by simply getting off the bikes, Woo takes things even further. Finally, Ambrose and Hunt are staring face to face. They rev their engines and joust. Just as they are about to reach each other, they both leap off and collide in the air, a beautifully ludicrous moment that I was shocked to find out was actually performed. Cruise and Scott’s stunt double, William Morts, ran motorcycles into one another, and with the help of a complicated wiring rig, were flung into each other.
After hitting, the two fall far to the ground below and instantly begin to fight. Through frantic editing, great choreography, and foley work, each kick, punch, and tackle has real weight. But the scene’s pièce de résistance comes after a knife has been introduced. Hunt is down, and Ambrose brings the knife down right onto his face, an incredibly scary effect when you consider it’s entirely practical. Scott is actually holding a real, sharpened knife, and brings it down forcefully until it is exactly a quarter-inch from Cruise’s eyeball, stopped only by a cable attached to an overhead bar.
If any one of the cables helping Cruise had failed, he would have died many times over. Whether from falling from the side of a cliff, slamming to the ground after being hoisted high into the air during the motorcycle jump, or from a very real knife plunging through his eyeball. Cruise is truly the most dynamic action performer we have, and his dedication greatly uplifts every project he works on. Regular stunt workers deserve all the credit in the world, but there’s nothing quite like knowing that the person you’ve fallen for over the course of the movie is actually endangering themselves for the benefit of their performance, and doing it incredibly well. Because when Cruise had a piece of sharpened metal flying towards his eyeball? He didn’t even flinch.