Let's rank the Mission: Impossible movies
The Mission: Impossible franchise is defined by its lack of obvious definition. Compare the six films starring Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt to the other series that define modern Hollywood. Until the most recent entry, there was no serialized narrative, and there are no recurring settings. No Voldemort, no Tatooine, no Thanos, no dinosaur-inhabited islands off Costa Rica. There is no Mission: Impossible mythology, and it's not really a "cinematic universe." Characters reappear, but the plots generally ignore each other. Since Tom Cruise never really ages, you could almost watch them out of order. Elements from the original TV show might get remixed — theme song, masks, one totally fascinating character crossover — but the first film is built on a plot element that constitutes whatever the precise opposite of “fan service” is.
Cruise, the star-producer, used to insist on hiring a new director for each movie. It’s easy to overpraise this strategy while underrating its true brilliance. Mission: Impossible 2 isn’t really radically different from Ghost Protocol. The elements are all the same: Cruise, banter-y spy team, hanging from high places, incoherent plot thing requiring incoherent computer things.
But the magic of the Missions is their execution. The first four films are distinct directors' version of the same movie: Tom Cruise wants something; everything in the world prevents him from getting that thing; crisis ensues. The ascendance of Christopher McQuarrie as Cruise's chief collaborator shifts the equation, but only slightly, and it's notable that his first two outings have different visual palettes and emotional tones.
So the problem of ranking the Mission: Impossible films is, initially, a problem of applying definition to the undefinable. What makes these very similar movies so very different? In coming up with this ranking, I have considered a few key variables:
The Big Showcase Scene Where Cruise Does Something Wildly Athletic, and how it works within the context of the movie around it.
The Quality of Cruise’s Team, because the most intriguing thing about this star-centric franchise is how much it depends on heist-genre democratic ideals of teamwork and collaboration.
The Director, and how their Mission: Impossible film does or doesn’t fit in with the rest of their filmography.
The Zeitgeist Factor, or the degree to which the film reflects the specific blockbuster movie moment that produced it.
The Cruise Factor, or how the films deploy Cruise’s star persona.
And the Villains, each underwhelming in their own special way.
Let’s start at the top with the franchise’s highest point, and then let Jean Reno gradually lower us to the heat-sensitive floor.
1. Ghost Protocol
The best part of the best Mission isn’t Tom Cruise hanging off the side of the tallest building in the world. It’s not the dozen little moments that turned the Burj Khalifa sequence into one of the decade’s defining action setpieces: The elaborate exchange of money and activation codes on multiple floors, the grudge-match showdown between Paula Patton and Lea Seydoux, the sandstorm, Simon Pegg’s bellboy outfit, the declining battery life on Cruise’s magnetic gloves.
No, the best part of Ghost Protocol is the moment right before Cruise’s climb begins. He walks to an open window on what looks like the 237th floor, and the camera slowly rises over him, moving outside of the building.
If you saw the film in IMAX, there was an added kick to this moment: As the camera moved upward, the screen expanded to the fullsized aspect ratio. Director Brad Bird is a futurist-technocrat auteur of the highest order, but this was a moment of old-school theatrical showmanship at its most pure.
The Mission franchise wasn’t entirely secure before Ghost Protocol—the third entry grossed less in 2006 dollars than the first in 1996 dollars — which explains why the fourth film softly reboots back to basics. Or maybe it’s more accurate to call Ghost Protocol the Post-Apocalyptic Sequel. Everything is breaking down in Ghost Protocol. Messages don’t self-destruct. The mask machine is on the fritz. The Kremlin gets blown up, sending the franchise backward into the Cold War and the edge of nuclear oblivion. The result is a $145 million globe-trotting blockbuster about the virtues of just winging it.
It helps that Cruise has his best Mission squad ever. Ghost Protocol promoted Pegg from wacky-hacker pal to field-agent everyguy, and made a serious argument for Paula Patton, Action Hero. (Come on, Hollywood!) And there’s a nice bit of mystery surrounding Jeremy Renner’s character — even if the final reveal is a bit underwhelming.
