How “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One” DP Fraser Taggart Pulled Off That Insane Train Sequence
Editors’ Note: This story contains mild spoilers.
The action in Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One rolls out like a conveyor belt of delicious candy, leaving you wanting more. And director Christopher McQuarrie delivers those highs again and again. The global affair treks from Abu Dhabi for a swirling desert shootout and on to Rome for a goosebumps-inducing car chase, in, of course, an adorable yellow FIAT. It then lands in Norway for that epic, very real motorcycle stunt that everyone, including your mother, is talking about. Tom Cruise repeated the death-defying stunt that has him jumping off a 4,000-foot cliff into a ravine before opening a parachute to land atop a moving train seven times. Yes, seven. If the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is still wondering why it should award an Oscar for stunts, these are seven reasons to make this a reality.
The story that ignites this edge-of-your-seat thrill ride is a tale of high-stakes espionage reminiscent of the very first Mission Impossible (1996). McQuarrie even puts in his own version of the infamous bridge scene from the original film that sees Jim Phelps (Jon Voigt) fake his own death—this time with different results. The twisty plot has Ethan Hunt (Cruise) in search of a key that unlocks the power of an artificial intelligence that’s gone rogue. Seemingly everyone Hunt crosses paths with also wants it, including Grace (Hayley Atwell), a master thief, former MI6 intelligence officer Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) from Rogue Nation, a new deadly adversary in Gabriel (Esai Morales), The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby), and Kittridge (Henry Czerny), who is now acting CIA director.
Lensing Dead Reckoning Part One was cinematographer Fraser Taggart, who shot Rogue Nation and Fallout as the 2nd unit cinematographer. (Part Two is in production with Taggart on board.) “When I was growing up, which is a long time ago now, movies gave you escapism. They took me to different places in the world, and I adored that as a kid,” says Taggart. “We very much wanted to make this movie feel the same way. To give the audience that escapism to other countries.”
Taggart furnished each location with a distinct look. In Abu Dhabi, he referenced Lawrence of Arabia. Rome brought a rich color palette and higher contrast. In Norway, a slightly cooler aesthetic. It’s here where a climactic action-packed train sequence unfolds. This is a sequence that manages to contain the very soul of the franchise—Ethan Hunt pushed to his absolute limits, which, it turns out, are incredibly flexible. Whatever it takes, Hunt will adapt and stretch himself to the challenge.
In preparation for actual shooting days, the team found a location in England to practice. Taggart researched and tested all the camera angles and shots that would be used to record the action, whether it was a drone, helicopter, or mounted camera. In capturing a fight sequence between Ethan and Gabriel atop the speeding train, handheld cameras were used to give it “energy and life” but in a controlled way.
The biggest “oh my” moment is when the train runs out of track and is about to fall hundreds of feet below into a quarry. Ethan and Grace (Hayley Atwell) are in the train car that’s about to go over and have to climb up to save themselves. Practical train cars were built and placed on huge hydraulic rigs constructed by the special effects department. These rigs could lift the carriage around 80 feet into the air and tilt it 30 degrees. “The scene has the train moving like a caterpillar whereas the weight goes over into the falling edge, it lifts the carriage behind and slams it down in a sort of zero-g moment,” explains Taggart. “All the physical effects were quite incredible.”
Stunt doubles rehearsed the sequence first to choreograph the precise action before Cruise and Atwell stepped in. “Hayley amazed me the first time she did the run with Tom,” says Taggart. “We’re on safety wires, but we are 80 feet in the air with them. She and Tom have to trust everyone around them. She went for it on the first take, and it was brilliant.”
When the train finally does fall over, production physically crashed a train on location in England. “We dropped a real carriage, so that’s all used in the movie,” says Taggart. “For me, you want to feel like you’re on the train with them. You want to feel like another character in the movie stuck on the train. It’s a very important part of these movies. It’s a challenge, but it works very well.”
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is in theaters now.
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Featured image: Esai Morales and Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible Dead Reckoning Part One from Paramount Pictures and Skydance.