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The Most Paused Moments In Mission: Impossible Movies

We love the "Mission: Impossible" series. It's an irresistible binge-watch, but as much as we want to race through it, watching one movie right after another, sometimes we just have to hit pause. Certain moments demand additional appreciation — or they at least demand that you turn to whoever you're watching with and say, "Did you just see that?"

And remarkably, the series doesn't just have a lot of must-pause moments, it has a great variety of them. Sure, it's a franchise that's full of breathtaking stunts, but there are also plenty of times when we pause to marvel at the plotting or emotional beats. And these great moments are scattered across every installment in the series, proving that "Mission: Impossible" really doesn't have any duds in its line-up. No matter what movie you settle down with, you're in for a treat.

Our mission was to round up some of our most paused "Mission: Impossible" moments, and needless to say, we chose to accept it.

Breaking news in Mission: Impossible – Fallout

During "Fallout," you might have to pause just because it seems like things have gone irreversibly wrong. Ethan (Tom Cruise) saves Luther's (Ving Rhames) life at the cost of protecting three plutonium cores — and now the villainous Syndicate has everything it needs to construct deadly nuclear bombs.

We then cut to one of the grimmest hospital scenes imaginable, where a stricken Ethan and Luther have to wring information out of an injured Syndicate member. But he's not answering. He's too fixated on the news, where Wolf Blitzer is explaining a string of catastrophic bombings. The Syndicate's destruction is already in play, and their prisoner couldn't be happier about it. All he wants is to have a terrorist manifesto read on the air, and then he's willing to cooperate. Our heroes agree, Blitzer starts reading, and the bad guy gleefully gives them the info they're after, thinking it doesn't matter now anyway.

But it's all a brilliant ruse. The hospital room is a pop-up inside an Impossible Missions Force (IMF) building, the news is fake, and Wolf Blitzer is just Benji (Simon Pegg) finally getting the chance to wear a mask. The reveal is a great moment and a terrific example of how IMF's stunts and masquerades can pay off in ways more traditional methods couldn't. And since we also get briefly fooled into thinking things have gone too wrong to fix, the payoff isn't just satisfying — it's an incredible relief.

So that's how they do that!

The "Mission: Impossible" movies have some amazing technology, from exploding gum to a lock-picking cellphone. But their signature gear is definitely their ultra-convincing masks that allow them to become anyone they want, right down to the voice. By the time we get to "Mission: Impossible III," we've seen plenty of masks, but we haven't seen how it all works. And if you're all process nerds like we are, those details are important. That's why we have to pause when the mask-making techniques finally get revealed in the third movie.

We not only see a mask of Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) being mechanically sculpted and painted, we actually see Ethan putting on the mask. It's almost surreally convincing to see Tom Cruise slowly change into Philip Seymour Hoffman as the mask is donned, pressed into place, and molded around his features. On top of all that, we also see how the voice-changing strip works. He forces Davian to read a few key phrases off a card so that the computer can assemble how he pronounces various sounds, and then this all gets uploaded — with a great and ominous ticking clock as Ethan is forced to fake a coughing fit before "Davian" can answer a question from his bodyguard.

The mask-making process gets spotted in subsequent movies, but we have to give our honorary geek-out pause to the first time we see the magic happen.

U.S.-U.K. relations

Over the years, Ethan Hunt has broken into CIA headquarters and infiltrated the Kremlin. But for unconventional high-stakes audacity — for a move that makes you say, "Did they really just do that?" — it's hard to beat Ethan shooting a hypnotizing tranquilizer dart at the British prime minister (Tom Hollander). It's not even subtle! To be fair, that's where the hypnosis part comes in. They're able to convince the drugged prime minister to accept that he was shot by Atlee (Simon McBurney), the corrupt head of MI6, and that CIA Director Hunley (Alec Baldwin) then saved him.

This is sort of half-true — Ethan's definitely wearing an Atlee mask when he first shoots the prime minister. But he then takes it off right in front of everyone. As Hunley says, he could be setting US-UK relations all the way back to the American Revolution.

Luckily, the real Atlee then arrives, and Ethan and his team are able to get everything on the record, convincing Hunley that there really is a terrorist organization called the Syndicate and that Atlee played a role in creating it and covering it up. It's a bold move, but it yields considerable results. Hunley's so impressed that not only does he accept Ethan's innocence, he also leaves the CIA to come head up the IMF. And thankfully, America and Britain don't wind up at each other's throats.

Smashing up sinks

Multiple movies in, the "Mission: Impossible" series is still turning out must-see scenes. Consider the bathroom fight in "Fallout," which is a pause-worthy brawl if we've ever seen one.

A great movie fight demands a great setting, and director Christopher McQuarrie places this one in a pristine, all-white men's room at a charity event. It's a stark background that showcases the chaos perfectly. You keep feeling like something this brutal couldn't be happening in such a spotless environment. But Ethan, Walker (Henry Cavill), and their target (Liang Yang) — allegedly John Lark, the anarchist point man for the terrorist organization the Syndicate — quickly make the place a lot less neat. They smash sinks and rip pipes out of the wall, and we have to give their target credit. He goes up against two notably skilled opponents and puts up such a good fight that he almost wins.

