Inciting Incident (book cover)

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Script Structure: Lessons from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

The plot of Mission: Impossible IV - Ghost Protocol

I will be honest. After Mission: Impossible 3, which was perfectly executed but still lacked a certain something, I didn’t have high hopes for Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol. I thought Tom Cruise was trying to revive a dying beast.

I was wrong.

Great action movies look easy to write–especially ones which are as well done as MI4, whose only failure in my opinion is presenting Brij Nath’s character as a stereotypical Indian playboy.

Besides that, everything was exactly what I–and the rest the world–wanted in an action movie, including Simon Pegg’s turn as a geeky field agent. If you examine plot points from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, your own action writing skills should improve, especially if you focus on the following:

  • the organization of the action set pieces (when and how often they occurred)
  • how much time was spent laying the groundwork for the action set pieces
  • what goal was the hero trying to achieve through the action set piece
  • how these goals were made known to the audience
  • how screentime was divided among each person on the hero’s team

If you study the plot points below with these questions at the back of your mind, Mission: Impossible 4 will provide you not only with a great cinematic experience but also with a blueprint for your own action adventure screenplay. In a few days, I’ll post an article on the action adventure screenwriting tips I learned by studying the movie, but for now…onto to the plot points:

Plot Points from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

  1. We begin in Budapest. A man races across a roof, shooting at his pursuers. He jumps off of the roof–still spraying bullets–and lands safely. We think he’s successful in accomplishing his mission, but then suddenly, he’s shot by a blonde assassin, Sabine Moreau, who steals a file from his dying body.
  2. In a Moscow prison cell, Ethan Hunt waits patiently. Another agent on the outside, Benji, unlocks a random prison cell. The inmate walks out of his cell, and is confronted by a guard. Benji unlocks more cells, releasing more prisoners.
  3. Jane, also an IMF agent, traverses a sewer. Mayhem erupts as Benji unlocks all the prison cells, while the guards are locked into their office. Dean Martin music plays over the loudspeaker.
  4. It’s clear that Benji and Jane are on a mission to rescue Ethan. He can easily reach a predetermined extraction point–but he doesn’t head towards it. Instead, Ethan insists that Benji unlock hallway gates so that Ethan can enter into the fray. Ethan wants to rescue his friend, Bogdan, which tremendously complicates the escape plan. Battling prisoners and guards, Ethan finally makes it to the extraction point with Bogdan in tow.
  5. Jane detonates a device, creating a vertical tunnel for Ethan and Bogdan to access the sewers underneath the prison, enabling their escape. Roll credits.
  6. Now in Benji’s van, Ethan explains that he had to rescue Bogdan, otherwise Bogdan would’ve been killed. It’s also revealed that Ethan didn’t know he was going to be rescued.
  7. In a flashback, Jane explains why it was necessary to rescue Ethan. She goes over the details of a simple op which went wrong, the one we saw in Budapest at the beginning of the movie. We finally learn what was in the file stolen by Moreau: Russian nuclear codes.
  8. Benji and Jane gossip about Ethan while he receives his mission instructions. Ethan must impersonate General Anatoly Fedorov in order to infiltrate the Kremlin to learn the real identity of Cobalt, a nuclear strategist for Russian intel. Ethan must retrieve Cobalt’s personnel documents from the Archive Room before Cobalt destroys them–and Cobalt is already en route.
  9. Now disguised as soldiers, Benji and Ethan approach the Kremlin. Jane pretends she’s a tourist. Ethan and Benji just scrape by an identity checkpoint.
  10. In a guarded hallway leading to the Archive Room, Ethan and Benji erect a hologram of the hallway’s end, and then maneuver it closer towards a guard. When the guard looks down the hallway, everything appears normal. He can’t tell that Ethan and Benji are behind the hologram, rapidly approaching the archive room’s entrance.
  11. Ethan enters the Archive Room, but Cobalt’s files have already been taken by another man, who’s fighting a Russian guard at different location in the Kremlin. This mysterious person refers to Ethan as his “team leader” on Ethan’s communication system…alerting the Russians to Ethan and Benji’s presence. As Ethan and Benji race out of the Kremlin, Ethan passes by the man who blew their cover.
  12. When Ethan emerges outside, a massive explosion detonates.
  13. Ethan wakes up, handcuffed to a patient bed, in a hospital filled with blast victims. On TV, the Russian media claims the explosion was caused by a faulty gas pipe.
  14. Sidorov, a Russian officer from one of their investigative divisions, believes that Ethan, as “team leader” was the real cause of the explosion.
  15. A nurse wheels Ethan away. With a paper clip, Ethan frees himself from the handcuffs as Sidorov argues with a colleague.
