Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, and the history of the Hollywood set piece

mission impossible dead reckoning train set piece
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Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out this week, and in the last half hour, everything blows up. But when did we start doing that – and why?

Unless you’ve spent the year living under the rock he jumped off, you’ll know that in the new Mission: Impossible, Tom Cruise rides a motorbike off a cliff. Six times, apparently.

Don’t worry, we’re told he’s fine. Remarkable, really, considering that’s not even the last big stunt he gets up to in the film. You’d think that after parachuting into a Norwegian canyon he’d at least have earned a lie down.

It’s a stunt that’s formed the main focus of Dead Reckoning’s marketing, and for good reason – it’s a very impressive piece of work. It also comes at a time when, as if in response to the superhero-CGI boom, big, practical set pieces are having a bit of a comeback.

Cruise himself is leading the charge, of course; Top Gun: Maverick earned near-universal adoration for strapping its young cast into fighter jets at every opportunity. But Cruise is far from alone.

Look at John Wick: Chapter 4. That’s chock-full of very painful-looking fight choreography, culminating in Keanu Reeves taking a bit of a tumble down the Montmartre stairs. Surprisingly, even Avatar: The Way of Water, through a fusion of performance-capture and very tight editing, packs its last hour with an impressive number of thrills rooted somewhere in reality.

john wick 4 car scene

credit: Lionsgate

Mission: Impossible, of course, has a bit of history with this sort of thing. Ever since the first film ended by plonking Tom Cruise on top of a real bullet train, the franchise has seemed more and more intent on upsetting Paramount’s insurance department with every instalment.

And he’s not the only one. Big, practical set pieces have been part of the Hollywood landscape since the beginning. Buster Keaton, who Cruise has often cited as a defining influence on his latter-career shift to masochistic stunt-actor, soared to stardom as a peddler of inventive (and dangerous) spectacle.

From the infamous “stand still while we drop a house on you” moment from 1928’s Steamboat Bill Jr. to a death-defying waterfall rescue which apparently knocked him unconscious in 1923’s Our Hospitality, Keaton built a career out of doing mad things in front of a camera for our amusement.

Though Keaton is rightly seen as a pioneer of stuntcraft, he was still very much a product of his time. The silent and early-talkie era was positively packed with stunts, slapstick and set pieces, from the comparatively tame physical comedy bits of Laurel and Hardy to Harold Lloyd’s famous wall-climbing in Safety Last.

harold lloyd safety last set piece

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last

Almost by accident, Keaton, Chaplin and the other stars of the silent movie had invented a uniquely cinematic new phenomenon. Taking all the death-defying excitement promised by a particularly daring circus show and combining it with the odd spot of camera trickery meant Hollywood was the place to go to see genuinely astounding feats of nerve and physics, the kind of thing that made audiences say “did you see the bit when…” with astonished glee. They’d invented, in other words, the set piece.

Of course, cinematic tastes change, and as the 1930s fell into the rearview mirror, the biggest films coming out of the studio system were more likely to feature set piece musical numbers than stunt performers dangling under stagecoaches.

That’s not to say the spectacle wasn’t just as important, though. Donald O’Connor’s frenetic performance of ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ in 1953’s Singin’ in the Rain remains just as impressive now as Keaton jumping out of a collapsing automobile.

But for a set piece requiring less athletic derring-do and more technical wizardry, look no further than the disaster movie boom kick-started by Airport and The Poseidon Adventure in the early seventies. The latter had crews build a full-scale replica of the dining hall of the Queen Mary cruise liner, which was then inverted to allow stunt performers to dangle precariously from tables and chairs for the infamous capsizing sequence.

dark knight truck flip set piece

The Dark Knight, 2008 (credit: Warner Bros.)

Though Jackie Chan had a bloody good go at it in the eighties with films like Police Story and Project A, the full collaboration of stunt and spectacle to make the modern set piece would have to wait until visual effects let us take the ropes out of things. The nineties saw Cruise skip onto the action scene with the first Mission: Impossible, while The Matrix is still a fine example of combining stuntwork with CGI to make some blistering final-act sequences.

As with all Hollywood trends, though, the prevalence of big, singular moments like these in cinema comes and goes. Christopher Nolan remains a big fan of practical, disaster-movie-level stunts like the truck flip in The Dark Knight, or even crashing a real passenger plane in Tenet. As technology has improved, though, there has been a bit of a tendency to outsource the physical side of spectacle to the wizards in the computer lab.

A couple of recent successes, though, suggest that could be about to change. With the visual effects industry reportedly suffering under the volume of work being sent their way, there’s every chance that Tom Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie could be leading the revival of the physical set piece. With studios still desperately searching for ways to get people back into cinemas, a bit of good old-fashioned spectacle could be just the ticket.

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is in cinemas now.

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