This scene's combination of an ordinary setting, a definite aesthetic, spectacular action choreography, and some real brutality makes it one of the best and most memorable fights in the whole series. Not a bad laurel to earn over 20 years in.

Mission: Chemistry

The "Mission: Impossible" movies aren't devoid of beauty or sizzling attraction — they love to put their leads in elegantly tailored suits and stunning gowns, for one thing — but romance is often somewhere off to the side. But there are exceptions. The most plot-important romance is definitely Ethan and Julia's marriage, and Tom Cruise and Michelle Monaghan handle that subplot perfectly.

But when it comes to the franchise's sexiest scenes, we still vote for "Mission: Impossible 2." Unfortunately, as Thandiwe Newton revealed to Vulture, the behind-the-scenes process was stressful, but none of that shows in her performance. She and Cruise have terrific chemistry, and Nyah, her alternately tough and vulnerable "master thief with a heart of gold" character, almost feels like a second lead.

Nyah and Ethan get several sexually charged scenes that show off how well "Mission: Impossible" can do romance when it puts its mind to it, but our favorite might be the recruitment car chase that channels their daredevil instincts and ends with Nyah straddling Ethan's lap. Moments like that will make you forget the series is PG-13.

Mission: Impossible is a family affair

The "Mission: Impossible" movies have a lot of little continuity nods. For example, in "Rogue Nation," the whole IMF gets chewed out for some of the property damage incurred in "Ghost Protocol," and even though Ethan's relationship with Julia has ended, it continues to send aftershocks rippling through the series. But most of these acknowledgements are contextualized within the movies themselves. They're just ordinary consequences the characters have to face. But "Fallout" offers a rare reward for longtime fans, and it's a good one that demands an appreciative pause.

One of the series' most memorable antagonists is Vanessa Redgrave's Max, who appears in the first movie. Granted, she's a career arms dealer who attempts to sell the identities of covert operatives to the highest bidder ... but she has a tremendous sense of cool, an amazing screen presence, and a crackling rapport with an undercover Ethan. Unfortunately, she disappears after the first movie.

But an Easter egg in "Fallout" shows that she's still remembered. A so-quick-you-might've-missed-it line reveals that Vanessa Kirby's glamorous, deceptively sweet "White Widow" — another arms dealer — is Max's daughter. Charming villainy and good survival instincts run in the family.

Coolest technology ever

While the "Mission: Impossible" series boasts a lot of great stunts, not all of IMF's best work involves high-stakes acrobatics. We have a definite appreciation for all the series' clever tricks and gadgets, and one of our all-time favorites makes its debut in "Ghost Protocol," when Ethan's IMF team has to sneak into the Kremlin.

At one point, they have to make their way down a hallway with a guard stationed at the other end. There's no place to hide ... or so it seems. Benji has a little device that, like a good ventriloquist, can "throw" sound so that it seems like it's coming from somewhere else. And he simulates the distinctive "plonk" of a plumbing leak until the guard goes to check it out. Then he and Ethan unveil one of the coolest things we've ever seen. It's a movable screen that digitally analyzes what's behind it — on the Ethan-and-Benji side — and seamlessly projects that, minus our heroes. It has to be recalibrated every so often so the hallway doesn't seem like it's getting shorter, but a few more synthetic leaks help out with that. Benji and Ethan are able to silently push it forward in stages, hiding behind it, while the guard looks at them head-on and sees nothing but the projected illusion.

Impossible? Probably. Amazing? Most definitely. And every time we see it, we have to pause to delight over how awesome it is.

In memoriam

Most of these pause-worthy moments are happy ones. But sometimes, taking a moment to celebrate the best the series has to offer is poignant and bittersweet. That's the case when we first see Owen Davian in "Mission: Impossible III."

Davian is one of the series' top villains, a coldly joyless man whose utter lack of interest in anything but power makes him truly terrifying — and an extremely convincing sociopath. Other "Mission: Impossible" bad guys may offer intensity or conviction; Davian just gives off relentlessness. He has no feeling and no chinks in his armor, so there's no way to bargain with him. He wants what he wants, whether that's the mysterious "Rabbit's Foot" or Julia's life.

And every bit of Davian's chilly, unyielding force comes from a spectacular performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. That's why we have to pause. Hoffman's tragic early death in 2014, at only age 46, makes us even more appreciative of all his roles. He was an incredible talent. It's a testament to his powers that when he first shows up, we have to pause to acknowledge how much we miss him — but before long, his character is so firmly established that he seems real in his own right. We start seeing Davian, not Hoffman. That's something only a great actor could ever pull off.

Half-drowned action hero

One of the most underrated aspects of the "Mission: Impossible" series is its sense of humor. It has a keen sense of how absurd — and absurdly awesome — its stunts are, and it gets a lot of good mileage out of characters reacting to, say, Ethan Hunt having to tackle a helicopter. Occasionally, Ethan has to steel himself to do something that's nuts even by his lax standards, and the movies have a lot of fun with that too.

