Share this article on Facebook
Share this article on Flipboard
Share this article on Email
Share this article on Linkedin
Share this article on Pinit
Share this article on Reddit
Share this article on Tumblr
Share this article on Whatsapp
Share this article on Comment
It’s not clear when it happened — sometime in the past 27 years — but the Mission: Impossible movies gradually evolved into Hollywood’s best modern action franchise. Figuring out how this happened is far easier: Star Tom Cruise’s legendary willingness to do anything and everything to make each film a blockbuster while — as the franchise’s most powerful producer — savvily finding creative partners that bring out his best. In fact, Cruise is much like his IMF agent Ethan Hunt: When the man’s on a mission, he’s an unstoppable force who’ll never stop running until he saves the day — or, the summer box office. Below, The Hollywood Reporter ranks every Mission: Impossible film, including the newly released Dead Reckoning Part One, from the very worst to the definite best.
7. Mission: Impossible II (2000)
To the surprise of no one. John Woo, the acclaimed director of Hard Boiled and Face/Off, made a M:I movie that’s one of the shorter entries in the franchise, yet it’s a slog to sit through. Despite a promising start with Hunt dizzyingly free solo rock climbing in Utah (Cruise’s idea, naturally), and Thandiwe Newton as an alluring thief, the film quickly slips into a muddy narrative as Hunt scrambles to recover a bioweapon (the lazy go-to MacGuffin object for “something small and bad”). The score is a rare dud from the great Hans Zimmer, while Woo leans heavily on his signature theatrics. All the flying doves and leaping slo-mo gun battles can’t salvage this one. Cruise’s long hair looks rad, though.
Best Stunt: Motorcycle joust (it’s absurd, but so very John Woo).
6. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Credit to director J.J. Abrams for injecting fresh energy into the franchise after a six-year gap and laying the some of the groundwork for successes to come. In this one, Hunt is striving to have a normal life with his fiancé (Michelle Monaghan) while chasing a destructive MacGuffin (surprise, it’s a bioweapon!). While much of the supporting cast is forgettable, Abrams wisely tapped Simon Pegg as likable perma-sidekick IMF agent Benji and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as villainous arms dealer Owen Davian. Hoffman is terrific; particularly in a menacing confrontation on a plane, where Davian turns the tables on Hunt even as he’s being dangled out an open bay door. Hoffman briefly playing Cruise/Hunt in a Davian face mask is a kick as well. Another wise Abrams hire was tapping Lost composer Michael Giacchino, whose percussive urgency helped modernize the style of the M:I soundtrack (he scored the next film, too). The film lacks memorable set pieces and its tone feels grim, with a rage-y Hunt and an underwhelming climax. Yet it showcased yet another element that became a signature franchise “special effect”: Cruise running like hell.
Best Stunt: Hunt’s manic sprint through Shanghai
5. Mission: Impossible (1996)
Director Brian De Palma wasn’t perhaps the most obvious choice to launch a Tom Cruise action franchise, yet the Untouchables helmer brought an engaging and stylish touch to the saga’s debut entry. The film (written by Robert Towne and David Koepp) wisely reworked the format of the 1960s M:I spy-drama TV series into a set-piece-stuffed thriller. The plot: Hunt is on the run to clear his name and keep a list of undercover agents out of enemy hands. Along the way, he partners with Ving Rhames’ hacker Luther Stickell (the only character besides Hunt to appear in all of the M:I films). The film’s centerpiece is arguably the franchise’s most iconic scene: a 10-minute infiltration into a CIA headquarters computer room that’s a masterpiece of suspense, with razor-sharp editing and Cruise sweatily selling the tension in every shot (while enduring what must have surely been an agonizing core workout). It’s low-fi compared to the films to come, showing you don’t need big stunts to keep an M:I audience on the edge of their seats. Another standout beat is the so-very-De Palma teeter-totter camerawork in a restaurant when Cruise queasily realizes his IMF boss thinks he’s a traitor. Some lousy visual effects weaken its bullet train climax, but the first M:I otherwise still holds up nearly three decades later.
Best Stunt: Langley heist
4. Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol (2011)
Here’s when the franchise begins to really level up, going from merely good to often great, with stronger ensembles, more spectacular action, and a wry sense of self-aware humor. That last bit is key — Cruise doesn’t get enough credit for his comedic chops, and in the later M:I films, he frequently punches up the spectacle with “I can’t believe I’m doing this, either” incredulity that serves as a proxy for the audience (and sometimes even lets the joke be on him). Not-so-coincidentally, all the remaining films owe a debt to writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who’s heavily responsible for the franchise’s modern-day success and longevity.
As for Ghost Protocol, the film is rousingly directed by The Incredibles’ Brad Bird (McQuarrie was hired for some uncredited script rewrites). Ghost has a smart running gag where none of the IMF’s fancy gadgets seem to work, forcing the team to constantly improvise. Hunt’s balletic escape from a Russian prison is a standout sequence, and Jeremy Renner as IMF aide William Brandt adds some reality check contrast to daredevil Hunt. The film’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper climb in Dubai is sweaty palms fantastic, and it’s Hunt’s fear and reluctance, rather than his daring, which makes it so great (his stressed out “no shit!” while hanging by a thread off the world’s tallest building is one of Cruise’s all-time best line deliveries). This stunt also marks the beginning of the franchise’s “Wait, Cruise did that for real?!” era. Unfortunately, the film’s second half isn’t as strong, and the climax (a chase in an automated parking garage) feels like it’s just trying to quickly wrap things up.
