The Mission: Impossible franchise has almost quietly become one of the best, most reliably entertaining action movie franchises in existence. Over the last 20+ years, the films have continued to evolve with viewer tastes, while also serving as a workshop of sorts for various filmmakers to ply their craft. From Brian De Palma’s classic espionage caper in the first Mission: Impossible to the team format established in J.J. Abrams’ M:I-III and carried over into each subsequent film, Mission: Impossible is the rare auteur-driven blockbuster franchise.
The only true mainstay has been Tom Cruise (although Ving Rhames also shows up in every movie), who has used the series to prove his chops as a dedicated action star known for performing all of his own stunts. In fact, part of the spectacle of watching a Mission: Impossible movie is seeing what new over-the-top way Cruise has found to defy death. Of course, they’re also fun spy movies with all sorts of cool gadgets and genre tropes, and each one contains some interesting Easter eggs.
Here are 35 of the best hidden details you may not have noticed in the Mission: Impossible series.
Note: We’ve covered the first 5 movies here, but we’ll be adding Mission: Impossible – Fallout to the list once we’ve had time to examine it more closely.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Emilio Estevez’ Alias
Emilio Estevez appears in the first Mission: Impossible in an uncredited role as IMF agent Jack Harmon, which is fitting since Tom Cruise had previously made an uncredited cameo of his own in Estevez’ earlier film Young Guns (1988). What you may have missed is his character’s alias. During the scene where Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) is getting his mission on the plane, his team’s dossiers are shown one by one. Each one lists an an alias: Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas) also goes by “Sarah Walker”, Hannah Williams (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) is Pauline Brady, and Ethan Hunt’s is Phillipe Douchette. Estevez’s in particular is interesting, as “Tony Baretta” is a nod to the character of the same name from the 1970s cop show Baretta.
The main conflict in Mission: Impossible is driven by the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) attempting to retrieve the stolen Non-Official Cover List (NOC), which details the agency’s covert operatives, their code names, and their real names. One of the code names revealed on the list is “Maverick,” a clear nod to Tom Cruise’s role in the 1986 movie Top Gun.
Water Tank Explosion Locations
The exploding water tank scene may be pretty tame compared to later action scenes in the series, but it helped establish Mission: Impossible’s focus on practical stunts. That being said, the scene still required some behind-the-scenes magic in order to work. While Hunt’s detonation of the restaurant water tank and subsequent running escape look like they are all part of the same shooting sequence, the scene was actually shot at two different locations. The tank explosion and Hunt’s jump through the restaurant window were shot at Paramount Studios, while the portion of the scene where he runs into the street with water running behind him was shot in Prague’s Old Town Square.
IMF Agent Name Drop
During the scene where Ethan is seeking help and looking up disavowed IMF agent, the first one on his list is Simon Staines. This is a nod to a computer graphics designer who worked on the film, whose other credits include Planet of the Apes (2001), V for Vendetta (2006) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Alexander Golitsyn is a minor character in Mission: Impossible who is killed by Franz Krieger in Prague, but his name has some significant real world meaning. His character’s name is a nod to famed Soviet KGB defector Anatoily Golitsyn, who defected to the CIA via Helsinki in 1961 and would go on to provide a wide range of intelligence to the CIA on the KGB. Golitsyn passed away in 2008.
The cigarette lighter belong to Jim Phelps is a Dunhill Rollagas, the same brand of lighters featured in several James Bond films; in fact, Bond receives one as a gift from his friend Felix Leiter and his wife Delia in the 1989 film License to Kill. This is fitting seeing as how the Mission: Impossible series has drawn inspiration from the 007 franchise over the years.
The Mission: Impossible franchise is known for its over-the-top action sequences, but it’s surprising just how little action there is in the first film. In fact, there are only five gunshots in Mission: Impossible and Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt doesn’t fire a gun at all. We wouldn’t have to wait for this to chance, of course, as Mission: Impossible II is loaded with all sorts of shots of Cruise firing guns, but it’s still surprising how little Ethan Hunt initially resembled the action hero he would later become.
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
This isn’t so much a hidden detail as it is an interesting fact. but did you know that Dougray Scott, who plays Mission: Impossible II’s villain Sean Ambrose, was originally cast as Wolverine in X-Men? Russell Crowe had been X-Men director Bryan Singer’s first choice to play the iconic mutant, but Crowe turned it down and recommended his friend Hugh Jackman. As Jackman was still an unknown actor at the time, Singer cast the more experienced Scottish actor Dougray Scott.