The movie occasionally comes off like a live-action cartoon — and the final fight in the parking garage is the best Fast & Furious scene outside of an actual Fast & Furious movie. Ghost Protocol could also be a Christopher Nolan movie with the lights turned on. The fourth film reimagines Cruise as a vengeful loner, a man of few words defined entirely by his Gotta Save The World professionalism. (Conversely, Ghost Protocol‘s one major nod towards continuity—Hello, Michelle Monaghan!—is saved for a random-cameo ending right out of the Marvel Studios end-credits playbook.) Ghost Protocol doesn’t give Michael Nyqvist anything to play with — does he ever even talk? — but that’s because Bird smartly reduces the Byzantine complexity of the earlier films.
2. Rogue Nation
Christopher McQuarrie worked with Cruise several times before directing his first Mission, and their shorthand is evident immediately in this fleetfooted espionage bonanza. Rogue Nation wastes no time getting to its Big Showcase Scene: Cruise is dangling off the side of that airplane before the opening credits roll. That’s just the first surprise in this minor-key blockbuster built on throwback pleasures. The real setpiece comes later, in an elaborate opera sequence (with a sniper or three) that's positively Hitchcockian in its crosscutting complexity.
McQuarrie doesn’t have the filmography of the franchise’s other directors — although you should go watch The Way of the Gun immediately — but Rogue Nation is a real expression for the journeyman screenwriter-turned-Cruise Whisperer. You feel it in the profuse Casablanca references, and the way McQuarrie stitches together remnant franchise sidekicks — all hail the comedy pairing of Ving Rhames and Jeremy Renner! — into an IMF all-star team. Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa is a fine foil for Cruise’s Hunt. As the Big Bad, Sean Harris is playing a lesser Bond villain — Blofeld without the cat — but there’s a real comic tension between his Solomon Lane and Hunt, two chess players trying to think a couple hundred moves ahead.
Rogue Nation is a modest iteration, but it’s also lighthearted, shorn of the self-important swagger that defines some of the other movies (and most big blockbuster movies today). Alec Baldwin plays the head of the CIA as Jack Donaghy from 30 Rock, and Tom Hollander plays the prime minister of the United Kingdom as Simon Foster from In the Loop, and Simon Pegg gets another promotion to full-fledged buddy-cop co-star. Maybe it’s because he gets so many scenes of playing off Pegg, but Cruise looks positively lighthearted: Watch his physical reactions in the big car chase, and marvel at how Cruise is maybe the one person who can play “woozy semi-consciousness” and “ruthlessly efficient badass” at the same time. Just watch the man leap!
At long last, after 22 years: A good villain! Henry Cavill steals every scene as August Walker, an officious mountain of a CIA officer assigned to keep a close eye on Ethan Hunt as the team goes nuke-hunting. And from the moment Walker and Hunt go skydiving through a thunderstorm, Fallout announces itself as the franchise's mythic installment, so elemental that the evil plot is ruining water, and one of the antagonists is lightning.
It's also The One Where The Past Actually Matters, bringing back Monaghan and Ferguson for a delicate not-quite-romantic triangle and rebuilding Rogue Nation's Solomon Lane into an ongoing Big Bad. McQuarrie clockworks a host of memorable set pieces, from a nightclub scuffle to the centerpiece road-to-water-and-back-to-road-again prisoner heist. It's more than sheer spectacle, though what spectacle. McQuarrie tries harder than any filmmaker before him to dig deep into Hunt's motivations, forcing the hero to stare down nightmares both personal and global.
Fallout earned more than any film in the franchise — more than any film Tom Cruise has ever made — and earned general acclaim. Its placement at No. 3 can only feel punitive. I don't mean it that way. I really love five of these movies! Points removed, though, for a lengthy running time that deflates the final act in Kashmir, which pales next to the earlier scenes, and for an impossibly curlicue plot arc that makes you yearn for the relative simplicity of people talking frantically about a NOC list.
