Six movies. Two decades.
Over that same time, numerous trilogies, franchises, and sundry cinematic universes have come and gone. Some may have 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: which one’s the best?
Here’s my answer to that question, adding it to the Film Twitter pile that’s rife with them.
But before I do, I’ll briefly highlight the six films sequentially and spoiler-free. Watching them in order again recently made for a very interesting bit of binge viewing. Honestly, they’re more interesting to evaluate in their linear evolution rather than a disjointed ranking, particularly given how the first five were each helmed by different directors.
Mission: Impossible (1996: dir. Brian De Palma)
Way more than just cheap nostalgia from a studio looking to cash in on an existing title, this was a stylish, ambitious, complex spy thriller (too complex for some) that took big risks right from the opening act and never let up.
It’s a great example of legendary director Howard Hawks’ credo for what constitutes a good movie. To paraphrase, Mission: Impossible is anchored by three great scenes without having any bad ones: the Prague opening, the Langley break-in, and the cuh-razy bullet-train finale. Each one a masterwork of cinematic construction, tied together by high stakes twists and turns, all fueled by Cruise’s trademark intensity.
Mission: Impossible II (2000: dir. John Woo)
This is like a movie from a completely different franchise.
More akin to producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bay’s popular 1990s collaborations of slick bombast, augmented by director John Woo’s signature slow-mo’s, 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 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; quit trying to be clever and just give the people what they want.
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 the 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 aa wife to complicate the emotional stakes, plus 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 double down and go all out on what he does (and loves) best. Plus, just as blockbusters were giving way comic book universes and digital effects trickery, Cruise stayed true to his daredevil spirit by sticking with 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 McQuarrie’s 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), he was now given the reins to Cruise’s crown jewel.
A writer known for plot twists (he won an Oscar for his screenplay 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 possibly the craziest stunt in the history of the movies – certainly for the actual movie star to risk – and yet everything that follows isn’t a letdown. On the contrary, it delivers on the thrill that the opener promised.
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018: dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
You can read my full review here.
And now my mission – that I have 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 the movie is bad. This one isn’t…barely. Its 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…if 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 it’s in 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 of why it’s the best series in movies today.
2. Mission: Impossible
It’s not that I forgot how good this movie was, but 22 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). It’s one of those rare tentpole action movies that, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, aspired more to when movies were at their best rather than desperately chasing the latest technological 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 this series, 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 broader Mission, each feeding into the next, that – more than any M:I film before it – truly lived up to the moniker of impossible.
And that’s how I rank them.
Sure, many are currently praising the new Fallout as the best Mission yet, and 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’ll all keep hoping that Cruise keeps doing these death-defying missions into the impossible era of his 60s.
But then, why wouldn’t he? He is the incarnation of the franchise’s best line, delivered in Alec Baldwin‘s whispered intensity: Cruise, like Hunt, is the living manifestation of destiny.
If we’re lucky, he’ll keep making us his mission.