  16. Sidorov realizes Ethan has escaped and finds Ethan out on a window ledge. Sidorov just watches Ethan, enjoying Ethan’s predicament. Ethan uses his belt to rappel himself onto a moving van on the street below. He falls off of the vehicle, but still manages to elude Sidorov.
  17. After watching news about the explosion, which the media is now claiming could have been an undeclared act of aggression, a geeky looking guy decides to leave town with his wife and son…but the mysterious man who set up Ethan as the fall guy for the Kremlin explosion prevents the geek from leaving–exactly what the geeky guy was trying to avoid.
  18. Ethan boards an SUV containing two other passengers–the Secretary of the IMF and the Secretary’s chief analyst, Brandt. From Ethan’s drawing, Brandt is able to identify the mysterious man as Kurt Hendricks, a crazy professor specializing in nuclear endgame theory. Ethan wants to alert the Kremlin that Hendricks (who also masqueraded as Cobalt) just stole a nuclear launch device from the Kremlin and is on his way to obtain the nuclear codes now in Moreau’s possession. Since Russia blames the IMF for the Kremlin explosion, the Kremlin won’t believe them. Furthermore, the President has initiated Ghost Protocol–the entire IMF has been disavowed. The Secretary offers Ethan a lifeline–giving him a flash drive with one final mission and reminding him of the location of a secret cache of weapons where Ethan’s team is waiting…
  19. Suddenly, the SUV gets sprayed with bullets. The Secretary is shot. The SUV plunges into a lake. Ethan and Brandt are still alive, but they’re being mercilessly shot at from above. Ethan distracts the shooters with a flare, enabling Ethan and Brandt to surface. Sidorov arrives on the scene–he learns that Ethan and Bodgan escaped a Russian prison that very afternoon.
  20. Ethan and Brandt race to board a departing train with car #47–the location of the secret cache of weapons. They make it just in time.
  21. Ethan uses the flash drive to learn the details of his mission. It shows a speech delivered by Hendricks who wants to initiate world destruction through nuclear weapons…just to see what would happen. Ethan and his team must prevent Hendricks from obtaining the nuclear codes now in Moreau’s possession. Hendricks is sending his colleague, Wistrom, to Dubai to purchase the codes from Moreau, with diamonds as the currency. Ethan gives his team an opportunity to abandon the mission, but they all commit. Their plan is to intercept the exchange and give Wistrom fake codes, in the hopes that Wistrom will then lead them to Hendricks.
  22. The team drives through the Dubai desert, reviewing the details of their mission, which will go down at guest rooms in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world.
  23. With only 34 minutes before the exchange is supposed to occur, Benji reveals a small wrinkle–he can’t hack into the computer server from the inside. Access to the server has to be gained from the outside…which means Ethan has to scale the tallest building in the world, only aided by high-tech adhesion gloves.
  24. As a sandstorm approaches, Ethan begins his ascent. Suddenly, one glove starts to malfunction. Ethan tosses it aside and continues his climb, with just one glove separating him from death. He reaches the level containing the computer server, so close to success, then suddenly slides down the building. He reaches the server level again, kicking in the glass wall to gain entrance.
  25. Benji and Jane prepare the decoy room, while Ethan rappels down the Burj Khalifa with only a black rope to anchor him. The rope though isn’t long enough, and Ethan has to make a daring leap to return to the hotel suite where Brandt and Jane await.
  26. Brandt is outfitted with a special contact lens. It captures images and then transmits them to a printer inside of a briefcase. Benji coats the paper where the fake codes will be printed with some sort of tracking substance. But their plan falls apart when they learn that Wistrom has brought the geek with him–it turns out the geeky guy is a Polish cryptographer who is there to assess if the codes are counterfeit. Because of the cryptographer’s presence, Ethan announces a new plan: they must give Wistrom active nuclear codes, not fakes ones.
  27. Brandt freaks out and faces off with Ethan…but the analyst in Brandt finally accepts this is the only way to stop Hendricks. One last wrinkle…they have to go into the mission without masks.
  28. Ethan and Brandt, posing as Wistrom and the cryptographer, meet Moreau. Meanwhile, Jane, posing at Moreau, meets Wistrom and the cryptographer. They bargain: diamonds for codes. Ethan tells Moreau that before she gets her diamonds, Brandt has to verify them. Brandt scans each page of codes, using his special contact lens to print a copy of them into a briefcase, which Jane presents to Wistrom. Wistrom gives the codes to the cryptographer to authenticate. Moreau gets her diamonds.
  29. When Wistrom and the cryptographer leave Jane’s suite, Wistrom shoots the poor geek. Back in Moreau’s decoy room, Moreau suddenly realizes something’s afoot. Ethan and Brandt have to defend themselves against her armed bodyguards. It’s revealed that Brandt has amazing fighting skills. Moreau rushes out of her room, but Jane captures her and brings her to the team’s suite.
