In 1996, Brian De Palma’s stylish Mission: Impossible hit the screen right in the middle of a summer packed with blockbusters — Twister and Independence Day, among others. Even then, it still managed to rake in $457 million worldwide on the back of Tom Cruise’s star power. While many were put off by the film’s confusing storyline, enough excitement was generated to warrant five sequels — and counting.
Next summer, nearly 30 years after the original, Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part 1 is set to release, and by the looks of the first trailer, it seems we’re in for another exciting dose of stunts, action, and Tom Cruise running really fast. That said, now felt like as good a time as any to rank the first six entries in the ongoing franchise. Your mission, should you choose to … you know, is to check out the following list (ranked from worst to best).
6. Mission: Impossible II
John Woo was the wrong man to helm Mission: Impossible. While the action scenes in the bloated 2000 sequel are occasionally quite glorious and perfectly in line with the Hong Kong director’s trademark style, they tend to clash with the murkier world of espionage established in Brian De Palma’s original film. Ethan Hunt morphs from low-key superspy to full-on action hero — he’s more James Bond than IMF Agent — and all but leaves his teammates in the dust while he takes on Dougray Scott’s flavorless villain and shags Thandiwe Newton’s sexy love interest, Nyah.
High points include a wild shootout in a chemical lab and an absurd motorcycle chase that’s more or less designed to make Tom Cruise look really cool. The actor certainly commits to his performance, but Ethan is so drastically different here than he was in 1996’s Mission: Impossible that he’s practically an all-new character.
And boo on whoever thought it was a good idea to sideline Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell for a majority of the fun.
5. Mission: Impossible III
As is the case with most JJ Abrams productions, Mission: Impossible III looks great and moves at a brisk pace. The action feels more grounded than before, the stunts more spectacular, and the script goes to great pains to make Ethan an actual human being rather than an indestructible superhero. Plus, Philip Seymour Hoffman all but steals the show as the villainous Owen Davian.
Alas, as is also the case with most JJ Abrams projects, much of what you see feels like remixed scenes from better movies. The central MacGuffin — aka, the Rabbit’s Foot – is never fully explained and the romantic subplot between Ethan and Michelle Monaghan’s Julia Meade feels like it was ripped straight out of Alias.
Tom Cruise does his best to elevate the material with an emotional (and physically daunting) performance, though it’s frustrating to see our hero ditch his rock star team — consisting of Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Ving Rhames — for the third time in as many films so he can solo tackle Billy Crudup’s corrupt (and predictable) IMF turncoat.
4. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
Despite a solid start way back in the mid-90s, the Mission: Impossible franchise didn’t really find its stride until Brad Bird’s 2011 Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol. Not only did the fourth film finally force Cruise to share the screen with his unbelievably likeable castmates — Jeremy Renner, Paula Patton, and Simon Pegg — but it’s the first one that allows the actor to fully embrace the daredevil persona that has since become something of a trademark for the superstar. In this case, Cruise ascends Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in a thrilling set piece that induces as many gasps as it does cheers.
The plot, for what it’s worth, doesn’t stick mostly due to Michael Nyqvist’s expressionless villain. There are a number of scenes — notably an extended bit featuring Bollywood star Anil Kapoor — that probably could have been whittled down to improve the meandering pacing; and Michael Giacchino’s score lacks the necessary punch required to really drive home the action (particularly in the third act).
All in all, though, Ghost Protocol makes for a fun time at the movies and entertains more than it has any right to.
3. Mission: Impossible
I’ve always been a sucker for Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible from 1996, aka the one that started it all. Despite a convoluted plot and a third act finale that jettisons smarts in favor of big, dumb action, Mission: Impossible dazzles with its brilliant set pieces, shocking twists and turns (no matter how contrived), and carefully constructed intrigue.
In hindsight, it was a mistake to turn good ol’ Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) into a bitter traitor — a plot point likely created to let Ethan fly solo — but as a standalone feature separate from the Mission: Impossible TV series, the twist works quite brilliantly as presented. Even now, nothing beats that now iconic heist at the CIA’s headquarters. Plus, how do you top a killer cast that includes Voight, Ving Rhames, Emmanuelle Béhart, Jean Reno, and Vanessa Redgrave?
2. Mission: Impossible — Fallout
Mission: Impossible — Fallout will likely go down as one of the greatest action films ever made. From start to finish, Christopher McQuarrie’s spy caper moves at a breakneck speed (aided by Lorne Balfe’s terrific score) and delivers incredible set piece after incredible set piece. By the time the credits roll, you’re just as exhausted as Ethan Hunt!
The only reason Fallout doesn’t top the list is mostly due to A) my near insane love of Rogue Nation, B) the film’s questionable mishandling of Henry Cavill’s brutish villain, and C) a plot that all too freely borrows elements from previous Mission installments (another rogue agent?). Ethan’s team must once again detach from the IMF, and most of the heavy lifting is done by our main man (who else will hang upside from a helicopter?).
Still, the various chases, fights, stunts, and shootouts are top notch. A bathroom brawl between Hunt, Walker (Cavill), and a mark kicks all kinds of ass, while that motorcycle chase through London and the climactic helicopter chase are absolutely stunning to behold. Tom Cruise really is the last true superstar.
1. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation
I freely admit I’ve seen Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation at least a hundred times. There’s such an electrifying energy about the production — it’s almost Hitchcockian — that you can’t help but marvel at the sights and sounds radiating from the TV. The opening sequence, in which Tom Cruise hangs off the side of a plane, is perhaps the most ambitious of any non-Indiana Jones film; and the various missions executed throughout the swift 130-minute runtime are striking in their own unique ways. Who can forget the opera scene? Or when Cruise reverse crunches his way up a pole? Or that crazy underwater bit? Or that high-octane motorcycle chase? It all looks and feels so real, it’s easy to forget you’re watching a movie.
If all the wild stunts weren’t enough, the incredible cast — namely Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, and Alec Baldwin — inject the mayhem with a much-needed dose of humor and quirky personality. Though, really, Rogue Nation belongs to Rebecca Fergsuon’s Ilsa Faust and Sean Harris’ sneering baddie Solomon Lane, who thankfully stuck around for the subsequent sequel.
Also, Joe Kraemer provides the best score of the series, whilst Christopher McQuarrie’s hard-hitting action and breathtaking scope consistently wow. At some point, film scholars will look back at the Mission: Impossible franchise as a whole and point to Rogue Nation as the one that truly knocked it out of the park.