Tom Cruise Mission impossible

How to write a scene in an action movie – Mission Impossible

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Who hasn’t dreamt of being the portagonist of an awesome action movie scene? To be hanging from the ceiling in a life or death situation where you can only rely on your skills and hope to get out of there alive. This adrenaline filled scenes are what the Mission Impossible franchise has been giving to its fans since 1996.

With the much anticipated sixth entrance of the franchise, the upcoming “Mission Impossible Fallout”, it’s important to take a moment and remember what made the MI movies a beloved action classic to begin with.

Mission impossible gave us one of the best action movie scenes of our times. Its impressive stunts and extravagant style set it apart from other heist or spy movies.

The first of a fortunate franchise which earned over the years an estimated $159,643,638 according to Box office mojo, it’s a great classic that has entertained its audience with its incredible fights, stunts, intrigues and charming leads.

Mission impossible is structured like a game: the mission (like a level) takes up most of the time and the attention, while the scenes in between (like cutscenes) are used to develop character and advance the narrative.

The movie has 4 main missions:

  1. Retrieving the NOC list in Prague
  2. Ethan going undercover to meet Max
  3. Stealing the real NOC list from the vault
  4. Incriminate Jim and have Max arrested on the train

Each of those mission has a similar structure:

  • a character explains the plan and how the mission is going to be accomplished to another
  • each character takes a specific role in helping the team during the mission
  • the team leaves once the mission is accomplished (or failed)

In this post I want to talk about the iconic action movie scene in the vault and how the writing helps rising tension.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Ethan explains to Franz and Luther how the vault security system works, there are 4 obstacles in their path: the temperature detector, the noise detector, the weight detector and the employee who is in charge.

Informing the audience of the risks that the characters are about to face might seem like a pretty dumb move. Wouldn’t it be better to surprise them by showing a new peril at the last minute? Normally yes, but mission impossible has other plans.

By telling the audience what exactly is the danger of the mission you are “programming” them to expect this danger to occur. It’s the Chekhov’s gun rule: if something particular is shown or mentioned early in the scene, it will have to play a role by the end of the scene.

This is exactly what happens in Mission impossible because as the scene progresses Ethan risks to activate each one of the detectors and to be discovered by the employee.

Unlike in other action movie scenes, that are not specific about the stakes of the situation, here the audience knows exactly what the risks are. So when they see a drop of his sweat almost falling on the floor, they don’t think “Well, he’s sweating a lot” they think “Oh no! He’s about to get caught!”.

Mission

As I said before, the audience is aware of the danger and the traps along the way, what they don’t know is how the heroes are doing to avoid them. Those details will be revealed when the characters take action.

First Ethan and Co manage to sneak into the building by dressing up as firefighters, then they reach the vault through the air vents, and finally Hunt steals the list.

Here the scene relies on tension. It is created by adding layers and layers of increasing danger, to the point where all the risks mentioned above are at their peak.

When Ethan is only a few centimeters above the floor, sweaty and tired; when Franz looks like he can’t hold the rope any longer; when Luther sees the employee going back and forth from the bathroom, that’s the peak. Just one alarm would be enough to have them caught, but now a single mistake could activate them all at once. The stakes are higher and the audience is worried.

After the peak is reached, there is a brief moment of relief, followed by un unexpected fifth risk: Franz’s clumsiness with his knife.

Escape

After the tension filled action scene, the audience needs a moment to relax. So when the heroes manage to leave the CIA headquarters and they are safe and sound, we get a funny scene with Kirtrige furiously ordering to send the employee in Alaska and “Mail him his clothes”.

We might give for discounted that an action movie will be filled with action scenes. But recently the action genre seems to be more focused on spectacular shots of the hero hanging by the tips of his fingers, or incredibly realistic CGI, or cool but confusing camera movement (like Michael Bay’s always spinning camera).

Mission impossible did rely on camera work, technology and Tom Cruise’s famous courage, but the hard work of making people gasp as a knife falls down has been done by the brilliant writing, that turned a simple action movie scene into an all time classic.

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