Pulling Off the Perfect Heist With 'Mission: Impossible'

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This video essay takes a look at the different applications of the heist genre in the ‘Mission: Impossible’ series.

So Mission: Impossible – Fallout was pretty great, right? While you wait anxiously for the next installment, why not check out this video essay from Lessons from the Screenplay about the different ways in which the Mission: Impossible movies approach their heists? Spoilers for the recently released Fallout will also follow.

If you have any interest in screenwriting, Lessons from the Screenplay is absolutely the video essayist for you. His videos reflect an extensive knowledge of how scripts translate to the screen and are a valuable resource for any budding writer.

And in his latest video, he explores the series’ approach to the heist, comparing Brian De Palma‘s Mission: Impossible to Rogue Nation. As the video says, both films build up to their respective heists using the classic tropes– putting the team together, laying out the goals and obstacles, etc. But it’s in the planning stage that the two films diverge.

In Rogue Nation, Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) must infiltrate an underwater security system to enable Simon Pegg‘s Benji to safely steal information on the Syndicate from a highly guarded facility. The film lets us in on every detail of the plan, guiding us through what each member of the team has to do.

Director Christopher McQuarrie even visualizes the characters brainstorming the plan, showing various iterations where it all goes horribly wrong. And the fact that we do eventually see what the success of the plan looks like makes it all the more thrilling when everything goes sideways. Which of course, it does, putting us on the edge of our seats as allegiances shift and our heroes are forced to improvise.

McQuarrie would later repeat this trick in Fallout, with much darker results. In the new movie, Ethan has to work with the bad guys in order to capture Sean Harris‘ Solomon Lane. This leads to an incredibly bleak visualized planning sequence, showing Ethan and company gunning down police officers. Of course, Ethan finds another way, but the way in which McQuarrie spins what was previously a fairly lighthearted scene into something so dark is extremely effective. And plays into one of the movie’s most important ideas, that Ethan refuses to let innocent people die.

Mission: Impossible, on the other hand, takes a different approach. In the film’s iconic Langley break-in, Ethan must covertly sneak into the CIA headquarters to acquire the NOC list. As with Rogue Nation, the script goes to great lengths ensuring that we understand the obstacles, but in Mission: Impossible the plan isn’t revealed until it’s already in motion.

The excitement here comes from seeing what the team has cooked up as it unfolds, which is of course aided by De Palma’s excellent direction. Ensuring that we’re clearly following each stage of the action. However, De Palma’s film does feature a “tour of the facility” sequence of its own, in which we see the day to day workings of the building.

Much like with Rogue Nation, this is a great way to communicate the stakes to the viewer, without simply explaining them to us. While also ensuring that we’re completely aware of what the team is up against, even if we aren’t yet sure of how exactly they’re going to pull it off. However, unlike Rogue NationMission: Impossible‘s tour gives nothing away, keeping us guessing until Ethan drops down from the ceiling.

Now each of these is a valid approach, both reflecting the respective filmmakers. While the original movie was aiming more for classic spy thriller territory, Rogue Nation is an all-out summer blockbuster. It makes sense then, that the audience would be more clued into what’s going on in the latter, while the former is far less interested in how much the viewer is following along.

The video also digs into how the character dynamics can be explored through a heist. In both films, Ethan is forced to work with a “fake-ally opponent,” whose loyalty is put to the test. With tensions high in a heist, our characters naturally begin to show themselves in new ways, with no better example being Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) saving, then quickly betraying Ethan after Rogue Nation‘s heist.

A similar scenario again shows up in one of Fallout‘s most memorable scenes. After a chase, Ethan and the team are faced with a difficult scenario. They’ve been caught bundling Lane into a car by a police officer, who’s then shot by the bad guys Ethan is supposed to be working with. The already shaky alliance is put to the test, as Ethan reveals his true colors, shooting the villains to save the police officer. Highlighting the type of changing dynamics through action that McQuarrie excels at.

The heist genre is obviously a very versatile one, open to re-working and being adapted to different filmmakers’ sensibilities. And this video lays out how both of these films creatively twist the conventions of the heist to make for a thrilling mid-movie set piece. Both of which change up the character dynamics and push the stories into exciting new places.

Sometimes knows what he's talking about.