The Mission: Impossible franchise has been running 22 years, during which time Tom Cruise has been betrayed and ran very fast six times. With the release of Mission: Impossible - Fallout, we're going to look back over the franchise's ups and downs.
Each Mission: Impossible movie has key, recurring elements: Tom Cruise plays IMF agent Ethan Hunt joined by a rotating team of associate-friends (always including Ving Rhames' Luthor at the least) who ends up on the run when a mission goes bad, entering into an intentionally convoluted plot that exists to motivate a string of mind-boggling action sequences where Cruise performs his own stunts. Face-changing masks are (usually) involved, as are tall objects of all description ready to be jumped out of. For all that formula, though, each film in the franchise is remarkably unique: until this year's Fallout (for which Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie returns), every movie boasted a new director with a distinct style and storytelling approach, and Cruise has been more than willing to evolve himself with the times.
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However, what makes ranking the Mission: Impossible franchise considerably harder than other long-running blockbuster series is one even more unique caveat: overall, it's just very good. There are ebbs and flows, sure, but overall Mission: Impossible is both remarkably consistent and constantly evolving in a way that avoids stagnation. Nevertheless, there are the clear betters and weakers of the Mission: Impossible franchise. Here's our ranking of all six films.
6. Mission: Impossible II
Mission: Impossible II was the highest grossing movie of 2000, which goes a long way to show how bizarre that pre-Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings era of tentpoles was. It's a pretty standard-for-the-time sequel, putting the most recognizable element of a box office hit - Tom Cruise, masks - in a totally new environment - the Australian suburbs - but even with (or perhaps because of) John Woo putting his slow-mo dove stamp on Mission: Impossible, the film never rises above ridiculous. Moreso than any other entry, Mission: Impossible II has dated, and the cheese shows. The Thandie Newton-as-object-of-all-desire plot (which as many have noted comes straight from Hitchcock's Notorious) is an interesting angle but winds up peculiarly steamy, while Dougray Scott (whose part is mainly remembered for being the one that blocked him from Wolverine) isn't quite the mirror-image villain he attempts to be.
And yet despite that it's still rather enjoyable, remarkably so considering it's weakest entry in a long-running series: can the likes of Jurassic Park or The Mummy claim their lowest point is still watchable? The overuse of masks is delightfully farcical (especially since it was called out in Ghost Protocol) and even if Tom Cruise's performance of Ethan Hunt is unlike in any other Mission: Impossible film, his all-in action approach is palpable.
5. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
The Burj Khalifa sequence at the center of Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is quite possibly the franchise's defining moment. It's a lengthy scene built almost entirely around Tom Cruise's desire to do death-defying things at extreme heights for authentic entertainment and is so well established and integrated that any other skyscraper exterior action feels trite by comparison. It's truly a "worth the price of admission" set piece that showed just what the franchise was capable of.
The rest of the film works well enough but never matches those heights: it opens with CG Kremlin destruction and ends with a CG fight in a high-tech parking garage; the story is somewhat unclear on how to use Ethan in relation to his team (which now includes then-potential-replacement Jeremy Renner). What Brad Bird deserves enduring praise for is continuing the reinvention started in Mission: Impossible III while inserting some more self-aware humor to keep the series from becoming po-faced during the early-2010s period of peak grit. That this can place so "low" shows just how good the Mission: Impossible franchise is.
4. Mission: Impossible III
At the time, going from Brian De Palma to John Woo to a TV creative may have felt like a downgrade, but nobody quite reckoned for J.J. Abrams. From a 2018 perspective, it makes perfect sense: the pioneer behind reboots of both Star Trek and Star Wars, his feature debut likewise reinvigorated the Mission: Impossible franchise (which had at this point been dormant for six years). Now, Abrams didn't change the formula per se, but did lay down several key aspects that have come define the series' longevity.
So, for the most part, Mission: Impossible III is plainly a solid entry in the series, with exciting enough action (albeit nothing to rival the thrills of what came next) and a plot that uses Abrams' questionable mystery box to great effect (with Mission: Impossible III standing purely on its own, there's no unfilled tease, even if the Rabbit's Foot MacGuffin isn't all that novel). But Abrams' characters are what make this entry stand out. The team aspect is back at the forefront, Phillip Seymour Hoffman's Owen Davian is the most memorable villain in the series (that mid-flight interrogation as startling as any of Cruise's stunts), and for the first time we got to properly explore the personal side of Ethan Hunt.