This week, we’re keeping it simple for you: We’re simply ranking Mission: Impossible movies. The sixth installment is out this week, and we’d argue that this is Tom Cruise’s signature franchise, the one he’s most committed to, the one he makes certain always delivers the goods. As we put together the top five, we have to give a shout-out to the one film that doesn’t make the list: 2000’s Mission: Impossible II, the wild John Woo film that’s a little ridiculous today, not that it isn’t still a blast. But it can’t crack this top five.
The first Mission: Impossible movie was the very definition of a ‘90s blockbuster: Tie a big star to a forgotten (but still beloved) old television series, bring in a big band to do a reimagining of the theme song, and get a bunch of A-list writers to whip up a bang-bang action screenplay. David Koepp, Robert Towne, and Steven Zaillian all had a hand in this twisty, convoluted script, U2 members Larry Mullen, Jr. and Adam Clayton jazzed up the music, and Tom Cruise (still very much in scrappy-hotshot mode) led an international cast. But Mission: Impossible’s MVP remains Brian De Palma, who decided that cat-and-mouse intrigue, a globetrotting canvas, and some high-wire action sequences were ultimately what would make or break the picture. Mission: Impossible is such a logic jigsaw that it’s maddening trying to keep up with all the double-crosses and misdirection. But its brash, swaggering gusto helped set the template for how the franchise would operate over the next several decades. And the revamped, Zooropa-fied theme song ain’t too shabby.
Mission: Impossible III
It’s funny to think now that Mission: Impossible III was J.J. Abrams’ directorial debut. At the time, it felt like giving a TV wunderkind a shot at a big action franchise; now we know that Abrams had a preternatural ability to get action franchises back on track, tapping into what audiences liked so much about them in the first place. This one is sleeker, more wonkish, more focused than John Woo’s crazy second film, and the franchise benefits accordingly: While this is the third in the series, it feels far more connected to what the series is now than the first two films. And hey, if you’re going to have an evil mastermind bad guy, what better actor to give the job to than Philip Seymour Hoffman? He’s still the best big baddie of the series, adding a level of intelligent menace that no one yet has been able to top.
Mission: Impossible — Fallout
A continuation of Rogue Nation, Fallout brings back that movie’s key asset, Rebecca Ferguson’s seductive secret agent Ilsa Faust, while forcing Ethan Hunt to once again confront the nefarious terrorist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Rogue Nation writer-director Christopher McQuarrie is back at the helm, delivering the longest movie in the series. That means room for extra action sequences — and there are some real dazzlers here — but it also gives McQuarrie time to further develop the themes of the previous installments, and to examine whether Hunt and Faust will ever be able to act on their unrequited feelings for one another. Jeremy Renner isn’t in Fallout, but you won’t miss him much — Henry Cavill, as a suspicious new member of the team, is more than ample compensation.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
The movie that introduced the series’ ongoing punctuation problem, this one adds Jeremy Renner to the mix – remember when there was the thought that he might take over the series from Cruise when he got too old? Ha! – but mostly soars on the action derring-do of director Brad Bird, taking a break from animation to blow our minds with live action. All the Mission: Impossible staples are there, but they’re all elevated somehow: This is the franchise blown up to maximum size. That’s never more apparent than the infamous climbing of the Burj Khalifa skyscraper, in which Cruise hangs out outside the massive structure like it’s nothing, like it’s all in a day’s work. Never has his commitment been more evident, more over-the-top, and more breathtaking.
Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation
It’s a tossup between Rogue Nation and Ghost Protocol as the series’ best installment. (Either way you pick, you’d get little argument from us.) Still, we’ll give the slight edge to Movie No. 5, which built on Ghost Protocol’s brilliance and then added a more mournful tone, observing the aging Ethan as he begins to realize that his IMF days may be drawing to a close.
Rogue Nation introduces the best villain outside of Mission: Impossible III’s Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane, and it gives Simon Pegg’s Benji a major upgrade, promoting him from simple comic relief to a more integral member of the team. As always, the stunt work is extraordinary, highlighted by sequences involving Ethan hanging on for dear life to a plane as it takes off, and trying to hold his breath underwater for numerous minutes. (Did Cruise do those stunts himself? Of course he did.)
But what pulls all of Rogue Nation together is writer-director Christopher McQuarrie, who won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects, delivering a thoughtful, grownup action spectacle that pairs Hunt with his greatest foil: Rebecca Fergusion’s dynamic, haunted MI6 agent Ilsa Faust. Is she friend or foe? Can he trust her? Are they falling for one another? And is that a dangerous idea? Rogue Nation raises the stakes and amplifies the emotional undercurrents that have always been essential to the Mission: Impossible movies. How many franchises actually get better over time?