However, scheduling conflicts with his role in M:I-2 and a motorcycle injury resulted in Jackman getting the part three weeks into production. Jackman of course went on to become one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, while Scott has on to be …considerably less well known. Do you think he’s still kicking himself for not staying on as Wolverine?
Even though his character Luther Stickwell’s appearances have alternated between being a key member of the IMF and glorified cameos over the years, Ving Rhames is the only actor besides Tom Cruise to appear in every Mission: Impossible movie, which is an impressive feat considering Ethan Hunt’s team seems to operate on a revolving door policy. In Mission: Impossible II, there’s a scene in which Luther replies “It’s that simple, huh?” after hearing Ethan’s explanation of what he thinks the “Chimera” is (it’s a weaponized virus). This was apparently a joke directed about the first Mission: Impossible, which received criticism for having an “overly complicated” plot.
Your Cappuccino, If You Choose to Accept It
When Ethan Hunt meets with Mission Commander Swanbeck (Sir Anthony Hopkins, in his only franchise appearance), Hunt is asked whether he’d like an espresso or cappuccino. This is a nod to the first movie, when Hunt meets with Jim Phelps and asks if IMF could get a cappuccino machine.
Ring Around The Roses
The brief shot of children playing “Ring Around the Roses” in Mission: Impossible II may seem like an extraneous flourish from director John Woo, but it’s really a subtle reference to one of the film’s central plot points. According to popular belief, “Ring Around the Roses” is a children’s song based on the Black Plague that wiped out anywhere from 30-60% of Europe’s population during the 14th century. In this theory, the “ring around the roses” refers to a ring of people around a grave with roses on it. “Pocket full of posies” refers to people carrying flowers in their pockets during the plague in order to combat the stench of the corpses in the streets. “Ashes, ashes” is the mass burning of bodies, while “We all fall down” denotes the overall death toll.
In actual fact, the rhyme dates back to the Victorian period and didn’t originally contain these references (they were improvised by children playing over the years), the legend connecting the song to the Black Plague persists. When it comes to M:I-2, the use of “Ring Around the Roses” can be read as a subtextual reference to the plague that ensue if the fictional Chimera virus were to be released onto the world.
The James Bond and Mission: Impossible franchises are two of the most popular spy movie franchises in the world, so it makes sense that the two have shared some similarities over the years. One of the best examples is that Mission: Impossible II has many of the same plot beats as GoldenEye (1995). Both films find their lead characters on vacation at the beginning. Both Bond and Hunt get new bosses. Bond has a high-speed car chase with Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen) in Monaco; Hunt and Nyah (Thandie Newton) have a car chase across the Spanish countryside. Both films feature rogue agents as the primary antagonists and include scenes of mass civilian casualties (the bunker massacre in Severnaya and the commercial airliner killings).
Face masks are a recurring trope throughout the Mission: Impossible series, but you many not have noticed a clever detail in M:I-2 that hints at a later plot twist. When Ethan Hunt is shot in the leg by Sean Ambrose, he lets out an odd sounding mumble. This is because it’s not actually Tom Cruise mumbling. It’s later revealed that it wasn’t Ethan Hunt who was shot but rather Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh) disguised as Hunt. Roxburgh recorded his gunshot reaction separately and the audio was added later in post-production.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Have You Been to Lake Wanaka?
Ethan Hunt makes several references to a place called Lake Wanaka throughout Mission: Impossible III. Lake Wanaka is a lake in the South Island of New Zealand and it turns out that Tom Cruise spent some time there while filming the 2003 film The Last Samurai. He reportedly liked the place so much that he wanted to include references to it in the M:I-III script.
The Invisible Man
When Theodore Brassel (Laurence Fishburne) is giving a debrief on Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), he says that the villain is invisible in terms of “Wells, not Ellison.” This is a literary reference to the two authors responsible for stories involving invisible men. In H.G. Wells’ novel The Invisible Man (1897), the title character is a scientist who can make himself physically invisible. In contrast, Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man follows an African-American character who considers himself a socially invisible minority. The reference is a bit of a stretch considering Davian is neither literally invisible or a socially invisible minority, but it works in the context of the film.
