(Updated on May 20, 2021)
Six movies. Two decades. Now moving into a third.
Over that same time, numerous trilogies, franchises, and sundry cinematic universes have come and gone. Some have even been more prolific than the Mission: Impossible series, but few – if any – have been better.
Indeed, as the conventional wisdom of film critics would have it, there isn’t a better current franchise in movies today. Not by Marvel. Not Star Wars. Not Jurassic. Not The Fast and the Furious. Not any from Disney, Pixar, or ones featuring Minions. I agree — especially after what writer/director Christopher McQuarrie has done with it, but primarily because Tom Cruise is willing to risk his life for our blockbuster pleasure.
The big question, then, is this, should we choose to ask it: which one of the six missions is the best?
Before I answer that with my own specific rankings, I’ll briefly review the six films — sequentially and spoiler-free. Watching them in order again made for a very interesting bit of binge viewing. Honestly, they’re more interesting to evaluate in their linear evolution rather than as a disjointed affair, particularly given how the first five were each helmed by distinctly different directors.
Mission: Impossible (1996: dir. Brian De Palma)
Way more than just cheap nostalgia, with more effort by a studio than one simply looking to cash in on an existing title, the first movie Mission is a stylish, ambitious, complex spy thriller (perhaps too complex for some, even Siskel & Ebert — who nevertheless still raved). It takes big risks right from the start and really pops all the way to the finish. In a script co-written by Chinatown writer Robert Towne, there are big shocks in the opening act and, from there, it never lets up.
Brian De Palma‘s taught thriller is a great example of director Howard Hawks’ credo for what constitutes a good movie. To paraphrase him, Mission: Impossible is anchored by three great scenes and doesn’t have any bad ones in between them: the Prague opening, the Langley break-in, and the gonzo bullet-train finale. Each one is a masterwork of cinematic construction, tied together by high stakes twists and turns, all fueled by Cruise’s trademark intensity. (It also provides an underrated score by Danny Elfman, stealthily one of his best, especially in how he uses flutes, timpani, and tight bongo-tom percussion to evoke the classic aesthetic of the genre.)
Mission: Impossible II (2000: dir. John Woo)
This is like a movie from a completely different franchise.
It was more akin to producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay’s popular 1990s collaborations of slick bombast, then augmented by director John Woo’s signature slow-mo’s and two-handed pistol dives, guns-a-blazing and doves flying (oh yes, the doves).
All earnestness was gone; now everything was done with a wink. Even the use of masks was predictable. The cloak-and-dagger intrigue was ditched, simplifying things to straightforward spy action. And Dougray Scott’s bad guy was a cheesy (and bland) Bond villain rip-off…and to think he chose this role over being cast as Wolverine in the first X-Men (thank God!).
If the first film gave us things we wouldn’t expect (and it did, in spades), then M:I-2 gave us exactly everything we would. But hey, the action was still cool (especially the climactic bike chase, which was Woo in all his overindulgent glory). Maybe that’s why it remains the franchise’s highest grossing entry. It quit trying to be clever and just gave the people the mindless action they wanted.
Mission: Impossible III (2006: dir. J.J. Abrams)
After a few failed efforts to make the third, Cruise watched the first few seasons of ABC’s spy show Alias over one weekend. At the end of his binge, Cruise called up series creator/producer J.J. Abrams and asked him to write and direct Mission III.
Abrams agreed, infusing the franchise with his affinity to maximize mystery and suspense through non-linear storytelling (a perfect fit for espionage). Abrams gave Ethan Hunt a wife to complicate the emotional stakes, along with a villain in Philip Seymour Hoffman that was truly formidable.
It also fulfilled the “three great scenes” quota – by the end of the first hour! It then doubled that by film’s end. III is a relentless ride that doesn’t stop, with action set-pieces feeding one into the next, all while integrating its character dynamics rather than overwhelming them.
This would’ve served as a perfect trilogy closer, but thankfully it wasn’t.
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011: dir. Brad Bird)
Before I bury the lead with some behind-the-scenes intrigue: Ghost Protocol resurrected a franchise that was on life support. Another half decade had passed between installments, and Cruise’s post-Oprah couch jumping cache had withered.
But instead of trying to redefine his leading man persona, Cruise decided to go all out and double down on what he does (and loves) best. Plus, just as blockbusters were giving way to comic book universes and digital effects trickery, Cruise stayed true to his daredevil spirit by orchestrating insane practical stunts that defied both logic and physics. Ethan Hunt scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, the tallest building in the world, is iconic.
Animator Brad Bird (The Incredibles, The Iron Giant) delivered a big hit and the movie turned Cruise’s career back around. But here’s where the making-of intrigue comes in.
