You can make a pretty good argument that Mission: Impossible is our best current movie franchise. Fast & Furious is bigger, in a lot of ways, from scope to box office to neck size of its cast, but suffered a quality dip in films 2-4. John Wick is probably cooler, although two movies might not be enough to launch it fully into the best franchise discussion. The Marvel movies are more of a universe than a franchise, with characters bobbing and weaving into and out of each other’s stories, but I’m willing to entertain Guardians of the Galaxy if the third movie lives up to the first two.
But none of them can match the longevity and consistency of Mission: Impossible. Do you realize the first one came out in 1996? That is a very long time ago. That is so long ago that we’ve had three different Spider-men since then and the current one was born 10 days after the original Mission: Impossible was released. And the movies are still coming out and they still rule super hard. Tom Cruise might keep making these movies into his 80s. We’ll be on our sixth Spider-man by then.
Below, I have attempted to rank the six existing films in the franchise. “Attempted” being the key word.
6. Mission: Impossible II
Let’s be clear about something: I am not here for your Mission: Impossible II slander. Yes, I’m ranking it last, that is true. But that has more to do with the other films in the franchise, all of which are so good that it makes the least-attractive sibling look like a gargoyle. It’s unfortunate. Mission: Impossible II is the worst Mission: Impossible movie and it is still better than the best Transformers movie. It’s a little maddening.
Oh, the film is hot nonsense. I’ll give you that. It has the weakest plot of any of the films. There are viruses and antidotes and whatever is going on with Tom Cruise’s hair, which yes, I do consider part of the plot because it was more fascinating than most of the exposition. But it’s still fun and watchable. Someone gave John Woo and Tom Cruise $100 million and told them to go nuts and they super did. Find a flaw in that sentence.
And then, when you don’t, look at the scene posted above. It’s a seven-minute motorcycle chase that features multiple cars turning into fireballs the instant they are touched and it ends with two men launching their motorcycles into the air and flying over a cliff in a bear hug as their bikes crash into each other and explode in the air behind them. It’s like someone added flour to a normal John Woo scene and thickened it up into a roux. The only thing missing is fluttering white doves and don’t you dare worry because those show up later during an indoor gunfight. John Woo is the greatest.
The thing to remember in all of this is that the Mission: Impossible films all have their own style. Some of them are more artistic, some are more straightforward action, some are kind of action-comedies. Mission: Impossible II is just insane. There’s room for that.
5. Mission: Impossible III
Mission: Impossible III has the best villain in the franchise. Philip Seymour Hoffman steals every scene he’s in, which is impressive in any movie but even more impressive when most of the scenes you are in also feature Tom Cruise. He’s so good that, for a long time, I thought this was my favorite movie in the franchise even though, upon review, it was not even all that close. I don’t know if that says more about him as an actor or me as a viewer.
The movie itself is definitely fine, though. Tom Cruise starts out retired and is lured back in because he’s the best and also because Keri Russell is in danger, which is as good a reason as any, really. Everyone’s hunting for something called the Rabbit’s Foot. There’s a whole Michelle Monaghan death ruse and then a whole Tom Cruise death ruse at the end. J.J. Abrams co-wrote and directed and he really gave it the full-on early-2000s J.J. Abrams, for better and worse. Again, it’s definitely fine and almost definitely really good.
I feel like you want to yell at me about this. Let’s try this: Picture this movie, exactly the same, shot-for-shot and line-for-line, but with literally anyone else in the villain role. It’s not nearly as good, right? I will answer that for you: It is not. That’s how great Philip Seymour Hoffman was in Mission: Impossible III. He almost single-handedly vaulted it over a John Woo movie with exploding motorcycles in a ranking compiled by me, a person who really loves John Woo movies and exploding motorcycles. That’s saying something.
4. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation
– is the closest the franchise has come to straight-up making a Bond movie
– has the franchise’s best female character by far in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust
– has a bad guy (Sean Harris) who has shark eyes and a tiny laryngitis voice that makes him even more terrifying
– also has a bad guy named The Bone Doctor, which is awesome
– opens with Tom Cruise clutching the side of a dang flying airplane
– loses a few points because the big pencil-diving, breath-holding, card-swapping action sequence drags a tiny bit
– features Alec Baldwin with cool-guy moussed-up spiky hair, which is honestly a little disturbing
– was so good that its director, Christopher McQuarrie, is now the franchise’s only two-time director
I love this movie so much and it didn’t crack my top three. This is what I mean about this franchise being our best. Heavy hitters galore.