Mission: Impossible III was director J.J. Abrams’ first feature film, having been hired primarily based on the strength of his work on TV shows such as Felicity and Lost. The latter show was still a cultural phenomenon when M:I-III was released, so it makes sense that Abrams would include a few Easter eggs to the show he helped create.
There are several Lost references strewn throughout the film, including a sheet of paper on a desk at IMF headquarters with a swan logo that looks a lot like the one used by the mysterious Dharma Initiative from the show. There’s also a nod to a different fictional organization in the film’s credits, as the Hanso Foundation is listed as one of the organizations the producers would wish to thank.
Unless you’re very well acquainted with the layout of Shanghai, you probably didn’t notice that one of Mission: Impossible III’s big action sequences has a pretty substantial geography error. When Hunt makes his spectacular leap off of a skyscraper, he’s on the east side of the Huangpu River, which runs through the middle of the city. When he lands, he’s on the west side of the river near Yanan Highway, which is around two kilometers away from the building he just jumped off of.
After rescuing Agent Farris (Keri Russell) early in the movie, Ethan Hunt and his team escape in a Huey Helicopter. What you may not have realized is that while CGI was used in the long shots, models were used in other shots to help keep costs down. On the tail of the helicopter, you can make out the letters D-HDRS, which correspond to the last names of the Huey’s five model makers. In order, they’d be Fon Davis (Lead Model Maker), Neal Halter (Model Maker), Nick D’Abo (Model Maker), Chuck Ray (Pracitcal Effects Technician), and Joseph Suen (Digital Model Development).
J.J. Abrams Cameos
Director J.J. Abrams makes several appearances in Mission: Impossible III, but there’s a good chance you didn’t notice any of them. In the scene where the capsule is extracted from Agent Farris’ head at IMF headquarters, the doctor’s hands belong to Abrams. He also has a background cameo in the hospital scene when Ethan is looking for his wife, and is the voice on the phone at the start of the movie talking about winning a free trip to Mexico.
When Ethan is captured by Davian and wakes up tied to a chair, a charge is immediately shot up his nose by Brownway (Eddie Marsan). However, the hand holding the gun up to Tom Cruise’s nose doesn’t belong to Eddie Marsan, but rather to Tom himself! As the story goes, Cruise initially complained that it hurt too much because of the pressure Marsan was putting on his nose.
It was then decided to pain Cruise’s hand to make it look like Marsan’s so that he could “inject” the capsule into his own head, since he knew how much pressure to use without hurting himself. The same thing happened with John Musgrave (Billy Crudup). When Musgrave puts the phone to Ethan’s ear, Ethan bites down on Musgrave’s hand. Again, the hand was actually Cruise’s and not Billy Crudup’s.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
If you look at the music credits for Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, you’ll see an interesting name that you may recognize. Dermot Mulroney is an actor best known for holes in films such as My Best Friend’s Wedding, About Schmidt, and Zodiac but he’s also a classically-trained cellist who began playing at the age of seven. Mulroney works frequently with composer Michael Giacchino and has played with him on other films including Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek: Into Darkness and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
It’s Your Birthday
After escaping from a Russian prison at the beginning of the movie, Ethan Hunt gets his latest mission from a pay phone. The code Ethan uses to access the message – 07362 – are the digits of Tom Cruise’s birthdate – July 3, 1962.
When Ethan is introduced to a Russian arms dealer by Bogdan, the guy he helped break out of prison at the beginning of the movie, there are a series of wooden crates in the background stamped with the name “Yu-ri” in letters from the Korean alphabet. This appears to be a nod to the use of the name Yuri in many spy books and movies to refer to Russian/Soviet spies.
When Ethan Hunt escapes from the Russian hospital, he lands on the roof of a van, causing the driver to jump the curb. He then proceeds to exclaim “Yo-moyo!” at Ethan, which is a Russian exclamation of surprise with no literal English translation (though it is considered impolite). Fittingly, this is the same exclamation made by Anton Yelchin’s Chekov in Star Trek (2009), which was directed by Ghost Protocol co-producer J.J. Abrams.
Following the Kremlin bombing, there’s a scene showing Russian investigators reviewing the files of Ethan Hunt and Bogdan, the two prisoners who escaped from prison earlier that day. We learn that the full name of Hunt’s false identity is Sergei Ivanov, who in real life is a Russian senior official who has served as the country’s Minister of Defense and Deputy Prime Minister. As of 2016, he’s Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on the Issues of Environmental Activities, Environment and Transport.
