That's Not Impossible: The Vault in Mission: Impossible
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.
There are two stunts that everyone thinks about when they think about Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, the film that launched one of the most enduring and successful action franchises, and they are the Langley Vault sequence and the Bullet Train sequence. Given that this series of articles is primarily about the stunts that Tom Cruise performed himself, it felt fitting to focus on the Vault which is probably still the most well known sequence of the series. The intense and visually dynamic sequence is a benchmark for spy films, and the perfect place to start this series.
From the opening sequence, the paranoia is palpable in Mission: Impossible. After his team is quickly eliminated, Ethan must assemble a group of two disavowed IMF agents to secure a NOC-list (a file that contains the identity of every undercover IMF agent) before it falls into the hands of a yet unknown force. And, since the mission needs to be “impossible” the list is of course located at the CIA headquarters in Langley in an impenetrable hi-tech vault. The slow burn tension builds to a fever pitch and culminates in this heist.
The vault has audio sensors, preventing Hunt from using an electric winch to be lowered in to retrieve the file, and heat sensors requiring Hunt to maintain as low a heart rate as is possible. Which means that Hunt must completely trust in Kreiger (Jean Reno), a man who is inherently untrustworthy, to keep him from falling and triggering the alarm all while not being too stressed out. All of this would be pointless without getting the analyst who is always present to leave the vault. Through cross-cutting between the various levels of the heist, De Palma uses his Hitchcock influences to maximum effect in this sequence as he ratchets up the tension until it’s almost too much to bear, and then keeps pushing.
Considering the point in Cruise’s career when Mission: Impossible was released, it’s probably safe to assume that Cruise training for and executing this stunt himself (for the most part) is when he caught the bug of stunt performance. The celebrated sequence is made to look easy thanks to the expertise of De Palma, cinematographer Stephen H. Burum, and stunt coordinator Gary Powell, but it is no easy task even for a veteran stunt performer. In order to pull off the shots De Palma envisioned it needed to be Cruise, and Cruise was excited at the opportunity to test himself.
To pull off the moves we see in this sequence while being suspended from the ceiling on a wire takes excellent muscle controls and considerable core strength, and on top of the physical demands he has to portray the alternating calm and stress Ethan is experiencing in the scene. When Hunt is dropped and caught right before hitting the vault floor, they are actually dropping Cruise. Meaning that if during the filming the stunt crew drops him a fraction of an inch too low, he could be seriously hurt. Obviously this is not the most complex or dangerous stunt of the series in retrospect but it’s no less impressive and exciting.
All the spectacular death defying stunts in the world are meaningless without stakes and drama crafted by the artists utilizing them. Cruise and Paula Wagner understand this, as do each director they brought on to the M:I films and that’s why the series has endured for nearly a quarter of a century. Brian De Palma was the ideal choice to kick it all off and the paranoid thriller vibe he excels at is something that has carried over to each new installment. And “The Vault” is such a perfect sequence that it surely pushes each filmmaker to try and match it.