Mission: Impossible Movies Ranked from Worst to Best (Including Dead Reckoning Part One)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to recognize that this is the definitive ranking for the Mission: Impossible movies, including the newly released Dead Reckoning Part One.

Mission Impossible Movies Ranked
Photo: Paramount Pictures

This article contains some Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One spoilers.

As hard as it is to remember these days, there was a time when the “Mission: Impossible” title was not synonymous with god-tier action sequences and breathtaking stunts that appeared designed to push the boundaries of big screen spectacle. In fact, when Tom Cruise first slipped into a pair of Ethan Hunt’s running shoes in 1996, the original Mission: Impossible film was viewed as much through the lens of it being an adaptation of a popular, if fading, television series from the 1960s as it was a Cruise star vehicle. And that tension led to quite a bit of criticism from fans of the show over a plot twist where the series’ original hero (now played by Jon Voight) turned out to be the villain.

We’re not here to pass judgment on that creative choice. But by moving the brand squarely over into Cruise’s personal portfolio—with Mission: Impossible also being the first movie the actor produced via his Cruise/Wagner Productions company—the pivot has given him the latitude to craft a magnum opus that, sequel after sequel, and decade after decade, has blossomed into one of the most kinetic and rewarding Hollywood sagas of the 21st century.

Over the last decade, in particular, Cruise and a now familiar creative team, which includes writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, have turned Mission: Impossible into a brand irrevocably linked to staggering action sequences filmed largely in-camera, and with Cruise happily courting death for our viewing entertainment. Along the way, they’ve also built an impressive ensemble cast that, after all these years, really do feel like a super-team (a little bit like the old TV show, in fact). With each installment at least creating the illusion of handcrafted moviemaking in an increasingly synthetic and digital cinema landscape, the series looks likely to become Cruise’s biggest onscreen legacy. Here’s how its chapters are ranked.

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Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible II

7. Mission: Impossible II (2000)

It’s hardly controversial to put John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II dead last. From its overabundance of slow-mo action—complete with Woo’s signature flying doves—to its use of Limp Bizkit, and even that nonsensical plot about manmade viruses that still doesn’t feel timely on the other side of 2020, MI:-2 is a relic of late ‘90s Hollywood excess. On the one hand, it’s kind of marvelous that Cruise let Woo completely tear down and rebuild a successful franchise-starter in the Hong Kong filmmaker’s own image. On the other, it’s perhaps telling of where Cruise’s ego was at that time since Woo used this opportunity to transform the original all-American Ethan Hunt into a god of celluloid marble.

And make no mistake, there is something godlike to how Woo’s camera fetishizes Cruise’s sunglasses and new, luxuriant mane of jet black hair during Hunt’s big introduction where he is seen free-climbing across a rock face without rope. It would come to work as metaphor for the rest of the movie where, despite ostensibly being the leader of a team, Ethan is mostly going it alone as he does ridiculous things like have a medieval duel against his evil doppelgänger (Dougray Scott), only both men now ride motorcycles instead of horses. The onscreen team, meanwhile, stares slack-jawed as Ethan finds his inner-Arnold Schwarzenegger and massacres entire scores of faceless mercenaries in multiple shootouts.

While gunplay has always been an element of modern spy thrillers, the Mission: Impossible movies work best when the characters use their wits (and the stunt team’s ingenuity) to escape elaborate, tricky situations. So there’s something banal about the way M:I-2 resembles any other late ‘90s and early ‘00s actioner that might’ve starred Nicolas Cage or Bruce Willis. Technically, the plot involving Ethan’s reluctance to send new flame Nyah Hall (Thandiwe Newton) into the lion’s den as an informant has classical pedigree, remaking Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) in all but name. However, the movie is so in love with its movie star deity that even the supposedly central romance is cast in ambivalent shadow.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Mission Impossible III

6. Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Before he transformed Star Trek and Star Wars into remarkably similar franchises, writer-director J.J. Abrams made his big screen debut by doing much the same to the Mission: Impossible franchise. With his emphasis on extreme close-ups, heavy expository dialogue dumps, and intentionally vague motivations for his villains that seem to always have something to do with the War on Terror, Abrams remade the M:I franchise in the image of his TV shows, particularly Alias. This included turning Woo’s Übermensch from the last movie into the kind of suburban everyman who scores well with the Nielsen ratings and who has a sweet girl-next-door fiancée (Michelle Monaghan).

