Who know that when the first Mission: Impossible came out in 1996, it would spawn a franchise that would go on for at least 20 years? More than that, it’s a series that started as a simple TV adaptation and has evolved into a true director’s franchise with each installment having its own style and atmosphere.
When most movie series opt to go for a streamlined cinematic feel, Tom Cruise has championed for each Mission: Impossible film to be unique to the filmmaker’s vision… which has led to five films that take place in the same universe but end up feeling very different from each other. The last franchise we can think of that did this was the Alien films.
But are all visions created equal? Are some films just a little better than the others? Well, we’re here to give you our definitive ranking of the five Mission: Impossible films starting from worst to best.
4. Mission: Impossible II
You all knew this one would be dead last. John Woo has made some great films, but he almost seems to be parodying his style here. The inexplicable rock music, the over the top action sequences that are the very definition of style over substance, and the whiny villain played by Dougray Scott drag down what could have been a passable action flick.
We want to give points to a fairly original idea for the plot (create a virus in order to make money off the cure), and Thandie Newton is great as always, but it isn’t enough to save the film. We’ll also will give the movie credit on one scene: the operation to break into the Biocyte building is pretty gripping.
You’ll notice that none of the other films have referenced Mission: Impossible II, which make it something of a black sheep for the franchise.
3. Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol/Rogue Nation
Let us be clear here, these are both very solid films. And while the second film is leagues below them, both Ghost and Rogue have their strengths and weaknesses.
Ghost Protocol has some fantastic action sequences and very tense operations that really show our heroes at their most inventive, but it also suffers from a third act that just can’t live up to the spectacular Dubai sequence. Furthermore, the villains are cookie cutter psychos who just want to nuke the world. We simply couldn’t believe that the forgettable villain could pose a problem for Ethan Hunt in hand to hand combat. Ethan’s team, however, has great chemistry here.
Rogue Nation, on the other hand, has much stronger villains and a much more tense story to tell. The script also holds together a little better. The action sequences, with the exception of the wonderfully Hitchcockian opera sequence and a pretty cool motorcycle chase, just don’t match the heights (pun intended) of Ghost Protocol. The team is also a little less balanced than Ghost Protocol, with some members having less to do than others. However, Rebecca Ferguson makes up for much of the team’s shortcomings with her duplicitous British double agent.
We couldn’t decided which one was better overall, so we put them on the same tier.
2. Mission: Impossible
Brian De Palma directed this one very well, but it’s really David Koepp and Robert Towne’s screenplay that makes the film shine. The intricate web of lies, betrayals, and conspiracies that Ethan Hunt has to navigate when he’s accused of killing his IMF team is truly staggering… and the way he plays opposing forces off each other is nothing short of brilliant.
Because the film came out in 1996, it doesn’t have the massive action set pieces from the later installments, but that doesn’t stop it from creating some of the most tense points of drama the franchise has ever seen. The infiltration into CIA Headquarters has become iconic, with a ton of tension being squeezed from simply dangling a guy inside a room.
The biggest downside of the film is that the conspiracies can be just a little hard to follow, requiring multiple viewings to really pick up on everyone’s thought process and who’s doing what. However, It holds up well under scrutiny nearly 20 years later.
1. Mission: Impossible III
This may be a controversial choice, but we honestly believe this is the strongest of the Mission: Impossible films. It takes the action-centric focus that should have worked for the second film and effortlessly weaves it into the team based conspiracy style of the first movie through a relentless narrative.
The Vatican sequence, through brilliant pacing and the inventive uses of Ethan’s team, is simply perfect. Not only does everyone have their role to play, we finally discover how the masks are created. The other action sequences are also fantastic, giving the audiences the perfect amount of escalating tension without making things too over the top.
But the aspect of Mission: Impossible III that elevates it beyond the other films is the emotional stakes. Aside from aspects of the first Mission: Impossible, the other films don’t really have much at stake for Ethan emotionally. The third movie puts Ethan’s personal life front and center, with our super spy desperate and nearly in tears for almost the entire second half of the narrative.
And, lastly, it also features the finest villain of the franchise made by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s chilling performance. He doesn’t have as many scenes as you think, but he makes each line count. The opening “count to ten” scene establishes both his menace and Ethan’s desperation for the rest of the film.
It also features the single greatest Tom Cruise running scene ever committed to celluloid.
Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments!