Your mission, should you choose to accept it... Mission: Impossible movies ranked from worst to best

To celebrate the release of the new Mission: Impossible film, here's our ranking of the series so far
To celebrate the release of the new Mission: Impossible film, here's our ranking of the series so far Copyright Paramount Pictures
By David Mouriquand
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Your mission, should you choose to accept it...

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It all kicked off in 1996 with Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible and since then, the series has gone on to generate six sequels — and counting, since it shows no signs of slowing down.

It's a blockbuster series anomaly in many ways, chiefly because typical franchise rules don’t seem to apply to it. Usually, a continuing saga will yield diminishing returns, in terms of both quality and box-office, especially in an era of franchise fatigue. Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt seems to be the exception to the rule, as the series has gone from strength to strength over the decades, with each entry attempting to top the previous chapter. And it’s mostly worked, with the M:I films banishing the memories of the US TV series in which Peter Graves and his rotating roster of agents would engage in rather quaint espionage antics, replacing that with a franchise built on death-defying stunts that is seemingly as indefatigable as its leading star.

For heaven’s sake, Tom Cruise is now older than Jon Voight was in the first Mission: Impossible film.

So, in anticipation of the seventh Mission: Impossible film, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, which is released this week in theatres worldwide, I took it upon myself to sit down and re-watch what has become one of Hollywood’s most sturdy franchises and rank the films.

Whatever, you probably have friends...

I emerge broken, probably less bruised that Tom Cruise, and with a newfound appreciation for something that’s been staring me in the face for decades and haven’t managed to vocalise: Alongside Oscar Isaac’s subversive locks, Tom Cruise has the best hair in the business.

With that in mind, I’ll be including a follicle appreciation alongside the films, because – well, I’ve earned this after putting myself through precisely 771 minutes of Tom Cruise trying to find new and increasingly pant-browning ways to die on screen.

M:I-2 (2000)

I’m not being controversial when it comes to putting John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II (stylised M:I-2) in last position, as it is the dud of the series. A deliriously entertaining dud, but the clear black sheep of the series nonetheless. The overabundance of slow-mo, Limp Bizkit on the soundtrack, kung-fu moves, the lunatic amount of shades, two-pistol shootouts – all of which were blatantly trying to emulate The Matrix … Everything about this one was misjudged and it’s the M:I entry that has aged the most, feeling very 2000-era Hollywood excess. I tried instigating a drinking game every time I saw some unnecessary slow-mo or doves, and had to quit because my long-suffering liver was having none of it. There are some promising elements along the way (the excellent Thandie Newton, Anthony Hopkins as the one-time head of the IMF, the largely nonsensical plot acting as a cheeky homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious) and it’s laudable how the franchise was looking to unapologetically distance itself from the old-school espionage origins of the first, in a bid for every instalment to have its director bring in a new sensibility and style to the project. But Ethan Hunt isn’t supposed to be a full blown action hero and this chapter lost sight of the spying aspect that makes the rest of the franchise so enjoyable. Unfortunately, it all ends up disjointed, dated, and unintentionally cheesy.

Follicle watch: Tom Cruise’s hair is the longest it has ever been in the franchise, and most of the action sequences feel like they’ve been sponsored by a L’Oréal conditioner. Glorious, but very silly indeed.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

A controversial placement, as many fans would place this one higher. But I have few scruples, especially because from here on in, all the M:I films are excellent. However, Ghost Protocol – the fourth instalment – is only so low in this ranking because the competition is so strong. It was the live-action filmmaking debut of Pixar staple Brad Bird and he delivered the goods: the destruction of the Kremlin, sandstorm chases, and the film’s flagship sequence, which sees Cruise scale the side of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (the tallest skyscraper on the planet). It’s breathtaking stuff, with a welcome dollop of humour - usually linked to the ongoing gag that the technology the team are using usually ends up malfunctioning. Cruise is on top form, the new team is excellent (Simon Pegg out in the field, Jeremy Renner making his M:I debut, Paula Patton’s only adventure)… The main (and sizeable) snag is that the villain, played by an underserved and therefore expressionless Michael Nyqvist, is immensely forgettable. Add to that the pacing coming to a halt for the disappointing third act, and the fact I couldn't shake the feeling that the script feels like it was retroactively fitted onto the (admittedly brilliant) stunts, and Ghost Protocol goes in fifth position. It’s very rewatchable but does pale compared to some of the superior entries.

Follicle watch: The hair is long once more, and it suits the Cruiser well. Especially when the Dubai wind violently attempts to shake a strain of the opulent mane out of place. To no avail, I might add.

Mission: Impossible III (2006)

This third entry was helmed by writer-director J.J. Abrams, who made his big screen debut with M:I-III. As opposed to the second instalment, the action was more grounded and far less flashy, with an emphasis on expository dialogue and shady double-crosses. In many ways, this was Abrams bringing his Alias leanings to the franchise, and it works. Gone is the indestructible Übermensch John Woo created and we’re treated to more human stakes and an enigmatic MacGuffin known as the “Rabbit’s Foot”. Mileage may vary on this aspect, as Abrams likes to tease and create unexplained mystery-box auras around many of his narrative choices, only for viewers to realise that the box is actually frustratingly empty. However, the pace is excellent, the Michael Giacchino score is a treat, and it’s easily the series’ darkest episode, with the main villain having a devious penchant for jamming explosive devices up people’s noses and detonating them when he feels like it. Speaking of which, the only reason the third adventure tops Ghost Protocol is because, once again, a movie is only as good as its villain, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, is arguably the franchise’s greatest villain to date. His monologues are downright terrifying, and the last act reveal of another naughty scamp posits an interesting conundrum for Hunt and his team: Antagonists are like weeds – pluck one out, and two more spring up the next day. And, love or loathe it, there’s no denying that this is the film that saved the Mission: Impossible series, which was on life support six years earlier with M:I-2.