2 (tie). Mission: Impossible — Fallout
The truest display of cowardice is declaring a tie in a subjective ranking of action movies and yet, here we are. The problem I’m having is that no other option feels right. Slotting Fallout below the first movie puts it third overall and that’s just entirely too low for a movie that whoops as much caboose as it does. But putting it at number two, alone, feels almost blasphemous — disrespectful, even — because that would bump the original movie to third. Also unacceptable. I tied my own hands on this one.
It’s just that Fallout is so good. It is so good. The movie has about three action scenes that are better than most big-budget movies’ showcase action scene. (The helicopters!) The twists and reversals are smart and fun and thought through in a way that’s almost rude to other action movies. (Soloman Lane!) The stakes are real and personal for most of the main characters and they all tie back to the previous films without being tied down by them. (Michelle Monaghan!) And at one point Tom Cruise says “Is that clear?” and another character replied “Crystal,” which made me, a person who has seen A Few Good Men maybe 60 times on basic cable, squeal with joy in the theater. So that’s something, too.
I can’t in good faith put this movie any lower than two. There’s a chance, with some rewatches, which will definitely happen, that it eventually vaults to number one for me. These rankings are fluid. And if that happens, then I can also break this shameful, gutless tie and look at myself in the mirror again. It will make shaving so much easier.
But, that said, there is something a little perfect about declaring a tie between these two movies, if only because it highlights the twenty-two-year gap between them. Think about that, man. Really, think about it. Tom Cruise is 56 and still sprinting through picturesque European cities to save the world. And he’s doing it really well. In movies that whoop caboose. That’s crazy.
2 (tie). Mission: Impossible
Honestly, any of these top three movies could be number one on your own personal list and I would not argue with you for even five seconds about it. I’ve gone back and forth in my head and in this actual written-out list a few times. The tricky thing is that they’re all so different. The original movie — directed by Brian De Palma over 20 years ago, which again, is crazy — is more of a thriller than the others and way more psychologically taxing, in a good way. The twists and turns twist and turn, the action sequences are tense (think “Tom Cruise hanging from wires in a silent room with beads of sweat dripping off his face” versus “Tom Cruise sprinting away from an explosion”), and there are scenes like the one above, which is just a conversation in a restaurant and is still more exciting than a lot of entire movies.
Maybe “just a conversation” is underselling it. The scene contains a big reveal and ends with a huge aquarium blowing up and water gushing between the tables. I like to think there was one guy at that restaurant who was like, “I don’t care if my shoes are wet, I waited 45 minutes for this table and I’m finishing my pork chop.”
1. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
Ghost Protocol wins the head-to-head and earns the top spot based on three factors, in addition to it just because great, in general.
FACTOR NUMBER ONE: It features the best action sequence in the entire franchise, starting with perilous glass-scaling and moving straight into a car chase during a sandstorm. It’s a little crazy when you think about how it was directed by Brad Bird, who is best known for directing animated movies like The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. It’s a little less crazy when you realize The Incredibles movies — especially the sequel — are basically cartoon action movies.
Also: Tom Cruise spends a not-insignificant chunk of the Mission: Impossible movies hanging off of things, from cliffs to wires to airplanes to, here, the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. And he does most of it himself, despite the fact that he does not have to and probably should not. He’s completely insane. I love it.
FACTOR NUMBER TWO: It is the most rewatchable of all the Mission: Impossible movies. I’ve probably seen it 10 times. I would watch it right now if it were on some cable channel. Rewatchability is an important part of a movie’s legacy.
FACTOR THREE: Really has nothing to do with the quality of the movie itself but it is just a lot of fun to say “Ghost Protocol.” It’s probably my second favorite post-colon/dash phrase in an action movie title, ahead of “Shadow Recruit” and just behind “Tokyo Drift.” And like those phrases, it is even more fun if you start attaching it to other movie titles. The Accountant: Ghost Protocol. Paddington: Ghost Protocol. Driving Miss Daisy: Ghost Protocol. And so on and so forth.
Ghost Protocol is the best Mission: Impossible movie. So far.