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SYFY WIRE Tom Cruise

All the 'Mission: Impossible' movies, ranked

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to see if your favorite Ethan Hunt adventure topped our list. 

By Phil Pirrello
Top 5 Mission Impossible movies

Ten years ago today, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol saved the franchise. 

Brad Bird's live-action feature film directorial debut came at a time when star and producer Tom Cruise's relationship with the studio was tenuous, at best. During production, it was unclear if Cruise would be continuing with the Mission: Impossible series that he started in 1996, with the very successful first outing from director Brian De Palma. How unclear? There was a draft of the script where, by the film's end, Cruise's Ethan Hunt traded his point man status for that of the Secretary of whatever government branch oversees the Impossible Missions Force. (And new team member Brandt, played by Hawkeye's Jeremy Renner, was seemingly poised to inherit all the running and jumping duties moving forward).

Thankfully, the studio brass and the filmmakers chose to not accept that mission and instead turned Ghost Protocol into an all-timer outing for the franchise. The fourth movie, then the most successful Mission, proved that the venerable action film series still has a lot of thrilling life left in it, as Hunt and his IMF team struggle to stop a nuke-stealing baddie in a (shocker) race against time to save the world while swinging from said world's tallest building. The movie is a landmark blockbuster for the genre, and one of the decade's best films. To celebrate Ghost Prots tenth anniversary, here's a definitive ranking of every one of Ethan Hunt's big-screen Missions. 

6. M:I-2 (2000)

Holy sh**, did 2000 us love this movie. We were so, so wrong.

At the time, Mission: Impossible II was one of the highest grossing action movies. We also thought it was one of director John Woo's best efforts. But the complicated and soulless storyline, a riff on Hitchcock's Notorious, does not hold up under the bare minimum of scrutiny 21 years later. M:I-2 offers us a completely different (and somewhat unlikable) version of the spy we saw in the first film; this take on Ethan Hunt is all about hooking up with Thandie Newton's expert thief and using her to get his hands on a deadly virus by having Newton's character bed the film's baddie — her former lover who was so terrible to her, that she had to flee him after obviously suffering some serious emotional trauma. What a hero, huh? Sending the girl you really like — after one high-speed chase/dance thing in cliff-side racing sports cars — into the arms of a man you know she hates?

Woo's trademark doves and slow-mo gun ballets creep into self-parody, and the third act motorcycle joust and subsequent kick-punching brawl between hero and villain are ridiculous in a very guilty pleasure sort of way. (The climax here would serve as the biggest third act finale for the series until 2018's Fallout) But, ultimately, there are very few things to like about this movie, one of Cruise's worst.

5. Mission: Impossible III (2006)

Here's the thing: M:i:III is good. Yeah, J.J. Abrams' feature directorial debut fails to fully embrace the anamorphic landscape to which the TV guru was brand new at the time, but what the movie occasionally lacks in visual spectacle it makes up for with a ton of much earned heart and big emotional themes.

This threequel suffered from bad Cruise PR post-couch jumping at the time, which is a shame, because Abrams nails all of the emotional beats as Cruise's Hunt gets engaged and married to a very likable Michelle Monaghan. The stakes quickly get personal for Hunt, as he must retrieve his favorite trainee (Keri Russell) before a bomb in her head explodes and sends Ethan and his team on a mission to stop Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the series' best villain.

On the action side? The franchise's most underrated sequence, breaking into the Vatican, is a Swiss watch — a perfect mix of entertainment and tension that will make you fist-pump when Ethan pulls off the intricate, white-knuckle mission. Also cool? That now-iconic sequence on the bridge where an explosion throws Ethan sideways into a Dodge Stratus and that fight scene in an elevator that culminates in a face-masked Ethan incapacitating a few guards with a telephone.

4. Mission: Impossible (1996)

The one that started it all. It is amazing how the series has evolved and changed from these then-humble summer blockbuster beginnings. Now, Hunt shoots and punches lots of bad guys. Here, he wields a gun and never fires it. He kicks one guy, and it's not even a real, action sequence-y kick.

Instead, Mission: Impossible forces Hunt to use his wits and action-y problem solves in the field when he goes on the run after a mission goes bad, his team is killed, and Ethan is framed for their deaths on his way to rogue operative status. (Every Mission save for the second film hinges on a variant of this "Ethan must go on the run/prove his innocence" plot line.) The end result is a taunt, entertaining spy thriller — full of Cold War grays and exceptional tension building, thanks to director Brian De Palma. (And that breaking into the CIA vault sequence still holds up; a genre all-timer.)

3. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

In this fifth installment, one of the best action movies of the last ten years, Cruise proves he is pathologically incapable of not giving it all to entertain audiences. In Rogue Nation, is attempt to be America's Jackie Chan gets cranked up to 11 as he hangs from a moving plane, taps his knee on racing pavement in a high-speed motorcycle chase, and drowns.

The first Mission: Impossible to be directed and co-written by Cruise's go-to collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie, finds a scary-good balance between humor and thrills, with tonal nods to old-school spy movies and '70s paranoia thrillers. (Watch for an Easter egg shot pinched from The Parallax View.) In addition to expounding upon the humorous tone of Ghost ProtsRogue Nation adds to the franchise one of its most unique and high-tension set pieces: the Opera House sequence, where semi-automatic weapons are disguised as flutes and night sticks, respectively, as Hunt must stop an assassination attempt. And score bonus for introducing audiences to the scene-stealing Rebecca Furguson, as British operative Ilsa Faust. The movie's third act runs out of narrative gas, thanks in part to a lack of budget, but its minimalist execution only maximizes the cathartic experience for audiences as they watch Hunt's new nemesis, the ruthless Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), get the comeuppance he deserves in a clever scene that bookends the movie with a visual callback to where Ethan's dangerous mission started: Trapped in a glass box, with nowhere to go. But Cruise and McQuarrie's riveting collaboration here proves that Mission can go anywhere it wants and often find success, especially with these two at the helm. 

2. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011)

Ghost Protocol literally took the franchise to new visual heights, as evidenced with the IMAX Burj Khalifa sequence that never fails to entertain or leave audiences agape. Brad Bird wanted to give the franchise tonal upgrade by making it so the team has to rely on their wits more than they gadgets, the latter of which constantly malfunction at the worst times for our heroes but in a way that delivers the best time at the theater.

The plot is rougher around the edges and convoluted than previous films, and is at times too serpentine to follow, but Cruise's charisma and Bird's unyielding sense of forward momentum make up for any narrative pitfalls as Ghost Protocol doubles-down on one inventive, complication-rich action sequence or comedic beat after another. Ghost Protocol, like the Fast & Furious films before it, makes a strong argument that the fourth movie is the charm, as this installment reinvigorated the series with new blood (Renner, the talented Paula Patton) and visual splendor that rivals the Bond movies in terms of audiences getting the most bang for their buck at the box office. Ten years after its release, Ghost Protocol remains an exceptional piece of very rewatchable blockbuster filmmaking.

1. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)

You know you are in for one hell of a time at the movies when Cruise performing a HALO jump at 20,000 feet, all in one take, all goes down before the halfway point. 

Unlike most Mission movies, Fallout’s action doesn't peak in the middle — it saves the biggest and best for a third act helicopter chase shot mostly in IMAX that tops all that came before in the franchise. McQuarrie, the first director ever to helm two movies in the venerable series, returns with a brand-new visual style (which was a goal of his from the jump) that plays out like a big-budget version of a 1970s Alan J. Pakula movie, as if it was shot by Gordon Willis, while mainlining similar story elements and themes from blockbusters like Skyfall and The Dark Knight. While Fallout has a few too many exposition-y info dumps that occasionally drag down the longest Mission movie yet, what keeps the exciting story clipping along for the most part is McQuarrie’s deft balance between emotional nuance and trailer-worthy set pieces. His fidelity to exploring the emotional toll of being a spy who cares about saving one life, as much he does saving a million of them is, offers a rewarding and necessary deepening of the character of Ethan Hunt, thus giving Cruise more to play than just running around a lot. (But, boy, does he run.) 

Fallout offers other firsts for the franchise as well: Its first use of the "F-word," the first choir to be used in the main theme, and the biggest third act finale ever in a Mission. Fallout's IMAX cameras capture Cruise dangling from and climbing onto a helicopter in order to chase down another, before the two air machines collide and crash into an icy mountain crevice. All the while, McQuarrie executes every scene (mostly) with the exact amount of whatever it needs, resulting in the type of summer entertainment that is basically a "top that!" to the Bond franchise. Fallout gives Ethan Hunt a chance to out-spy Bond on the big screen and deliver a Fury Road-level blockbuster whose influence is felt long after the credits roll.