Your mileage may vary with this approach, but personally we found M:I-3 to be too much of a piece with mid-2000s television and lacking in a certain degree of movie magic. With that said, the movie has two fantastic aces up its sleeve. The first and most significant is a deliciously boorish performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the franchise’s scariest villain. Abrams’ signature monologues have never been more chilling as when Hoffman cuts through Cruise’s matinee heroics like a knife and unsettles the protagonist and the audience with an unblinking declaration of ill-intent. Perhaps more impressively, during one of the franchise’s famed “mask” sequences where Ethan disguises himself as Hoffman’s baddie, the character actor subtly and convincingly mimics Cruise’s leading man charisma.

That, plus introducing fan favorite Simon Pegg as Benji to the series (if in little more than a cameo), makes the movie worth a watch if not a revisit.

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Tom Cruise on Motorcycle in Mission: Impossible 7

5. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One

According to more than a few critics, including our own Don Kaye, the newest installment in the series is also the best one. I respectfully disagree. The first half of writer-director Christopher McQuarrie and Cruise’s Dead Reckoning epic, which at one time looked like it would be the grand finale for the franchise (although that may no longer be the case), is certainly every bit as ambitious and visually spectacular as the two collaborations which preceded it. The much marketed stunt where Cruise drives a motorcycle off a mountain is as astonishing as promised, and there is an absolutely crackerjack chase sequence in Rome where a handcuffed Cruise and franchise newcomer Hayley Atwell battle for control of a disintegrating Fiat.

In terms of old school spectacle and breakneck pacing, Dead Reckoning is easily the most entertaining action movie of summer 2023’s offerings. However, when compared to the best entries in the M:I franchise, Dead Reckoning leaves something be desired. While McQuarrie’s counterintuitive instinct to script the scenes after designing the set pieces, and essentially make it up as they went along, paid off in dividends in Fallout, the narrative of Dead Reckoning’s first half is shaggy and muddled. The second act is especially disjointed when the film arrives in Venice, and the actors seem as uncertain as the script is over what exactly the film’s nefarious A.I. villain, codename: “The Entity,” wants.

That this is the portion of the film which also thanklessly kills off fan favorite Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) does the movie no favors. Elsewhere in the film, Hayley Atwell proves a fantastic addition in her own right as Grace—essentially a civilian and audience surrogate who gets wrapped up in the M:I series’ craziness long enough to stare at Cruise in incredulity—but the inference that she is here to simply interchangeably replace Ilsa gives the film a sour subtext.

Still, Atwell’s Grace is great, Cruise’s Ethan is as mad as ever with his stunts, and even as the rest of the ensemble feels underutilized, seeing the team back together makes this a good time—while the unexpected return of Henry Czerny as Eugene Kittridge is downright great.

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol

4. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

There are many fans who will tell you that the Mission: Impossible franchise as we know it really started with this Brad Bird entry at the beginning of the 2010s, and it’s easy to see why. As the first installment made with a newly chastened Cruise—who Paramount Pictures had just spent years trying to fire from the series—it’s also the installment where the movie star remade his persona as a modern day Douglas Fairbanks. Here he becomes the guy you could count on to commit the most absurdly dangerous and ridiculous stunts for our entertainment. What a mensch.

And in terms of set pieces, nothing in the series may top this movie’s second act where Cruise is asked to become a real-life Spider-Man and wall-crawl—as well as swing and skip—along the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It’s a genuine showstopper that looms over the rest of the movie. Not that there isn’t a lot to enjoy elsewhere as Bird brings a slightly more sci-fi and cartoonish cheek to the proceedings with amusing gadgets like those aforementioned “blue means glue” Spidey gloves. Even more amusingly, the damn things never seem to work properly.

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This is also the first Mission: Impossible movie where the whole team feels vital to the success of the adventure, including a now proper sidekick in the returning Pegg and some solid support from Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner. For a certain breed of fan that makes this the best, but we would argue the team dynamics were fleshed out a little better down the road, and in movies that have more than one stunning set piece to their name.

Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Vault

3. Mission: Impossible (1996)

The last four entries of the series have been so good that it’s become common for folks to overlook the movie that started it all, Brian De Palma’s endlessly stylish Mission: Impossible. That’s a shame since there’s something admirably blasphemous to this day about a movie that would take an ancient pop culture property and throw the fundamentals out the window. In this case, that meant turning the original show’s hero, Jim Phelps (played by Jon Voight here), into the villain while completely rewriting the rulebook about what the concept of “Mission: Impossible” is.

