The Mission: Impossible franchise was originally concepted as an American answer to the long-term success (financial and cultural) of the James Bond centred British 007 series, but has since gone on to establish a legacy of its own, the Tom Cruise fronted franchise having hit 6 releases in total since its 1996 debut.
Now one of the most succesful spy-action franchises in the history of cinema, Mission: Impossible is undeniably a cultural touchstone and as such offers a lot of anticipation for every release. With filmmakers as wide ranging as The Incredibles director Brad Bird, The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams and horror extraordinaire Brian De Palma having helmed instalments over the years, and a range of reputable stars from Philip Seymour Hoffman to Simon Pegg having lended their hands to the franchise on screen, this spy-turned-action series of globe-trotting films has offered fresh, exciting, heart-pounding moments that make it one of the most enjoyable in all of cinema. It’s easy to see why audiences continue to clamour for more of Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Missions Force.
In this edition of Ranked, our mission (should we choose to accept it) is to rank each Mission: Impossible movie from worst to best based upon a number of factors including artistry, cultural relevance and popular consensus.
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6. Mission: Impossible III
Featuring a script from the since maligned Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, MI3 seemed to lack in originality, tacking new elements to lead protagonist Ethan Hunt’s story and forgetting about other aspects in order to establish forced anchors for emotion, the narrative manipulation not cleverly disguised enough to warrant an avoidance of major eye rolls.
Even so, on the action front there were the series’ trademark high-octaine stunt spectaculars, and in a number of aesthetically appealing locations (Toronto and Shanghai, to name but two), staying true to MI’s adrenaline-fuelled fun in impressive, albeit Michael-Bay-esque, sequences that felt more grounded visually than the John Woo directed predecessor Mission: Impossible II.
This third wholly different visual style in a row did, however, leave the franchise feeling as if it was reaching in the dark for something new instead of having a logical progression, and J.J. Abrams could never quite capture the thrill of the chase as his predecessors did. Importantly, MI3 also missed the boat so far as narrative secrecy goes, with the film not offering moments of revelation to the audience as each of its predecessors did; the very idea of such being lost to narrative shortcuts well disguised by exceptional fights and a series-high performance from antagonist Philip Seymour Hoffman.
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Mission: Impossible III was perhaps more bland than bad. If you were to revisit the MI franchise, this wouldn’t be the one you head back to as a one-off, but it did suffice in returning the franchise to a less stylised and more grounded space following the controversial release of the next film in our list…
5. Mission: Impossible II
This John Woo directed franchise entry took itself way too seriously and featured far too many slow-mo doves, and it is arguably the most dated of any MI release to date, but what it lacks in modern sensibilities and real-time action scenes, it more than makes up for with creativity and thrills; II featuring many of the hallmarks of MI1‘s spy-thriller characteristics while also embracing a level of action quite spectacular in its own right.
This one is probably best remembered for Tom Cruise famously risking his life to hang over the edge of a cliff without a harness or permission from the studio, and he is quite iconically donning his famous turn-of-the-century bowl haircut (also sported in the likes of Magnolia, The Last Samurai and Vanilla Sky). Cruise was arguably never as big of a star, nor his body ever in as great condition, as during this release.
As a time capsule of the era within itself in terms of visual style, action aesthetic and Tom Cruise fashion, Mission: Impossible II is a fantastic movie, only ranking so low here because it just so happens to be a part of a particularly spectacular franchise.
4. Mission: Impossible
Kicking off a franchise with a star-studded spy-thriller from a master of suspense and horror in director Brian De Palma was certainly one way to shake up the status quo of Bond release after Bond release, and with their 1996 debut Mission: Impossible, Paramount brought to life one of the generation’s great film franchises.
The success of this Mission: Impossible movie is in how it captures fist-clenching tension and presents emotion-writhing twists while barely having to show a gun being fired. Unlike the action-centred later entries in the franchise, Mission: Impossible was much more concerned with adopting the techniques of the great Alfred Hitchcock thrillers in a modern, espionage setting, De Palma filling the frame with reference to the great British director over and over again to create something unique to its decade but a classic all the same.
The film’s bate and switch with its star-studded cast, many of whom were killed off within the first act, was a bold but fresh choice, and Paramount trusting in De Palma’s abilities to tell a story without the need for several bullet-heavy sequences per act made for perhaps the most authorial vision on show in a franchise boasting several fantastic directorial turns.
When people think of Mission: Impossible as a franchise, they still think of this film’s iconic wire-dangling scene where Tom Cruise all-but touches the touch-sensitive floor while being lowered into a vault. Even now, after 5 further releases and over twenty years, that image remains encompassing of the entire franchise if not also the entire genre, placing it in the realm of modern classic and making it unlucky to not reach the top spot in this list.