The Mission: Impossible Movies, Ranked from Worst to Best

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Celebrating the 20th anniversary of Brian De Palma’s original film.

Transformative face masks, impressive electronic gadgets and impossible missions around the globe. Exactly twenty years ago today, the first Mission: Impossible film – directed by Brian De Palma, adapted from Bruce Geller’s TV series by David Koepp and Robert Towne – was released in theaters. It introduced Tom Cruise – who had already been enjoying over a decade-long stardom and not yet jumped on Oprah’s couch – as the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) agent Ethan Hunt. Still at the top of his craft and physicality (hey, he does his own stunts) today, Cruise surely reinforced his movie stardom with the series, which had highs and lows through the years, yet managed to maintain its “movie event” status over two decades.

To commemorate the first film’s 20th anniversary, I looked back at the five films of the Mission: Impossible brand and ranked them from worst to best. Mild spoilers and major controversy ahead:

5. Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000)

Sure, the appeal of the Mission Impossible movies has never been about the depth of story or eloquent character development. Yet the emptiness of Mission: Impossible II – despite John Woo’s signature, highly stylized touch (arguably, a glaring mismatch for the series) – is still caused by a severe lack of both. Robbed completely out of the franchise’s brand of mischievous humor, this self-important and heavy-handed installment with barebones plotting (which involves a virus called Chimera, its cure, Bellerophon and various good and evil people after them) is an end-to-end bore. Mission: Impossible II has too much aimless action (especially in its final act), almost no slick set pieces and no heart. To make matters worse, the hyper-sexualized treatment and vulnerable portrayal of its female character (the skilled thief Nyah, played by the fabulous Thandie Newtown) is cringe-worthy and evident in every frame and plot turn.

4. Mission: Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006)

A major step up after John Woo’s rather lackluster chapter, M:I-3 matches Ethan Hunt against a truly frightening villain; the arms dealer Owen Davian played by the great, late Philip Seymour Hoffman. This entry marks J.J. Abrams’ feature directorial debut (who is also a co-writer of the film) and takes a darker than usual turn, with a delicate dimension added to Hunt’s story. Turns out, IMF agents shall never have permanent romantic engagements, yet Hunt disregards and marries Julia; an unsuspecting nurse (granted little agency of her own) played by Michelle Monaghan. A mostly fine film in the series, M:I-3 disrupts the Mission: Impossible formula – perhaps to a fault – by making the stakes too personal for its central agent. Still, it has a captivating pace and the introduction of Benji (Simon Pegg, playing the technology whizz that would become a staple character in subsequent films) going for it.

3. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)

A non-stop adrenaline rush, Ghost Protocol injects new life into the franchise and proves once again that Tom Cruise is a true movie star as well as an action authority, and is simply a natural at wearing both hats. Complete with a heart-stopping and compulsively watchable center set piece (which involves Cruise climbing up a skyscraper using electronic/adhesive gloves), a feather-light wittiness that considerably loosens the mood and a killer opening that involves a prison break set against a Dean Martin track, the Brad Bird directed chapter is the series’ best since De Palma’s original, and follows the IMF team as they trace a terrorist with a potentially catastrophic access to some Russian nuclear codes. The story is perhaps a tad convoluted (though what good spy action isn’t); yet its heart-racing velocity, memorable Dubai-to-Mumbai global backdrops and many high-wire acts add up to the kind of action that justifies the series’ future longevity. Upon seeing Ghost Protocol, it was a relief to hear a 5th Mission: Impossible would be on the way.

2. Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)

At first glance, it might be sacrilege to not place Brian De Palma’s stellar and stylish original right at the top of this list. (Why it missed the mark will come later/below.) The franchise’s first installment initially reunites the IMF team under Jim Phelps’s leadership (a character directly lifted from the TV series, played by Jon Voight here). But in a twist, it dismantles them to eventually team Ethan Hunt up with Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, a regular in the franchise), Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) and Claire Phelps (Jim’s wife and a femme fatale archetype, played by Emmanuelle Béart) in a mission to protect the secrecy of an agent list and prove Ethan’s loyalty to the IMF. Mission: Impossible inherits all the smarts of the TV show while twisting the arm of its loyalists, puts a lush, Kiev-to-Prague globetrotting on display and features the entire series’ best centerpiece action sequence, with Ethan Hunt dangling over a temperature and pressure controlled, top-security CIA room where even a drop of sweat could trigger an alarm. It’s been twenty years since its release, but the original hasn’t lost any of its appeal and distinction.

1. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

In the franchise’s latest installment, Ethan Hunt finally finds his true match in Ilsa Faust; a double agent played by the fabulous, Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson. With killer moves and mannerisms reminiscent of Lauren Bacall, she alone would be enough to put the series’ last chapter at the top of this ranking. Not only can Faust easily outrun Ethan and kick his butt in a high-speed motorcycle chase, but is also equipped and skilled enough to save his neck on a couple of occasions, above ground and under water. And thankfully, there is a lot more to the film in addition to a very well conceived (at last) female action character. From a gorgeous production design and tight action sequences – one breathtakingly set in the Vienna opera house – to a rich story that features Ethan’s most impossible mission yet (proving IMF’s worth to an unconvinced CIA Director while stopping a rogue terrorist group called the Syndicate), Rogue Nation is both a breathtaking thrill ride and a grandly entertaining Hollywood flick; the kind studios don’t seem to make anymore.

The series’ next installment – in which Rebecca Ferguson is confirmed to star – simply can’t arrive fast enough.

How would you rank the Mission: Impossible series? Let us know in the Responses area below.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.