If you paid close attention, you’ll have noticed that “A113” pops up a few times over the course of Ghost Protocol – A113 appears on Agent Hanaway’s ring and Ethan uses it as a call sign (Alpha 113). As it turns out, A113 is a in-joke/Easter egg used frequently in films produced by Pixar and/or created by alumni of California Institute of the Arts. This is because it refers to one of the room numbers for the character animation BFA program. Ghost Protocol director Brad Bird is both a Call Arts alumnus and has directed several films for Pixar, and so has found a way to work an “A113” reference into each of his features films, and even some of his television work.
Ghost Protocol concludes with Ethan receiving a new mission, which involves a terrorist organization called “The Syndicate”. Not only is this a nod to the original Mission: Impossible TV series from the 1960s, in which The Syndicate were positioned as a crime empire and enemy of the I.M.F., but also teases the plot of the next film in the series, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015). This is actually the first and only instance of a Mission: Impossible film directly hinting at plot details for the sequel, as the films tend to operate as standalone installments.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation repeats the opening credits model of its predecessor by showing pieces of the mission to come, but with an added bonus. During the title sequence, you can see a very quick of shot of a black folio with gold lettering. This is the same one used in the original TV series, when the episode’s Impossible Mission Force team would be shown at the beginning.
You Spin Me Right Round …
Early on in the film, Ethan Hunt visits a record store in London that is actually an IMF outpost. He receives his next mission on a vinyl long-playing record, which is a nice callback to how agents sometimes would receive missions in the Mission: Impossible TV series. Additionally, Hunt’s code name in the film, Bravo Echo 1-1, is the same one he had in the first Mission: Impossible movie. Speaking of that code …
We learn that Hunt’s code is Bravo Echo One One (BE11) when he calls the I.M.F. early in the movie, which can be read as a mirror image of the number 1138. Whether intentional or not, this number is a recurring McGuffin in George Lucas movies, in reference to his feature film directorial debut THX 1138 (1971).
North by Northwest
Tom Cruise confirmed in an interview with The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith that the gray suit worn by his character during Rogue Nation’s opening plane sequence is meant as a direct homage to the famous plane sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), in which Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) wears a similar suit.
When Ethan Hunt infiltrates the underwater server station in Morocco, the safe he needs to access is numbered 108. Whether intentional or not, this is a number that has popped up in a number of Bad Robot productions, and is the sum of the infamous number sequence from the TV show Lost (4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42).
Don’t Drink And Drive
When the Syndicate’s various world-spanning crimes are being listed off, a fatal car crash in Turkey is shown among them. The picture of a heavily damaged Audi is from a real car crash involving world champion Norwegian skier Petter Northug, who was received a DUI after crashing his car (both Northug and his passenger suffered minor injuries). Northug infamously ran from the scene to his nearby house, where he was later arrested and subsequently convicted.
Aston Martin DB5
During the scene where Hunley and Brandt (Jeremy Renner) meet with Atlee (Simon McBurney) and the British Prime Minister (Tom Hollander) at a London Ball (the exterior is actually Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire), a silver Aston Martin DB5 is clearly visible parked in one of the front spots. Since this is a rare car that stands out among many of the other cars parked around it, there’s a good chance that this is a reference to James Bond, as the DB5 is closely associated with that film franchise (the fact that the scene involves the British Intelligence community helps support this). Coincidentally, this same filming location was used in Spectre, which was also released in 2015.
Rogue Nation introduces Alec Baldwin as Alan Hunley, the head of the CIA. This is a fitting role for Baldwin as he was the first actor to play Jack Ryan, the fictional CIA analyst created by author Tom Clancy. Eventually, Ryan becomes Deputy Director of the CIA and much like how Hunley saves the British Prime Minister, Ryan saves several members of the British Royal family in Patriot Games (1992).
We’ll Always Have Paris
Rogue Nation shares several similarities to the 1942 classic Casablanca. Rebecca Ferguson, who bears a resemblance to actress Ingrid Bergman, plays a character named Ilsa Faust, who shares the same first name as Bergman’s character, Ilsa Lund (Faust is a nod to the German legend, in which the title character makes an ill-fated deal with the devil). As if that wasn’t on the nose enough, Rogue Nation also has a sequence set in Casablanca, in which Ferguson appears. Oh and for good measure, Cruise’s first celebrity crush was Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946).