Why Ethan Hunt drives a 1986 5 Series in Mission: Impossible—Fallout

Mission: Impossible – Fallout

At the end of the day, we’re likely to be punished for our kindnesses. 

Jean-Pierre (Michael Lonsdale), Ronin

Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission: Impossible—Fallout is the most introspective, reflective Mission: Impossible entry yet. It’s a film about Ethan Hunt’s worst fears and regrets made manifest in nightmares, dreams, flash-forwards, and what-ifs. Ethan’s inability to choose between one life and millions could lead to his undoing, and his nemesis, Solomon Lane, has identified Ethan’s greatest strength—his commitment to saving lives—as his greatest weakness. Ethan Hunt fears failure, and living with the worst-case consequence of his failure: namely, the death of his loved ones.

In Brian De Palma’s 1996 Mission: Impossible, Ethan Hunt’s character is a cipher, maybe even a sociopath. But Ethan’s insistence on “zero body count” in the first M:I planted a seed cultivated by the filmmakers who followed. In Rogue Nation and Fallout, Ethan Hunt has grown and been slightly revised. Perhaps his defining motivation is his need to save lives and prevent casualties. Now the character has humanity and warmth. He’s unkillable, but not infallible.

Ethan’s vulnerability introduces another new element to Mission: Impossible that’s become its trademark: physical comedy. Since Brad Bird retooled the series with Ghost Protocol, Ethan’s become a modern-day Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd. The Impossible Mission Force’s (IMF) cool gadgets constantly fail, and nothing ever goes to plan. It not only makes action sequences more fun, it heightens the tension—we can’t predict what will go wrong, or how Ethan will fix it.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Paramount Pictures

Fallout’s action sequences are so consistently exceptional that one of its least hyped scenes is still an all-timer. Everyone talks about the bathroom brawl, the helicopter chase, and the HALO jump; the car chase gets short shrift, but it might just be the best car chase of the 21st century. (As a feature-length chase, Mad Max: Fury Road exists in its own category.) It draws inspiration from Claude Lelouch’s short film C’était un Rendezvous, with hints of Ronin, The French Connection, and the Bourne series, yet Fallout’s chase still stands on its own. It’s propulsive, and, like Rendezvous, feels like it could be its own short film, a microcosm of Fallout’s story.

In Fallout, Ethan Hunt has assumed the identity of John Lark, an “unidentified extremist” who’s after plutonium so he can destroy the current world order. As Lark, Ethan’s been tasked by the White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) and her brother Zola (Frederick Schmidt) to retrieve his nemesis Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) from an armored motorcade so they can exchange Lane for the cores. When Ethan realizes Zola’s plan to extract Lane involves killing everyone, he has a haunting vision of shooting an innocent man to maintain his cover as John Lark—worst-case scenario for Ethan.

Before the chase even begins, the stakes are high: Ethan isn’t just worried about himself, or his team, he needs everyone involved—from the White Widow’s crew to the cops in pursuit—to survive, for his own peace of mind.

Ethan and Walker (Henry Cavill) wait in a box truck for the motorcade transporting Lane, and it’s obvious Ethan is anxious. He can’t stop what’s coming. Lorne Balfe’s score perfectly complements the emotional buildup and the inner conflict plain on Ethan’s face, and the familiar Mission: Impossible theme kicks in just as Solomon Lane comes into view, framed by the helicopter’s window. Walker reveals one of many complications: Solomon Lane knows Ethan, and he’ll blow his cover. Part of Ethan’s solution is to knock an armored truck into the Seine, jumpstarting the chase. Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) becomes yet another complication, arriving at the chase’s start, a constant presence in an otherwise ever-evolving sequence. Dressed in black, identity concealed by her helmet, she’s a shadow, a phantom haunting the proceedings, and she has her own agenda at odds with Ethan’s: to kill Lane.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Mission: Impossible – Fallout

The thrills of this chase aren’t just found in character tensions; they’re baked into the details, logistics, choreography. By adding a motorcycle to the chase, it feels more immediate and dangerous, making Ethan more vulnerable than if he were protected by the exoskeleton of a car. And Ethan spends a significant and perilous portion of this chase driving the wrong way. When he’s in the ’86 BMW, he fishtails, drifts, jumps curbs, performs a reverse J-turn and drives backward off a five-foot drop. Paris is an ideal setting for it, with its confusing roundabouts, which are hell even when you aren’t being pursued by France’s entire police force. Cruise does all his own stunts, which always improves the action whether the audience consciously registers it or not, and he drives up to 100 mph around the Arc de Triomphe and the Avenue de l’Opéra.

The motorcycle chase is as dangerous as it looks. Tom drives a retro 2017 BMW R nineT Scrambler, which they “tricked up a bit,” according to action vehicle supervisor Graham Kelly. They had special rigs designed for it, including a tow rig so Tom could safely drive the motorcycle without falling off. Because making a Mission: Impossible film often feels like the plot of a Mission: Impossible film, the rig failed, and a design for a sequence they’d worked on for months had to be scrapped, and Cruise hopped on the hero bike and actually rode it.

