They're the same, but different.

July 31, 2015 at 05:09 PM EDT

The Mission: Impossible franchise is defined by its lack of obvious definition. Compare the five films starring Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt to the other series that define modern Hollywood. There is no serialized narrative running through the films, no recurring antagonists, no shared setting. No Voldemort, no Empire, no Thanos, no dinosaur-inhabited islands off Costa Rica. (Even the James Bond series has evolved toward serialization in the modern era: Quantum of Solace was a franchise-first direct sequel, and Skyfall gave Bond a dead-parent mythology which apparently leads into this fall’s Spectre.)

There is no Mission: Impossible mythology, no Mission: Impossible cinematic universe, no long-running mysteries. The films practically ignore each other: You could watch them in any order and get the same effect.The franchise does remix elements from the original TV show — theme song, masks, one totally fascinating character crossover — but the first film arrived in 1996, before everyone in Hollywood suddenly discovered the concept of a “fanbase,” and so the first movie is built on a plot element that constitutes whatever the precise opposite of “fan service” is.

You might argue that the Mission: Impossible franchise is boring, or vanilla, or somehow less complex than the mass of Harry Potters and Lord of the Rings and Marvels and DCs that emerged over the last two decades. Nothing could be further from the truth. I find each of the films fascinating — especially the one I despise. Star-producer Tom Cruise insists 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. Each film is, in an oddly appealing way, a specific director’s version of the same movie. And most of the best scenes in the franchise come down to a simple equation: Tom Cruise wants something; everything in the world prevents him from getting that thing; crisis ensues.

And 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 feel 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 above him—and 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 full IMAX 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 feels like a soft reboot 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 feels 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. But Ghost Protocol also occasionally feels like 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 that feels 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. It’s Mission: Impossible, but it’s also Spy vs. Spy.

2. Rogue Nation

The latest Mission 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 Rogue Nation, a minor-key blockbuster built on throwback pleasures. McQuarrie’s real setpiece comes later, in an elaborate opera sequence (with a sniper or three) that feels 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 feels like a real expression for the journeyman screenwriter-turned-Cruise Whisperer. It’s there 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 — she’s like a younger version of Vanessa Redgrave from Mission 1.

The back half of the film makes a joke out of the franchise’s complexity. As the Big Bad, Sean Harris is playing a lesser Roger Moore-James Bond villain — Blofeld without the cat — but there’s a real comic tension between his Solomon Lane and Hunt, portrayed here as two chess players trying to think a couple hundred moves ahead.

Rogue Nation is an unmistakably modest iteration of the series — 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!

3. Mission: Impossible

The first film in this 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 the first film feels more like an old-fashioned thriller. The best scenes are the quiet parts: The single bead of sweat falling off Cruise’s glasses, or 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:

It’s easy to forget just how clever and unusual this first film is. 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.

The first film is the only part of the franchise 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 hero into the villain?

The first film is 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, and Emmanuelle Béart is wasted as an excellent femme fatale in search of a character arc. But above all, the original Mission looks endearingly old-fashioned now: A snapshot of a moment when big dumb blockbusters were smaller, and smarter.

4. M:I 2

Bigger and dumber, and bigger and dumber. This is the movie where Cruise indulged 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 soap opera. 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 beginning of the second Mission, where Ethan Hunt goes rock climbing 70 stories high. (His only supplies: A couple carabiners, and his 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 PG-13 rating means that this feels a bit like Diet Caffeine-Free John Woo, but 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 swear his love for her in a scene taken straight out of Last of the Mohicans, and the whole thing comes down to 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. But seriously: That hair!

5. M:I:iii

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 the third film is the one that tries hardest to dimensionalize Ethan Hunt. 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 a typical human person. Monaghan’s fine in a thankless role — her whole purpose is representing “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 maybe 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.

The film knocks one scene out of the park — I’d put the Vatican City infiltration in the franchise’s top five setpieces — but Abrams was still a big screen newbie, and the early helicopter-chase sequence feels choppy. (Another Mission that’s a movie of its time: The whole thing plays a bit like a Bourne movie riff, all shaky-cams and monochrome nightscapes.) It’s servicable—and forgettable. But the film did provide us with one immortal moment: Tom Cruise doing casual small talk.

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