It’s the bold kind of creative move studios would never dare make now, but that’s what opened up the space to transform a novelty of ‘60s spymania TV into a ‘90s action classic, complete with heavy emphasis on techno espionage babble and post-Cold War politics. The movie can at times appear dated given the emphasis on floppy disks and AOL email accounts, but it’s also got a brisk energy that never goes out of style thanks to De Palma’s ability to frame a knotty script by David Koepp and Robert Towne (the latter of whom penned Chinatown) into a breathlessly paced thriller filled with paranoia, double crosses, femme fatales, and horrifying dream sequences. In other words, it’s a De Palma special!

The filmmaker and Cruise also craft a series of set pieces that would become the series’ defining trademark. The finale with a fistfight atop a speeding train beneath the English Channel is great, but the quiet as a church mouse midpoint where Cruise’s hero dangles over the pressure-sensitive floor of a CIA vault—and with a drop of sweat dripping just out of reach!—is the stuff of popcorn myth. It’s how M:I also became as much a great heist series as shoot ‘em up. Plus, this movie gave us Ving Rhames’ stealth MVP hacker, Luther Stickell.

Henry Cavill and Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Fallout

2. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

If one were to rank these movies simply by virtue of set pieces and stunts, pound for pound it’d be impossible to top Mission: Impossible – Fallout (forgive the pun). A virtuoso showcase in action movie bliss, there are too many giddy mic drop moments to list, but among our favorites are: Tom Cruise doing a real HALO jump out of a plane at 25,000 feet and which was captured by camera operator Craig O’Brien, who had an IMAX camera strapped to his head; the extended fight sequence between Cruise, Henry Cavill, and Liam Yang in a bathroom where the music completely drops out so we can hear every punch, kick, and that surreal moment where Cavill needs to reload his biceps like they’re shotguns; and did you see Cruise’s ankle bend the wrong way in that building to building jump?!

For action junkies, there was no better adrenaline kick out of Hollywood in the 2010s than this flick, and that is in large part a credit to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie. As the first filmmaker to helm more than one M:I movie, McQuarrie had the seemingly counterintuitive innovation to meticulously hammer out all of the above action sequences as well as others—such as a motorcycle chase across the cobblestones of Paris and a helicopter climax where Cruise is really flying his chopper at low altitudes—with stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood and Cruise, and then retroactively pen a surprisingly tight and satisfying screenplay that continues to deconstruct the Ethan Hunt archetype into a man of flesh and blood.

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McQuarrie also reunites all the best supporting players in the series—Rhames, Pegg, and his own additions of Rebecca Ferguson as the ambiguous Ilsa Faust and Sean Harris as the dastardly Solomon Lane—into a yarn that is as zippy and sharp as you might expect from the screenwriter of The Usual Suspects, but which lets each action sequence unfurl with all the pageantry of an old school Gene Kelly musical number. Many will call this the best Mission: Impossible movie, and we won’t quibble the point.

Rebecca Ferguson in Mission: Imposible - Rogue Nation

1. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

While we’ll concede that for action scenes alone Fallout is unmatched, as a whole cinematic experience the movie that gave McQuarrie the room to make that epic inches it out as our favorite in the series. An action marvel in its own right, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the most balanced and well-structured adventure in the series, and the one where the project of making Ethan Hunt a tangible character began.

Rightly assessing Ethan to be a “gambler” based on his inconsistent yet continuously deranged earlier appearances, McQuarrie spins a web where Hunt’s dicey lifestyle comes back to haunt him when facing a villain who turns those showboat instincts in on themselves, and which pairs Ethan for the first time against the best supporting character in the series, Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust. There’s a reason Ferguson’s MI6 double (triple, quadruple?) agent was the first leading lady in the series to become a recurring character. She gives a star-making turn as a woman who is in every way Ethan’s equal while keeping him and the audience on their toes.

She, alongside a returning Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, solidify the defining ensemble here, all while McQuarrie crafts elegant set pieces with classical flair, including a night at the opera that homages and one-ups Alfred Hitchcock’s influential sequence from The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), as well as a Casablanca chase between Ethan and Ilsa that’s the best motorcycle sequence in the series (if only they stopped by Rick’s). Also McQuarrie’s script ultimately figures out who Ethan Hunt truly is by letting all those around him realize he’s a madman. And Alec Baldwin’s Alan Hunley gets this gem of a line to sums the series up in total:

“Hunt is uniquely trained and highly motivated, a specialist without equal, immune to any countermeasures. There is no secret he cannot extract, no security he cannot breach, no person he cannot become. He has most likely anticipated this very conversation and is waiting to strike in whatever direction we move. Sir, Hunt is the living manifestation of destiny—and he has made you his mission.”