Given Cruise’s tarnished image, Paramount had decided to hand off the series from Cruise to up-and-comer Jeremy Renner. But when the narrative wasn’t gelling during production, Christopher McQuarrie was brought in to ghost write fixes (and, according to some reports, also direct them). His guiding ethos was to elevate Cruise, not transition him out.
The rest is history, including the fact that McQuarrie would become Cruise’s primary collaborator during the next decade. It’s telling, too, that Bird’s only other live action attempt was the big budget flop Tomorrowland. He’s since gone back to what he does best: Pixar and Incredibles 2.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015: dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Following his save of Ghost Protocol and then helping Cruise kickstart a new, more bare bones action series with Jack Reacher (Tom’s old school answer to Jason Bourne), Christopher McQuarrie was now given the reins to Cruise’s crown jewel.
A writer known for plot twists (he won an Oscar for his screenplay of The Usual Suspects), McQuarrie flips the script on the Mission formula right from the start, bringing a blindside halfway through the classic self-destructing mission tape communique. He also brought back a sense of De Palma’s original, darker quasi-Hitchcock suspense in the Vienna Opera sequence, complete with cat-like stealth acrobatics.
It was the franchise’s best ensemble to date, particularly with the addition of Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust and Sean Harris’s Solomon Lane (a villain finally on par with Hoffman’s from III), although I’d still like for this series to find room again for Protocol’s Paula Patton, too.
Bottom line: Rogue Nation opens with arguably the craziest stunt in the history of the movies – certainly for an actual movie star to risk – and yet everything that follows isn’t a letdown. On the contrary, it delivers on the thrill that the breathtaking opener promised.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018: dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
You can read my full review here. It’s pretty glowing.
And now my mission – since I’ve chosen to accept it – is to accurately rank the Mission: Impossible films from worst to best. No matter where this lands, please don’t disavow me.
6. Mission: Impossible II
Just because a movie is the worst of a franchise doesn’t necessarily mean its completely awful. This one isn’t…barely. The sophisticated action set-pieces compensate for the unsophisticated tone (similar to the Bronson Bonds of the same era), helping it to be a worthwhile entertainment in fits and starts…in spite of itself.
5. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
When a movie this good is ranked this low (next-to-last!), that’s how you know the franchise is the best in movies today. Still, the Dubai Tower sequence aside, this is probably the least daring entry of the series and packs the fewest set pieces.
4. Mission: Impossible III
Being a diehard Alias fan, my first viewing of III back in 2006 felt too familiar, but now with some distance it stands really strong on its own, holds up better than most, and plays magnificently. Pound for pound it may have the most action of them all, plus it has Abrams’ unique, clever wit even when situations are at their most harrowing (“I’m going to die unless you kill me!”). Philip Seymour Hoffman is soooo good, too.
3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
As I said in my review, Fallout may not be the best in the series (if only because the weight of it depends so much on the events of Rogue Nation), but it’s a perfect example as to why Mission: Impossible is the best franchise in movies today.
2. Mission: Impossible
It’s not that I forgot how good this movie was, but 25 years ago I wasn’t sophisticated enough to fully appreciate it, especially how a major part of its dark cloak-and-dagger aesthetic was an homage to the noir pictures of the 40s and 50s (I’m thinking especially of Carol Reed’s 1949 impressionistic paranoia of The Third Man), particularly with its stark, canted angles — even in close-up.
It’s one of those rare tentpole action movies that, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, aspired to a golden era of classic moviemakng rather than desperately chasing the latest technological and stylistic trends. (And as a bonus, the original movie still makes the best use of the Mission: Impossible theme more than any of the films have since, which is no small feat.)
1. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
The fifth Mission finally synthesized everything that was great about the franchise, packing it all into one movie. Between McQuarrie’s plotting prowess and Cruise’s thrill-seeking drive to do literally anything, Rogue Nation came up with a series of sequential missions within the bigger, broader mission, each feeding into the next. More than any M:I film before it, Rogue Nation truly lived up to the moniker of impossible.
And that’s how I rank them.
Many critics praised the most recent entry Fallout (my #3) as the best Mission yet when it was first released. While I don’t agree, I have zero inclination to debate anyone who does. I’d rather just shut up and listen to them gush. And then we can all be thrilled that Cruise has chosen to accept at least two more death-defying missions into this truly impossible series (and into his 60s).
But then, why wouldn’t he? He is the incarnation of the franchise’s best line, delivered by Alec Baldwin in his patented whispered intensity:
Cruise, like Hunt, is the living manifestation of destiny.
(Mission: Impossible VII will open in theaters next summer on May 27, 2022 for the Memorial Day weekend.)