  30. Ethan chases Wistrom, but it’s difficult to track Wistrom without intel from Benji who’s lost communication with Ethan. Just as Ethan is about to apprehend Wistrom, Sidorov makes an appearance. Ethan quickly dispatches with Sidorov and his Russian colleagues before resuming his pursuit of Wistrom.
  31. In the team’s hotel suite, Moreau and Jane duke it out. Brandt enters, but before he can help Jane, Jane pushes Moreau through the hole in their glass-walled suite. Moreau falls, presumably to her death.
  32. Meanwhile, Ethan chases Wistrom through the streets of Dubai, but the sandstorm is taking over everything. To escape Ethan, Wistrom commandeers a car. Ethan leaps on top of it, but he’s not successful in stopping Wistrom.
  33. Ethan steals a car of his own, a BMW convertible, and chases Wistrom on a highway completely darkened by the sandstorm. Ethan gains on Wistrom, but Wistrom manages to escape. It’s revealed that Wistrom was wearing a mask–it was really Hendricks all along!
  34. While Ethan makes a mysterious phone call, Brandt yells at Jane for killing Moreau. Ethan confronts Brandt–it’s clear that Brandt is more than a senior analyst. Ethan leaves. Brandt explains his history to Benji and Jane. When Brandt was a field agent, he’d been tasked to protect a husband and wife, but the wife was killed. Brandt couldn’t face another life or death situation, so he became an analyst. It’s revealed that Ethan was the husband in Brandt’s story.
  35. Ethan meets up with Bogdan and Bogdan’s cousin, an arms dealer, who gives Ethan a crucial piece of information: an obsolete satellite was sold by Russia to India, a satellite which Hendricks needs in order to launch his nuclear weapon.
  36. Ethan secures a private flight to India for his team. The arms dealer calls Sidorov and reveals Ethan’s plans to him.
  37. The IMF team reviews their plan–they have to shut down the satellite by gaining its access code. Jane will seduce Brij Nath, the satellite’s owner, to secure the code. Brandt has to make a 25-foot drop, aided by magnets, to hack into the computer array and then stop it from working by using the access codes provided by Jane.
  38. The team arrives in Mumbai. Ethan and Jane crash Brij Nath’s very lavish party. Brandt makes his leap. Jane makes her move on Brij Nath. She’s unsuccessful, but recaptures Brij Nath’s interest when Ethan kisses her, arousing Brij Nath’s jealousy. Sidorov arrives at the party.
  39. Hendricks and Wistrom storm the telcom center controlling the satellite. They put a virus into the system to reprogram it.
  40. Jane secures the satellite’s access codes from Brij Nath, but the IMF team is too late. Because of the virus, they can’t override the satellite. They did gain one valuable piece of information though: Hendricks’s precise location.
  41. Ethan and Jane leave Brij Nath’s party. Sidorov spots Ethan as he leaves. Brandt safely makes it out of the computer array.
  42. Ethan races to the telcom station in a snazzy BMW i8–he only has 30 seconds before the nuclear launch sequence will be initiated.
  43. Despite his adept maneuvering, Ethan’s too late. Hendricks has confirmed the nuclear missile launch. The missile is airborne. Ethan concludes that there still must be a way to abort the missile–and whatever that way is, it must be within the launch device itself, which is currently in Hendricks’s hands. The missile needs to receive the abort instructions within 3 minutes, otherwise it will detonate.
  44. Jane barges into the telcom station while Ethan takes off after Hendricks. Wistrom shoots Jane. Brandt and Benji arrive at the telcom station. Benji has to rewire the computers because Wistrom has destroyed the relay, and without the relay, the missile won’t receive its instructions to abort.
  45. Ethan and Hendricks duke it out at a sophisticated parking garage. Ethan gets the launch device, then loses it. Back at the telcom station’s electrical room, Brandt chases Wistrom, who’s turned off the power, which is essential for the relay to work.
  46. At the parking garage, Ethan and the launch device play a very dangerous game of hide and seek. Both Ethan and Hendricks become injured as they chase and fight with each other. Hendricks grabs the case containing the device and jumps to his death to keep it out of Ethan’s hands. Ethan commandeers a white BMW and takes a 100-meter vertical drop to the bottom of the garage in order to reach Hendricks.
  47. Brandt and Wistrom fight. Now that he has the launch device, Ethan tries to deactivate the missile, but since the power hasn’t been restored at the telcom station, the missile doesn’t receive Ethan’s instructions to abort.
  48. Benji bursts into the power room and shoots Wistrom. Brandt turns on the power. Jane turns on the relay. The nuke finally gets the instructions and is aborted.
  49. Sidorov arrives at the parking garage and realizes that Ethan’s been telling him the truth all along–they are friends not enemies.
  50. At a Seattle bar, Ethan introduces his new team to his old friend, Luther. Ethan gives them a new mission. Brandt doesn’t accept it, and confesses to Ethan that he was responsible for the death of Ethan’s wife. Ethan asks him, “how do you know she’s dead?” and reveals that he faked her death in order to protect her. Brandt accepts his new mission.
  51. Ethan takes one long yearning look at his wife, who smiles back at him, then disappears into the night, on a new Mission: Impossible.

Typewriter (with modifications) by Xlibber

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