4. Mission: Impossible
The first film in this famous action franchise isn’t really an action movie at all. Sure, there are explosions, and gunshots, and a helicopter-versus-train climax that hasn’t aged well. But in this old-fashioned thriller, the best scenes are the quiet parts: A single bead of sweat falling off Cruise’s glasses, the mesmerizing everything-you-thought-you-knew-is-a-lie sitdown with Kittridge. Just two guys talking in a restaurant, but De Palma films it like a gladiator duel:
De Palma always loved the Psycho fakeout: The Act I twist where you learn that the movie you’re watching isn’t the movie you thought it was. So the first Mission introduces Ethan Hunt alongside a team of familiar faces — Emilio Esteves, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Jon Voight — and proceeds to kill them all off, suddenly and unexpectedly. This is the only entry to really knit itself into the original series: Voight plays Jim Phelps, imagined here as an aging Cold Warrior close to retirement. What the film does with Phelps is actually quite insidious (SPOILER ALERT) because how many other franchises would dare to make the defining hero into the villain?
It's all maybe one setpiece away from perfection. The opening embassy sequence is great, and the CIA heist is a marvel; but the final act is a muddle, the climactic helicopter looks janky, Emmanuelle Béart is wasted as an excellent femme fatale in search of a character arc. Still, here's a snapshot of a moment when big dumb blockbusters were smaller, and smarter.
5. M:I 2
Bigger and dumber, and bigger and dumber. Cruise indulges himself as a martial-arts maven and a fanboy for Hong Kong cinema, hiring expatriate John Woo and letting him film a spy movie like a glossy gunshot melodrama. M:I 2 arrived in 2000, which just means it’s the mountaintop peak for 90s Cruise: You can draw a line from the actor’s cocky Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder right to the opening here, when Ethan Hunt goes rock climbing 70 stories high. (His only supplies: A couple carabiners, and perfect hair.)
I won’t try to defend the second Mission on the grounds of logic (the bad guys want stock options?) or subtle storytelling (the evil virus is called Chimera, the antidote is called Bellerophon.) The script is credited to Robert Towne, with a “story by” credit granted to Star Trek wonder team Brannon Braga and (pre-Battlestar Galactica) Ronald D. Moore. Which means it took a lot of writing talent to come up with a story that’s just Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious rewritten for kindergarteners. The sheer swoony indulgence of the movie is its own reward. Cruise falls in love with Thandie Newton during a car chase, and he gets to promise love for her in a scene taken straight out of Last of the Mohicans. The whole thing apexes into a man-to-man motorcycle jump hug.
As the villain, Dougray Scott is the franchise’s Carter Verone: Ridiculous, skeezy, and not remotely threatening. Actually, this really is the Mission franchise’s 2 Fast 2 Furious: A goofball outlier with a wacky spirit that infuses the later films with an essential sense of cartoony fun. Like a lot of post-Matrix blockbusters, the sequel hasn’t aged well. Seriously: That hair!
The biggest bug with this movie is, for some people, its central feature. Always a keen observer of upcoming talent, Cruise plucked J.J. Abrams from small-screen cult glory and gave him his first shot at a megabudget feature film. So the third Mission is recognizable as a spiritual sibling to Alias: A spy thriller that treats the central agent as a kind of superhero, alternating between their Normal Life and the Spy World. Abrams loves to make things personal — he would later kill Kirk’s father and Spock’s mother in the same movie — and so this is the Mission that tries hardest to bring Ethan Hunt down to earth. He’s retired and happily engaged; he only comes back to work for a this-time-it’s-personal rescue mission. (Abrams initially pitched Alias with the question “What if Felicity were a spy?” and so it’s appropriate that, in his first movie, Felicity actually is a spy.)
The problem with this is simple: I’m not sure Ethan Hunt is really supposed to be human. Monaghan’s fine in a thankless role — her whole purpose is “normality” — but their chemistry lacks the sparks of Cruise/Ferguson and the gauzy-goofy melodrama of Cruise/Newton. M:I:iii hired legitimate genius Philip Seymour Hoffman as the villain, but his Owen Davian is the most abstract bad guy, in a franchise that already trends toward abstract megalomanics. This is an Abrams production through and through, which means it starts with an exciting flashforward that ultimately leads into a deflating less-cool-than-you-think reveal.
One scene rocks: I’d put the Vatican City infiltration in the franchise’s top five setpieces. Abrams was still a big screen newbie, though, and the early aerial chase sequence feels choppy. (Another Mission that's very much of its time: The whole thing plays a bit like a Bourne riff, all shaky-cams and monochrome nightscapes.) There is one immortal moment: Tom Cruise doing casual small talk.