Best Stunt: Burj Khalifa climb
3. Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning, Part One (2023)
Spoilers to follow: Third place was a tough call – McQuarrie’s ambitious Dead Reckoning and the next film on this list are very close and it’s easy to argue their ranking the other way around. There’s a mix of soaring highs and frustrating lows here, with a story that essentially takes the character of Solomon Lane in Rogue Nation — who could manipulate circumstances to maneuver Hunt into whatever outcome he desired — and evolves that idea into an AI supercomputer called The Entity, which pops up in scene after scene looking like an evil screensaver (one wonders how well rogue AI villains will hold up when movies like this are rewatched in 10 years — hopefully, for all our sakes, poorly). Dead Reckoning has a less frantic pace than the other M:I films that’s rather enjoyable — it’s the first half of what’s certain to be at least a five-hour movie, and feels like it. Some of the set pieces are terrific (the airport scrambling is a delight — perhaps the film’s high point — along with the motorcycle cliff jump and the wonderfully chaotic plummeting train climax). The return of Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) is welcome, and Luther has some nice moments in this one. The loss of Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is well handled but painful — one wishes there had been at least one candid moment here with Ilsa and Ethan talking about their vague relationship before she met her fate. Newcomer Hayley Atwell shines as Grace, a thief caught up in the intrigue. Yet some of Dead Reckoning feels like a remix of prior installments (it’s another car chase, fight atop a speeding train, parachute jump and a chat with the White Widow in a swanky European club), and there are meeting scenes that drag on amid tedious exposition — it would be quickly fatal to drink a shot every time a character says the word “key.” There’s also some outright “Oh come on!” moments. It’s odd for a movie that explains and justifies every bit of plot minutia to then serve up Fast & Furious-like cartoon beats like when Hunt gets ejected unharmed from a Fiat smashed by a speeding train (as Annie Wilkes famously raved in Misery about a similar serial cliffhanger cheat: “He didn’t get out of the cockadoodie car!”), or a villain falling backward from a runaway train to land safely and motionless on a stationary truck. All that said: We cannot wait for Part Two.
Best Stunt: Motorcycle jump (the making-of video linked here shows a truly incredible amount of work went into that few moments of footage and is perhaps the only behind-the-scenes clip where the actual stunt looks more scary than what was shown in the film).
2. Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (2015)
M:I films rely on their ensemble casts and, for perhaps the first time when the films are viewed chronologically, every supporting player really pops. In addition to the ever-reliable Luther and Benji (who gets to tap some deep emotion in the film’s tense climax), Rogue Nation brings back Renner’s Brandt, taps Alec Baldwin as the bullying director of the CIA and Sean Harris is compelling as villainous mastermind Solomon Lane. But it’s Ferguson’s British intelligence officer Ilsa Faust that most elevates the film. Ferguson shows she’s the female lead the franchise has been searching for, whether fighting bad guys, bantering with Hunt or emerging from training in a pool like a Crossfit Ursula Andress. This is the one time Cruise had a true co-lead in an M:I movie, and Ferguson nails every beguiling gaze. Meanwhile, McQuarrie stuns with an elegant 10-minute, Hitchcock-inspired sequence at the Vienna State Opera that’s cinematic bliss. Rouge Nation also benefits from having a more cohesive-feeling story (with Hunt trying to prevent the funding of a terrorist outfit called the Syndicate) than other entries, though a critical underwater breath-holding sequence looks frustratingly fake due to its CG background (even though Cruise held his breath for up to six minutes to pull it off). The original M:I movie franchise design was that each entry would hire a different director to make every film unique, but McQuarrie was too strong to not invite back — again and again.
Best Stunt: Hunt catches a plane
1. Mission Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Fallout has some serious Raiders of the Lost Ark vibes the way McQuarrie masterfully strings together one unique action set piece after another during a breathless stretch of a two-and-a-half-hour film, which finds Hunt trying to stop nuclear-grade plutonium from falling into the Syndicate’s hands. Hunt darts from a HALO jump to a brutal bathroom brawl to a prisoner transfer breakout (chef’s kiss to that flooding truck wall-of-water shot) to a motorcycle chase — and each feels riveting. M:I films sometimes have lackluster villains, but Fallout has the franchise’s best: An unflappable, slyly witty, fist-cocking Henry Cavill, who constantly keeps Hunt on his heels (it’s can’t be easy to scene-steal around Cruise, but Cavill manages; and props to Cruise for being down for it). Fallout also has the franchise’s best score (by Lorne Balfe, who was brought back for Dead Reckoning) and the most gripping third act — a sensational helicopter chase and clifftop fight against a ticking clock. Bonus: It’s the highest-grossing entry so far ($791 million worldwide, though Dead Reckoning might top that). Ethan Hunt may not be as iconic of an action brand name as James Bond, but Fallout is basically the best James Bond movie since Casino Royale, if not better.
Best Stunt: (Tie) Halo jump, bathroom brawl, chopper chase
Related: All 5 Indiana Jones Movies Ranked, Including The Dial of Destiny