In the wake of the Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning trailer, we take a look at Tom Cruise’s past M:I movies, ranked from worst to best.
One has to wonder if Tom Cruise is still with us after all these years. Considering how many times the man has come up with increasingly creative ways he could potentially die, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the news headline one day declaring that the Tom Cruise we know is actually his 739th clone and there’s 738 gravestones in the back of his house inscribed with every stunt he ever did.
In all seriousness, whether you like him or not, you cannot deny the man’s got a genuine passion for real action. Granted, he’s not the only actor to devote themselves to meticulous stuntwork, but Cruise is arguably one of the most famous, second only perhaps to Jackie Chan. In the day and age, where it’s so easy to let a caffeine-drunk intern render in an explosion behind our hero’s back, Cruise’s insistence on being out there actually flying or running or driving is a visual gift to us as audiences. And of course, the most well-known stunts of his come from the Mission: Impossible movies.
Both an adaptation and a follow up to the 1966 TV series by Bruce Geller, the Mission: Impossible film series follows its protagonist Ethan Hunt in a never-ending pile of missions, self-destructing equipment, double crosses, and masks. With how many long-running franchises try desperately to grab the same success as that one high point in their lineup and then slowly deflate into a shapeless blob, the fact that this series is on its sixth movie and is still going strong is an accomplishment. But as with any series, it has to have both highs and lows. And today, we have ranked all the current movies from worst to best.
6. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE II
Director: John Woo
I don’t think I’m surprising anyone or breaking any conventions when I say Mission: Impossible II is the worst movie out of the bunch. Yet I also want to come out with a disclaimer that I don’t think any of these movies are terrible. All of them I have lots of fun with, and the “worst” in this case is more of a “least good” rather than being an outright failure.
It is probably the strangest movie of them all. Instead of being a spy thriller or a sharp action blockbuster, the tone for the most part remains very dramatic and not a little overblown. Director John Woo’s usual line of work was with Hong Kong style noirs, with movies like A Better Tomorrow (1986) or The Killer (1989). These thrived off that sense of drama, slow motion, and doves. (Actually, the copious amounts of unnecessary doves was just a John Woo thing. Don’t laugh too hard at him though, I’m sure there are stranger fetishes out there.) This might explain why many Mission: Impossible fans are turned off by this movie.
Yet, I don’t hate that atmosphere. Yes, a lot of it feels overblown, but there’s a consistently entertaining aspect about it, like watching a circus clown having to ad-lib an act and actually succeeding at it. At the very least, I was laughing with it more often than I was laughing at it. Ethan might feel more like a James Bond wannabe and the villain is far from fleshed out, but let’s face it, the entire franchise’s selling point was never really its complex bad guys or mesmerizing protagonists. Rather, the drive was the ticking clocks on a world-ending deadline, and this movie still gives me that along with some acrobatic action sequences.
This movie’s certainly a guilty pleasure, but as far as guilty pleasures go, I feel less guilty taking pleasure from it. I see this more as the series trying to find a solid direction and experimenting in the process, and still managing to be entertaining, both intentionally and unintentionally. It banks a lot off of the “rule of cool,” and I am indeed cool with it. I mean, it gave me Tom Cruise walking past a flaming door while a white dove flies through it, which is so unapologetically silly I can’t help but love it.
5. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
This one is likely to be controversial. Rogue Nation is a highly praised entry, enough to land Christopher McQuarrie as the director for the series moving forward. and I would like to stress that from here on out, all of the movies make it over the “good” line. And this movie is good. Very good. Great, even. It’s just that the following movies on this list I just loved more.
Show of hands, how many people saw the plane liftoff scene in the trailers and thought that would be in the climax? I was certainly one of those people, and yet the movie immediately throws it in the opening scene before the title even comes up. It’s like the director’s fully confident that compared to what happens next, this shot of Tom Cruise actually hanging onto the side of a plane taking off is just the appetizer. And it certainly was, as it follows it up with the meticulously designed opera house fight and a story full of mistrust and multilayered international schemes that still manages to feel grounded within our main cast.
Well, having said that, I do feel the film may play all its aces a bit too soon. I don’t want to say the whole “it breaks down in the third act” deal, because the finale is still satisfying. It’s just that after the plane scene and the opera scene, the rest of the film doesn’t feel like it hits as hard. I was still invested, but when the final battle mainly comes down to a foot chase and fight through the streets, I can’t help but feel a little bit of hollowness, like if you served me a three-star Michelin-worthy soup as the appetizer and then handed me a scoop of Baskin Robbins as dessert. I mean, I like Baskin Robbins, but my expectations were set a bit higher than that.
