100 Greatest Scenes Number 35: “Merci”

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Views from the Sofa’s 100 Greatest Scenes is a list of the 100 greatest moments in the movies. This could be long introductions, moments of action or great dialogue between characters. The scenes are in no particular order and come from many different types of movies.

It is easy to forget how little action there actually was in the first Mission: Impossible movie. It was much more of a straight spy-thriller than the crazy, outlandish and often incredulous stunt filled escape that it is today. This scene became the stand-out and a perfect example of how well tense, almost silent action on-screen can be, often keeping an audience just as captivated as it would if there were huge stunts and big explosions.

Greatest Scene Number 35: Mission: Impossible – “Merci”

The set-up for this scene is what makes it “Mission: Impossible.” A completely impregnable vault. It has sound, pressure and temperature sensors protecting information on (a now outdated) computer. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt must go in through the ceiling and dangle precariously, always watching for sound and temperature rises as he hacks the information he needs from the computer.

This is not a guns blazing, raid of a building. This a slow, methodical approach and it is testament to the director, Brian De Palma, that he played the whole scene in silence. No soundtrack to build tension or raise the stakes. Just the worried, full concentration on Cruise’s face, alongside his two accomplices, Jean Reno and Ving Rhames.

The plan was never going to go perfectly and the obstacles thrown at Cruise are great. The man reentering the room, with Cruise dangling closely above his head. You also get the rat, scurrying down the ventilation system, distracting Reno and causing the most famous part of the whole scene.

You can almost feel yourself take a sharp intake of breathe as Cruise drops to the floor and awkwardly waves his arms, trying to keep his balance. The fact he is inches away from setting off the pressure sensors means that the audience hold their breathe with him, and keep it held as the small droplet of sweat rolls down his glasses and then tumbles to the ultra-sensitive floor.

Of course it becomes a race against time to get Cruise back up out of the room and the sound is now louder because of the rope rubbing against the metal opening of the ceiling. All of this is still done in silence, no forced excitement, instead just Cruise struggling to collect his different tools as Reno quickly, and unfortunately loudly, pulls his partner up.

What comes next is the sigh of relief, as Cruise is finally hauled up into the hole. As one last kick before the scene ends, with a “merci” Reno drops his knife through the hole and Cruise, alongside the audience, hold their breathe once more as the blade tumbles through the air, finally landing in the desk as the alarm deactivates. It is a perfect comedy end to a very tense scene.

Overall, the vault hack in Mission: Impossible shows that you can have a tense, action-filled scene with very little going on. The implication of failure is enough to keep the audience invested and having constructed an elaborate mission, in completing it, you get a great satisfaction. The obstacles and final twist in the scene only add to it’s effectiveness.

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