The Mission: Impossible franchise is one of the weirdest in film history. The movies tell no coherent story from first to last. The cast of characters is fluid; some stay the same, some leave, some come back after taking a break. Its closest cousin is the James Bond franchise, but there are 23 of those, so the changing cast of characters is accepted as a given. The action has been consistently great, but “action” isn’t much of a tentpole to hang millions of dollars onto every five years.
The one true constant in the M:I movies is Tom Cruise and his stunts, and it’s a testament to his level of movie stardom after all these years that people still want to see him do impossible things. They don’t seem to pay attention if it’s a high-concept sci-fi (Edge of Tomorrow) or a boring book adaptation (Jack Reacher), but if they know he’s going to do something impossible to familiar theme music they tend to turn out in droves, judging by the most recent movie’s opening box office total ($56 million, more than the rest of them except M:I II).
It’s easy to wonder why Cruise didn’t stop making them after the third one. It provided a tidy ending, some semblance of a future for Ethan Hunt outside of the Impossible Missions Force, and diminishing returns after the box office bonanza that was M:I II. But then you remember that Tom Cruise is an alien who comes from a planet where they poop out money, so why would they ever let this franchise die? Indeed, the last two movies have foregone closure for Ethan Hunt, to where it’s not hard to imagine, sometime in the not-so-distant future, a wheelchair-bound Tom Cruise still doing his own stunts.
But in case Rogue Nation is the last one, this is the indisputable ranking of all five M:I movies:
5. Mission: Impossible II (2000)
This movie made the most money of any Mission: Impossible movie. It’s also the worst. It’s not a good movie, and it’s the only one that doesn’t clear the low bar of “I’d watch that if it came on cable and I have nothing else to do”. One of the fun things about the M:I series is how different directors have left their fingerprints on it. Well, John Woo left his greasy, overstylized prints all over this movie, and it lost any of the first one’s spy movie suspense. But it made the most money, so I must be wrong.
4. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
J.J. Abrams’s M:I movie is the epitome of good enough. It has the benefit of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s superb villain, the best in the series by far, with the tandem villainy in the first movie a distant second. And III has the most satisfying ending, since it’s the only one designed to bring a modicum of closure to Ethan Hunt’s life, even if Abrams relegates the great Michelle Monaghan to a do-nothing role. The action in this one is nice as well, but it’s not particularly special, especially when compared to what came after. It is notable that there were a couple directors on this one before Abrams and that Cruise called up Abrams specifically to ask him to take on the project when they didn’t work out, which just goes to show that if you can poop money you can choose your own director.
3. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Rogue Nation feels so much like a James Bond movie, but it might just be because Rebecca Ferguson is British. Though Tom Cruise never has sex with her or treats her like an object, so you know this isn’t a Bond movie. In fact, Ferguson’s is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-double-agent is what sets this one apart from the others- not that there aren’t plenty of potential double agents throughout M:I’s short movie history, but Ferguson sticks out. She’s every bit Ethan’s equal in terms of spy skills, and the interplay between them is fascinating. Everything else about the movie is par for the course, which is what you get when you let Christopher McQuarrie (Jack Reacher) direct your movie, but par for action movies is always entertaining.
2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
You could potentially make an argument that Ghost Protocol is actually the best of the five, and you might convince me, mostly because the M:I franchise isn’t one I care enough about to argue my case. (In contrast, if you told me that you happen to think The Empire Strikes Back is “not that good”, I’d probably “punch you in the face” and “lose all respect for you”.) It definitely has the best action of the five thanks to the punch that director Brad Bird (The Incredibles) brings to the table. There are endlessly exciting and creative action sequences, not the least of which is the one where Ethan hangs by one hand from the Burg Khalifa, Ghost Protocol’s equivalent of the heist scene in the original in that it’s the scene that everyone remembers because it’s executed absolutely perfectly.
1. Mission: Impossible (1996)
The original movie (based on the original 1960s-1970s TV show, by the way, which I guess makes the movie unoriginal) feels like the most insular of the five, the one that stands completely on its own. It helps that it actually feels like a spy movie, with operations that are actually covert and a constant, shadowy paranoia. The rest of them come off like Ethan Hunt transplanted into action movies so that he’s just a spy by name. Not that there’s not great action in this one- the final train scene stands with the rest of the canon as one of the best (and most ludicrous) action scenes. And there’s more suspense in the nearly silent heist scene (the one where Tom Cruise is hanging over the computer, trying to keep a drop of sweat from hitting the ground) than in most action movies. Director Brian De Palma, for all his gimmicks in some of his other movies, brought the tightest direction of the five, so that nineteen years later, the first remains the best.