But our favorite comedic moment in the series — the one we have to pause because we can't stop laughing — is in "Rogue Nation." It comes on the heels of a particularly thrilling sequence where Ethan has to free swim — without an oxygen tank — into an underwater computer storage unit. He nearly drowns, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) has to resuscitate him. And then he and Benji immediately have to chase after her (it's complicated).

Ethan Hunt trying to partake in his usual action hero shenanigans while recovering from near-death is comedic gold. He's uncoordinated and confused. When Benji nervously asks if Ethan should really be driving after he almost died, Ethan's not even sure what he's talking about, and he can't even hurdle over the lowest bar of cool stunt work. When he tries to slide across the hood of his car, he fails spectacularly. It's something you'll immediately want to watch again.

Wait, Ethan Hunt did what?

Sometimes you need to pause just to do a double take. That's what happens in the opening of "Mission: Impossible 2," when Ethan Hunt karate chops an innocent man in the throat.

Except we all know that Ethan would never, ever do that. If a terrified scientist was coming to him with an engineered supervirus and its cure, Ethan would do everything in his power to protect him. So why is Ethan brutalizing him, taking over the plane, and sending it crashing into the mountains? We get the answer to that shortly — in the best tradition of "Mission: Impossible," it involves a dramatic mask-rip — but if you slam the pause button right after that karate chop, you get to figure it out ahead of time. Stopping to boggle at this incredibly out-of-character behavior gives you all the time you need to work out what's really going on.

Train vs. helicopter

If you come to the "Mission: Impossible" series in search of an adrenaline rush, you're in luck. And nothing will satisfy that craving better than the thrilling chase sequence in the first movie, when Ethan Hunt pursues rogue agent Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) across the top of a speeding train. Phelps has magnetic clamps that give him some steady purchase, but Ethan has to follow him barehanded. On top of all that, Phelps' ally, Franz Krieger (Jean Reno), is following them in a helicopter, ready to shoot Ethan down.

The scene is a masterpiece of steady escalation, and it doesn't stop there. Phelps almost makes it to safety in the helicopter, but Ethan manages to tether the chopper to the train itself, keeping Phelps and Krieger from flying away. Then the train enters the lengthy tunnel running beneath the English Channel ... and the helicopter comes with it. Krieger may be on the wrong side, but we have to give credit where credit is due. Not many people could successfully pilot a helicopter through a tight tunnel while tied to a train. (Well, we assume they couldn't. Hopefully nobody's been trying.) That's some good flying.

It's just one amazing complication after another, and it doesn't stop until a breathless Ethan has a helicopter blade centimeters from his throat. The poor conductor who's had to witness most of this immediately faints. And even we have to pause to acknowledge the sheer greatness of it all.

The world's most death-defying climb

"Ghost Protocol" features one of the most vertigo-inducing stunts ever, and considering this franchise, that's saying something. In order to reach a server room, Ethan Hunt has to scale the side of the Burj Khalifa, a real-life Dubai skyscraper with a record-breaking 163 stories. The exterior is mostly smooth glass. Ethan has cohesive gloves, but a key part of "Ghost Protocol" is that the disavowed team has to make do with whatever abandoned IMF tech they can find. They're not working with the most reliable gear.

When you're climbing the side of the world's tallest building with nothing but two sticky gloves to hold you up, you really need both those gloves to stay operational. But "Ghost Protocol" chronicles a mission where — as Ethan himself acknowledges — Murphy's law definitely applies: Everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Needless to say, one of Ethan's gloves promptly malfunctions.

It's both terrifying and exhilarating to watch Ethan scale the building with only one cohesive glove. It's hard not to come away dizzy. But the scene doesn't stop there. It also makes poor Ethan have to drop back to his own floor via a too-short cord ... which means he has to start swinging Tarzan-style and unfasten himself at the last second in the hope that gravity will carry him the rest of the way to the open window. At the end of all that, you'll have to pause just to catch your breath.

A Mission: Impossible scene that's too iconic not to pause

In the first "Mission: Impossible" film, there's a scene so classic that even people who've never watched the movie would probably recognize it. It's one of the signature action shots in all cinema, and it has that status for a good reason.

It comes in a great sequence where Ethan has to break into the CIA to steal classified information. The sequence has all the delights of a good heist movie, but one part stands out even above the rest. Ethan has to be lowered down into a room with a pressure-sensitive floor; he absolutely can't touch the ground. Unfortunately, Krieger — up in the ventilation system and holding the other end of Ethan's line — comes face-to-face with a rat ... and he drops the line. 

Ethan falls, and Krieger catches him only a fraction of an inch above the floor, forcing Ethan to hold an incredibly strained, rigid position that's like planking with life-or-death stakes. It's a moment that's so great that future "Mission: Impossible" films love to pay homage to it by putting characters in similar situations. Those are great too, but nothing quite lives up to the original. In its tension, inventiveness, smart action, and sense of humor, this scene is "Mission: Impossible" in a nutshell.