There’s also a little bit of disappointment with the Syndicate, the main villainous organization of the movie. It is built up so well, being hailed as an interconnected nation of rogue agents across the globe, able to throw any country into jeopardy at any moment. Yet I don’t feel the movie fully takes advantage of that buildup, as the overall scale strangely feels limited. I suppose that’s what happens when you try to wrap up the story about taking down the Illuminati in a single movie.
With all that said, those complaints are more like a few specks of persistent lint on a fine brand-new coat. I cannot say I was not having fun for any moment of the movie, and really, that’s all a movie has to do for me sometimes. It certainly shows why Cruise thought McQuarrie was a good director to put the future of the Mission: Impossible franchise in, a sentiment that I thoroughly agree with. Though that sentiment doesn’t just come from this movie, but the next entry as well.
4. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT
Director: Christopher McQuarrie
This one also pains me to put relatively low on the list, because, similarly to Rogue Nation, I love a lot about Fallout. Once more, the action is supremely crafted, though honestly, you could say that about every one of these movies. But I can’t help but feel an extra bit of respect for not just Cruise but the filming crew when I saw the HALO jump sequence. In fact, camera crews like this deserve more appreciation. I mean, Cruise gets all the press and praise for jumping from a plane at 25,000 feet, but the same cannot be said for the cameraman that did the jump while filming with an IMAX camera on his head.
Beyond the action, there’s a more story-related reason for me to like this movie, and that’s with Ethan Hunt’s character. For a number of the movies, Ethan felt more like stunt fodder than anything else. He cares for his loved ones and wants to stop the world from blowing up, but those sorts of traits are more or less required for the standard Hollywood protagonists. Beyond that, I never really felt any personal investment to him.
Yet other than another entry further down the list, this is the most character-driven Mission: Impossible movie, as it focuses on the weight of the ever-increasing stakes and choices Ethan has to make with each mission, and what that can do to a man. It adds a clear sense of personal desperation to many of the scenes, which makes them even more engaging. I said before that the movies were never about super well-written protagonists, but when that aspect is there, it is far from a minus.
Unlike Rogue Nation, I can’t even come up with many criticisms as to why this film is still ranked 4th out of 6 movies. It really is a solid template for how to make a great action movie. I suppose the film does get a bit heavy on exposition at times, and the big twist around the middle of the film was a bit predictable. But again, those are very minor complaints, and the reason why the next three movies were put over my favorite blockbuster of 2018 is because those had elements that took them even further beyond.
3. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE
Director: Brian De Palma
With the general image of the Mission: Impossible franchise today as a fun bombastic blockbuster series, it can be easy to overlook just how different the first movie was. I don’t think enough people appreciate its own style, and I would argue that it’s the one with the strongest sense of identity, almost to the point where it might feel alien to fans of the more modern Mission: Impossible movies.
It can be a bit confusing on first watch, but it keeps you engaged even when you aren’t sure what you’re engaged in. Though it’s actually less convoluted than one might think, as the film always keeps its general goals and antagonists clear. It’s the people that lay a murky fog of uncertainty over the mix, as their individual motives remain hidden. And that contributes to what I adore the most about the film, its sense of atmosphere.
The whole film is positively dripping with a dark cloud of unease, deceit, and paranoia. It sets up a comfortable pace and team in the beginning, and then completely shatters that in Ethan’s face, leaving him lost and confused as to where he should put his trust in now. In fact, this film is probably what Rogue Nation was hearkening back to with a general air of “don’t trust anyone” and everyone trying to play 5D chess with others, but unlike that movie, this one is far more consistent with it to the very end. It’s the only movie in the franchise to feel like an honest to god spy movie, rather than a blockbuster with spy elements thrown in, and I appreciate that.
With that said, there are still some impressive stunts in this movie. While it may feel smaller in scale to say, Tom Cruise chasing down Henry Cavill in a helicopter, the vault scene is still a legendary masterclass in tension for a reason, as every bit of visual and sound design makes you clench your thighs together like when you are trying to steal a midnight snack from the kitchen without your family noticing. Admittedly, the rest of it certainly feels smaller compared to all the other movies to follow it, but that isn’t really a detriment because as I said, the film is more about making you feel the spy part of spy action.
This film is vastly underappreciated, and it pains me whenever I see people discussion Mission: Impossible movies and only mainly talking about the post-2010 entries. Again, this film is very different from the relatively more lighthearted, almost tongue-in-cheek at times tone of those movies, and I appreciate its uniqueness that holds up even to this day.
2. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III
Director: J. J. Abrams
This one might be another controversial pick. While not considered the pariah of the series like the second one, Mission: Impossible III tends to fall under the “good but not great” category for many people. Yet I have always found a very strong connection to the movie, the biggest reason being that this is the movie where Ethan Hunt feels the most like a genuine character.
It’s still largely the standard trope for Hollywood main characters, giving him a loving wife that he needs to protect. Yet it still works wonders, partly because Ethan didn’t really have too much to him to begin with, but also because of just how committed Cruise is to that performance. It can be easy to forget amidst him skirting death for the 7th time this year, but the man can genuinely act, and we see that as early as the opening scene, where he is emotionally battered and broken, selling every sweat and tear he sheds.
This is easily the darkest movie out of the series. Now, I’m not saying it’s The Dark Knight of the franchise or anything, but the tone feels much colder, more desperate. There’s barely a moment where Ethan truly feels in control, which only adds to his plight and the sense of danger surrounding what little happiness he has built with his wife. And when that drive is consistent throughout the movie, I can’t help but let Cruise drag me along for the ride.
Contributing largely to that is the villain, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who’s still my favorite big bad out of any of these movies. There’s almost a self-aware nature to him, but not in a Deadpool sort of way. It’s more like he knows how action movie heroes like Ethan work and has dealt with them before, remaining calm and almost annoyed that he’s going through this routine again. He knows his motivations aren’t terribly complex, but doesn’t care as he just does what he does. It gives him an unflinchingly terrifying presence, one that Ethan just can’t seem to get through to.
I find this movie to be even more underrated than Mission: Impossible. I didn’t even mention all the fun sequences it has, like the Vatican infiltration, but that is par for the course with these movies, really. Action and atmosphere is great, but this movie has that and a solid personal storyline to boot. And it actually gave a basis for Ethan’s more intimate motivations that later movies like Fallout would bring back.
1. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – GHOST PROTOCOL
Director: Brad Bird
It was genuinely painful having to rank the top three movies in this list, as they all strike with me for their own solid reasons. In terms of the most style, Mission: Impossible takes the cake. In terms of characterization and personal stakes, Mission: Impossible III is the best. However, when it comes to sheer, unbridled fun factor, Ghost Protocol is unrivaled so far, and it will always be my favorite entry in the series for that reason.
I am not surprised that Brad Bird is the director, and that this is his first live action endeavor after a career of animated movies. It certainly shows in many instances, from the musical cues that sound like highlights in a cartoon routine, to the more colorful visual style, to the plethora of gadgets they bring in for the job, and even a big red button that’s going to decide the fate of humanity. However, none of that feels intrusive or too silly to fit into a live-action mold. Rather, it sets a consistent bounciness to the movie that never lets down, but doesn’t get exhausting.
Granted, the initial setup of Ethan’s organization being completely disbanded feels more like an afterthought in the long run, but that doesn’t matter as the movie is the best at keeping its main villain persistent. And I’m not talking about Michael Nyqvist’s character, though he did a suitable job. As I said before, the true villain of any Mission: Impossible movie is the situation itself. It’s the world-ending scenario that is constantly getting closer and close, and every setback the heroes face is more chilling than any bad guy.
Ghost Protocol takes that to the maximum where it puts an entire nuclear war on the line. And no matter what the heroes do, they struggle to gain control over the situation despite the breathtaking Burj Kalifa stunts. To that end, it actually achieves a similar sense of desperation as Mission: Impossible III despite this movie being far more lighthearted. Personal stakes might not be as high, but the overall stakes more than make up for it.
But speaking of that Burj Kalifa stunt, the cartoonish aspects make their way into the action too in the best way possible, with sequences that feel so outlandish but just grounded enough to feel like it still belongs in a Mission: Impossible movie and not say, a Fast and Furious movie. It pains me that I didn’t know of this franchise back in 2011 and therefore wasn’t able to see Cruise hanging over a hundred stories above ground in IMAX. It also has a degree of self awareness to it, such as how it keeps poking fun at the spy equipment breaking down or backfiring, which is a refreshing take after the past three movies.
I do concede there are aspects or elements that other movies do better, but as an overall package, Ghost Protocol is the one I have the most consistent amount of fun with, and I can never discredit that. It’s the one I return to the most often, and is one of my favorite action movies in general. Plus, it brought back Ethan Hunt with long hair, and I prefer that hairstyle. Small thing, I know, but when you love a movie you can’t help but appreciate down to the little blessings.
Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One will be released globally in theatres in 2023.