Once upon a time, the title Mission: Impossible conjured up memories of something quaint and procedural: a weekly television series in which Peter Graves and a rotating cast of characters would get into espionage hijinks by way of the standards and practices of 1960s American television. It certainly had its dedicated fans, but a global phenomenon associated with pulse-pounding stunts, it ain’t.
Which makes the modern transformation of the Tom Cruise-led Mission: Impossible movies into something of an action movie miracle. Originally intended to be a potential one-off star vehicle for Cruise, this spy franchise has endured for more than a quarter-century, evolving and expanding with each iteration. Initially a fascinating exercise in big budget studio moviemaking where Cruise would have a different director with a highly stylized vision come in and handle the material in radically different ways, the franchise has lived long enough to see itself become a legend—one of the last bastions among Hollywood tentpoles to hold in-camera stunts and tight, well-structured narratives in high regard.
Through it all, the one constant has been Cruise and his indefatigable ability to sprint, grin, and entertain for seemingly miles at a time. After six movies (and counting) in 26 years, he’s left a varied and eclectic legacy in his wake. Even so, not all Mission: Impossible movies were created equal. Hence we’ve decided to figure out for good and all which is the best. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to read the below list and let us know if we got it right.
6. 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 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 or 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.
5. 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.
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.
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.
3. Mission: Impossible (1996)
The last three 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 kinetic 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.
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 flesh and blood man.
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.
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 whole 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 can come 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. One might even wonder if Cruise is serious about hanging it up in a few years whether Ferguson could continue the franchise.
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 went 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 sum it all up:
“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.”