Even though the streets of Paris were treacherous, they shot the motorcycle chase old-school, with Tom free-riding. It was significantly more dangerous than Rogue Nation’s Morocco motorcycle chase. It gets particularly dicey in the Arc de Triomphe roundabout. The city shut down the Arc de Triomphe, gave them just two hours to shoot at dawn, and only 90 minutes of daylight during this window. Stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood controlled about 40 cars driven by racing drivers and stunt drivers in three concentric circles with Cruise driving in the opposite direction, a situation made more complicated by the fact that there was a language barrier with the stunt drivers. At one point, a miscommunication led to Cruise nearly hitting a car because a driver was not where he was supposed to be.

Nothing seems to go right in the story itself, either: Walker and Ethan’s truck gets stuck in an alley, Ethan’s motorcycle won’t start, exposing him to the cops—and finally, just at the moment we think he might elude them, he broadsides a ’99 Peugeot. (In Rogue Nation’s motorcycle chase, Cruise did not wear knee pads; thankfully, he sports them here.) For this stunt, the motorcycle operated like a catapult, with Cruise attached to a cable, and motorcycle and car hit each other at the same time. (Though it looks like he hits the car, he doesn’t.) McQuarrie explained on the Empire Film Podcast: “There’s a rail system and the bike is a catapult, and the car and the bike are connected on a cable so they will always meet at the same exact spot. We just… launched him.”

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Paramount Pictures

Luther (Ving Rhames) and Benji (Simon Pegg) arrive in a speed boat and save Ethan from the authorities. In a break between chases, the team and Walker meet at a garage where a BMW waits. When they open the garage, a policewoman (Alix Bénézech) is writing a ticket on the other side, and she seems surprised to see four men with a prisoner in a black hood and straitjacket.

The chase’s interlude gives us time to breathe but still feels urgent. And this scene is arguably the heart of Fallout—a character-defining moment bookended by two bonkers chases. The policewoman reaches for her gun and four of Zola’s men appear and shoot her while Ethan tries to talk her down. Ethan’s forced to make a decision about who will live and who will die, a choice made slightly easier for him because the policewoman is an innocent and Zola’s men aren’t, and Ethan kills all four men to protect the policewoman. This scene doesn’t just tell us about Ethan, because we also see Walker, gun in hand, ready to shoot the policewoman if he must. It’s one of several moments in the film where Walker establishes himself as Ethan’s opposite, “as ugly as they come.”

During the second leg of the chase, Ethan drives a classic, a 1986 E28 BMW 5 Series, which is not popular with the team. (“Was the little car your idea?”) In the film’s commentary track, McQuarrie explained the choice: “It’s timeless, and more importantly, because of all the safety equipment in the newer cars, the way they’re designed, the windshields are sloping, they’re smaller, it’s actually harder to see, and I wanted the car with the biggest possible engine and the biggest possible windshield, and that’s how we ended up with that car.”

Wade Eastwood said they had about five or six BMWs on hand, and they modified one car’s suspension to keep it from rolling down the stairs, and all the cars had their handbrakes modified so they “didn’t rip the handbrake out.” Cruise and McQuarrie described the BMW as a car without ego, and production designer Peter Wenham said, “It’s retirement green, it’s like your father’s BMW.” Ultimately, it’s a color that blends beautifully with Paris and the scene’s palette; as for the car itself, Cruise said the BMW was a blast to drive, had a lot of power, and “held the road well.”

Mission: Impossible – Fallout
Paramount Pictures

Once the IMF loses the cops and Zola’s men, they have to contend with Ilsa Faust. This is the scene where the team’s finally reunited—and are then promptly separated. Ilsa’s target is now Ethan’s passenger, and she opens fire on them. Ethan lets Walker, Luther, and Benji out of the car, so it’s just Ethan and Lane. Jenny Tinmouth—the female lap record holder at the Isle of Man TT—doubles Rebecca Ferguson on a Triumph Tiger 800 XCx. Balfe’s score is absent here; instead, the sounds of the motorcycle’s engine and the BMW’s engine are the scene’s only music. Ilsa and Ethan are equally committed to their missions, and this culminates in a horrifying moment when Ethan is forced to hit Ilsa with the car to escape. Fortunately, the characters have a special understanding of each other and their jobs, and (somehow) there are no hard feelings. 

From the first chase’s beginning to the end of the second chase, this sequence lasts an impressive 20 minutes. It’s an elegant confluence of immaculate editing, sound design, score, cinematography, stunt choreography—what George Miller would call “visual music.” And it involves every conceivable kind of chase: an armored truck, a motorcycle, a little bit of a foot chase, then a speedboat, and finally, a car. (Though they’re not directly involved, there’s also a helicopter and a train in the mix.) It’s a heist, a deception, a crucible, and like all great chases, it’s a distillation of story, characters, and their relationships. In short, it’s exhilarating storytelling.