Follicle watch: Out with the length and in with the slightly dishevelled short crop, which is delightful and befitting of an agent trying to settle down with his new squeeze and singularly failing. Full marks. 

Mission: Impossible (1996)

Even if the films have been going from strength to strength over the years, people tend to overlook the original by Brian De Palma. It’s worth remembering how admirably gutsy it was for a movie to base itself on a pop culture TV classic and rewriting the rule book. In this case, turn the original show’s hero, Jim Phelps (played by Jon Voight) into the villain, while focusing on post-Cold War paranoia. Sure, it has aged, especially with the floppy disks, the AOL email accounts (simpler times) and the of-the-time SFX during the speeding train beneath the English Channel finale; but there’s so much verve and energy to this opening adventure. The twists hold up, Vanessa Redgrave briefly steals the show, the taut script is probably the most carefully constructed one of the series, and let’s not forget the tense assault on the CIA vault with the highly sensitive sensors on the floor, an iconic sequence which would become the series' defining trademark. It may be the most grounded entry in the series, with no death-defying stunts and more emphasis on dark shadows and femme fatales, but it’s the one that honours the espionage origins of the original show the most, with more double-crosses and mental check-mates than you’ll know what to do with. Above all, it has atmosphere to spare, which can’t be said about all of the M:I films – Mission: Impossible oozes a sense of deceit and paranoia that makes it stand the test of time as a top-notch 90s blockbuster thriller.

Follicle watch: The shortest it has ever been. It's been better. But never smoother. 

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

We now enter the Christopher McQuarrie years, for the director’s first pop at what will eventually be four Mission: Impossible movies (after the double-whammy of Dead Reckoning Parts One and Two) - in a franchise where no other filmmaker came back for seconds. It’s turned out to be a match made in heaven, as McQuarrie understands that the franchise works best when the crazy high-octane stunts are matched with a grounded sense of peril that comes from a generous script. Balanced, clever and featuring set pieces that have a classic spy / 70s thriller feel to them – especially the opera scenes, a hat-tip to Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – the story ups the stakes by pitting the IMF team against their direct nefarious counterparts: The Syndicate, a rogue team of disgruntled agents using their government training for the greater evil. It starts off hot and heavy with a jaw-dropping stunt in the cold open: Ethan Hunt clings onto the side of a plane during take-off. It’s an impressive way to start, as the rest of the film harks back to the atmosphere of the first Mission: Impossible film, with a palpable sense of dread that is, aside from the terrific addition of the recurring character Isla Faust (played to perfection by Rebecca Ferguson), Rogue Nation ’s greatest asset. And once again, we turn to this instalment’s bad egg, the excellent Sean Harris, who sneers his way through the film as Solomon Lane. He's no Philip Seymour Hoffman, but did stick around for the subsequent sequel. All in all, this fifth instalment was when the M:I formula was finely tuned with all engines running.

Follicle watch: A messy and positively luxurious mid-length, which may be Cruise’s most radiant look. Fight me.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

And we come to the franchise's penultimate entry, now that Dead Reckoning Part One is upon us. It’s been five years since the last M:I film, and the wait has been especially long since Fallout is without a doubt the franchise’s strongest film. A rarity when you think about it in terms of franchises, but once again, Mission: Impossible is the series that keeps on defying the rulebook. The set pieces, the stunts, the cast, the intrigue... It doesn’t get more thrilling than the sixth chapter in Ethan Hunt’s never-ending quest to save lives. This time, it’s more character-driven, as world saving takes its emotional toll and this is questioned throughout. The series is also at a point where it’s comfortable in its self-aware jabs (“The IMF is Halloween, a bunch of grown men wearing masks”) and delivers a physically menacing antagonist (Spoilers: the two-timing, arm-reloading Henry Cavill) that feels worthy of the leading character – the hammer to Cruise’s scalpel. From the real HALO jump out of a plane at 25,000 feet to an adrenaline-fuelled motorcycle chase across Paris, the action is matched with an overarching intrigue that kept me on the edge of my seat. And I'd seen it before... As an added bonus, it’s also the first time the F-bomb is dropped in the series, with one line of dialogue that also playfully pokes fun at some of the double-crossing and mask wearing antics of the series: “Why do you have to make things so f*cking complicated?” If Rogue Nation was the finely tuned machine firing on all cylinders, Fallout says “Hold my latex mask” and delivers a near flawless action thriller that perfected the formula. Critics were quick to praise it as one of the greatest action movies ever made when it came out in 2018. Fast forward to 2023, and it’s hard to argue with that appraisal, as Fallout essentially throws the gauntlet down at the James Bond franchise’s feet and says “Have fun topping that, while you're swigging Martinis and battling the onslaught of STDs!” Only one issue: Fallout is so good that there is a real risk that Dead Reckoning may pale in comparison. Then again, never underestimate this franchise... Find out if that’s the case later this week, with my review of the latest M:I film.

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Follicle watch: Sensible side-quiff that seems to say: “Fear my luxurious semi-bouffant that never ceases to be dashing even in the face of nuclear annihilation – FEAR IT!”

Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is out in theatres this week. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part Two is out next year, on 28 June 2024.

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