A few notes before we begin:
- What we have here is an updated version of our rankings of the films in the Mission: Impossible franchise, up through Dead Reckoning Part One
- These movies have been so fun for so long that I think we might all be starting to take them for granted a little bit
- Please do not yell at me
Thank you. Here we go.
7. Mission: Impossible II (2000)
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 kind of fun to chill out and watch on a rainy Saturday, if only for the silliness of it all.
Oh, yes, I know. The film is hot nonsense. You’ll get no argument from me on 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’re 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 from this scene is fluttering white doves and don’t you dare worry because those show up later during an indoor gunfight. John Woo would never let you down, at least not when it comes to fluttering white doves.
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.
6. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
The thing about Mission: Impossible III is that Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the villain and he is so, so good at it that he 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 doing the types of things Tom Cruise does in the Mission: Impossible movies. 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 a) dammit, he’s the best there ever was, etc., etc., and also, b) because Keri Russell is in danger, which, as far as reasons to get lured back in from retirement go, are about as good as any. 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 this one 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.
Here’s a fun little game to play, though: 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: Probably 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.
5. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015)
- is the closest the franchise has come to straight-up making a Bond movie
- introduced Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, who immediately became the franchise’s best female character and remained in the top-three over the next few movies, too, depending where you rank various blond international arms dealers and pickpockets played by Hayley Atwell, who we will discuss a bit more in the very near future
- has a bad guy (Sean Harris) who has shark eyes and a raspy little 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
I love this movie so much and it still landed in the bottom half of my rankings. The quality and longevity of this franchise is nuts. Heavy hitters galore.
4. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (2023)
ON ONE HAND
This movie rips pretty much from the very beginning, with exploding submarines and car chases and train chases and motorcycles flying off cliffs and all of it. Hayley Atwell shows up as a pickpocket who finds herself neck-deep in an international game of chicken with Tom Cruise and an all-knowing artificial intelligence system known as “The Entity.” The White Widow does a top-secret black market transaction inside a castle that is filled with neon lights and thumping techno music and about 1000 gyrating strangers. Shea Wigham shows up every 20 or 30 minutes to chase Tom Cruise around and is just soundly thwarted by the entire world around him every time. All the boxes are checked here.
ON THE OTHER HAND
A three-hour movie should probably have, like, an ending.
Lots to consider here.
3. Mission: Impossible (1996)
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 almost 30 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.”
Let’s close with this: Tom Cruise is older today (61) than Jon Voight was when this movie came out (58). Really wrap your head around that for a couple of minutes some afternoon.
2. Mission: Impossible — Fallout (2018)
Three things are important to note here:
ONE: Fallout is so good. It is so good. The movie has about three different action scenes that are better than the biggest expensive showcase action scene in most big-budget movies. (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!) There’s a fight in a public bathroom between Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill that, at one point, features Cavill strutting back into battle while kind of cocking his fists like they are little shotguns, which is cool. (It’s cool!) Again: so, so good. And it has Angela Bassett in it as the new CIA director. More movies should feature Angela Bassett as the new CIA director. Please work on that.
TWO: 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, which is a good time to mention the thing with Michelle Monaghan at the end and a great time to mention that this movie also introduces Vanessa Kirby as international arms dealer Alanna “The White Widow” Mitsopolis, who a) inherited her international arms dealing business from her mother, Max, who we last saw way back in the first movie, and b) fascinates me in an “I would absolutely watch a prequel about her in her 20s as she starts to take over the family business” way, kind of like if Tommy Boy was an action movie that starred Vanessa Kirby instead of Chris Farley. That sentence was very long but I feel great about where it ended.
THREE: At one point in this movie, Tom Cruise says “Is that clear?” and another character replies “Crystal,” which made me, a person who has seen A Few Good Men maybe 500 times on basic cable, squeal with joy in the theater.
And yet, it still comes in at number two, just behind…
1. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)
Three things are important to note here, too:
ONE: Ghost Protocol 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.
But yes, the scene in question. Watch it again up there. And then, consider this: If you watch a few of these movies together in a short period of time (say, like a week or two), you’ll start to realize that Tom Cruise spends a not-insignificant chunk of the Mission: Impossible movies hanging and/or dangling off of things, from cliffs to wires to airplanes to runaway trains 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. Tom Cruise is completely out of his mind.
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. Which is probably is. Rewatchability is an important part of a movie’s legacy.
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 favorite post-colon/dash phrase in an action movie title, or at least top-two with “Tokyo Drift.” And with both of those phrases, it is even more fun if you start slapping it at the end of other movie titles. John Wick: Ghost Protocol. Paddington: Ghost Protocol. My Cousin Vinny: Ghost Protocol. I’ll stop here only because I might end up doing it all day if I don’t cut bait early. I know this because it has happened before. A bunch of times. I just did it again last weekend after I rewatched it for like the 11th time. But you can keep going. Crank away on this one some afternoon, too, maybe as a palette cleanser after the kind of upsetting Voight/Cruise thing we talked about earlier.
Ghost Protocol is the best Mission: Impossible movie.