That’s Not Impossible: The Burj Khalifa in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
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.
Often considered one of the best action movies of the 2010s, Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol gave a shot of adrenaline to Tom Cruise’s spy series. Mission: Impossible III became the lowest grossing film in the franchise, but Paramount Pictures was enthusiastic about future installments. The studio hired animation auteur Brad Bird off his success with Pixar, including The Incredibles and Ratatouille. And in his live-action debut, the filmmaker brought a kinetic energy with beautifully choreographed and staged set pieces. The centerpiece of the film is Tom Cruise climbing the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Not only is it the most exciting sequence in the film, it has become a defining moment for the iconic franchise.
According to the behind-the-scenes material, the studio had to get permission to drill holes and break windows, in order to get Tom Cruise and the cameras out on the building. They consulted with professional climbers and stuntmen, architects, and engineers to reassure everyone that the stunt would be performed safely and responsibly. The filming would be slowed down due to the helicopters only being able to be in the air for a half hour at a time. The sequence was shot with IMAX cameras, and those burn through film quickly, reloading the film also added time to the shoot. While the film shows Ethan Hunt free climbing, in reality Tom Cruise had to be harnessed, but the strain of that cut off his circulation. His legs would go numb after a while, so he had to be quick as well. Brad Bird admitted that coordinating all this was difficult, but he and his crew tried to be calm and let it the sequence play out.
Tom Cruise is nothing if not professional. Driven by his love for making movies and performing these wild, insane stunts, he seems so game for anything and yet totally Zen about it all. Whether or not he was terrified, he seems so in the zone. He had to be quick, putting in a performance as Ethan Hunt while also climbing the world’s tallest building. It’s insane. But I don’t get the feeling that Cruise is a daredevil idiot. He seems prepared and intelligent, surrounding himself with professionals and experts to help him perform the scene.
What I love about the Burj Khalifa climb is that the climb itself is the obstacle. It’s such a simply designed scene: they have to get to some servers and can only get in from the outside. Even if the audience knows that Hunt has to survive the climb, the sequence is just beautifully performed by all involved, and it’s remarkably tense. Tom Cruise jumping out of the window then running vertically down the building is just genius stuff. Then, seeing his team trying to pull him back inside is incredible. The tension relief after Hunt is safe is completely earned. Then Simon Pegg comes in, after completing his part of the mission, saying “That was not easy, but I did it.” It’s a really funny line and a great button to this jaw-dropping scene.
Brad Bird and his crew watched the dailies, and even then they knew they had something special. Doing the stunts practically, on the building itself, provided so many details that could not be reproduced. The cars on the road reflected in the windows (imagine driving in Dubai and not knowing that Tom Cruise is risking his life thousands of feet above you). The potential threat of the sandstorm. The jolt of every slipped hand. You feel like you’re watching it in real time, even seven years later. I regret not seeing Ghost Protocol in IMAX back in 2011. I saw it first on DVD and have only seen it on home video since. Even on a smaller screen, the Burj Khalifa climb holds up as a classic stunt sequence. If this movie doesn’t give you vertigo or anxiety, man, I salute you.