Thirty years after the original Mission: Impossible TV series debuted in 1966, the first of the films hit the big screen. Following secret agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team into a world of nonstop intrigue and espionage, these films viewed most often associate these films with their incredible stunt work. However, the Mission: Impossible franchise features more than just action sequences. With each film, the stakes increase, and the action becomes more intense. Some characters appear in all (or almost all) of the movies, developing a core team of heroes we can count on to save the day.
Each entry in the franchise has merits, so ranking them can be a difficult task. Regardless of order, a Mission: Impossible marathon confirms that this franchise always delivers plenty of heart-pounding action, fun twists, and engaging characters.
1. Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning- Part One (2023)
Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning- Part I represents everything that makes the franchise incredible. Balancing a compelling story, unique settings for action sequences, and well-rounded characters, the movie transports the audience to new heights.
In the film, Ethan and his team must track down a dangerous AI weapon with the power to control all the world’s technology and manipulate our reality. But this task proves difficult at every turn. Agents Briggs and Degas (Shea Whigham and Greg Tarzan Davis) believe Ethan has gone rogue, a thief for hire named Grace (Hayley Atwell) gets entangled in the mix, Ilsa’s situation grows more precarious, and mysterious enemies also seek this weapon.
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This film represents the pinnacle of the franchise because it perfects the balance of creative action, thrills, epic stunt work, a compelling story, genuine stakes, and believable characters. Having been with these characters for multiple films, we feel how much they mean to each other.
Grace slips into the team easily because she’s a realistic and complex woman with many layers. Moreover, Ethan’s character gets his most emotional arc, revealing significant moments from the past and showcasing the bare bones of what makes him tick. He cares about others more than himself, and the battle between the greater good and personal relationships never felt so raw and poignant.
Despite a two-hour and forty-three minute runtime, the movie flies by, aided by unique sequences, especially the impressive scenes aboard the runaway Orient Express. The new characters shine, and the cast chemistry between Cruise, Atwell, Rhames, Pegg, Ferguson, Whigham, David, Vanessa Kirby, and Pom Klementieff exceeds expectations. They earn every emotion the audience feels. Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning- Part I gives us a nuanced spy thriller, global adventure, and commentary on the dangers of artificial intelligence to entertaining, engaging, and epic proportions.
2. Mission: Impossible (1996)
Although the Mission: Impossible franchise feels like each film gets better and better, the original movie remains one of the most dynamic entries. Based on the 1960s television show of the same name, this film establishes itself as a clear adaptation with apparent nods to the series. But the film’s style and tone make it stand out as its own entity.
Directed by Brian De Palma, this first film has the look and feel of De Palma’s work and a 1990s action film. Within the first few minutes, the audience is thrust into the world of the IMF, introducing the character of Ethan Hunt in a dynamic and enthralling way. While the movie still feels like part of a more extensive series, the direction, storytelling, and overall tone make it unique.
Mission: Impossible begins with a group of agents led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), and his right-hand man, Ethan Hunt, on a mission to prevent classified material from getting into the wrong hands. Their mission goes awry; someone eliminates his team, and Hunt is left alone, making him a suspect and a target. He goes rogue and puts together a team to clear his name and prevent the sensitive material – a NOC list of agents’ real names and information – from getting out.
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This film stands out and remains one of the greatest of the series because of the story and focus on espionage instead of action. The unexpected twists, ominous tone, and brilliant use of flashbacks as Hunt discovers the truth create a unique and engaging narrative. The film’s iconic scene of Cruise suspended in a room, unable to make a sound, also feels like a stroke of genius in building dramatic tension.
Moreover, the solid performances, use of the Mission: Impossible theme song, and the film’s third act sequence with a bullet train and a helicopter result in heart-pounding thrills. The film may not be as grand in scale as the following ones. Still, the first Mission: Impossible remains a perfectly paced, intelligent, and well-crafted spy thriller.
3. Mission: Impossible- Fallout (2018)
Rarely does a franchise take a clear new direction and improve the quality of filmmaking. Beginning with Mission: Impossible III, the franchise steadily develops the scale, style, tone, character development, and direction. With Christopher McQuarrie in the director’s chair, Fallout uses moments of danger to amp up the dramatic tension but also showcases significant moments of growth, emotion, and humanity from the characters. Consequently, Fallout balances moments of gravitas and pathos with grandeur and spectacle in the same way as Dead Reckoning- Part I.
This story takes place two years after Rogue Nation, with the IMF back in action and the Syndicate seemingly dismantled. A new mission with a CIA agent (Henry Cavill) goes wrong, a meeting with a mysterious power broker turns into a gruesome mess, and the captured leader of the Syndicate, Solomon Lane, escapes. Moreover, the woman whose allegiances we can never assume, Ilsa, once again entangles herself in their mission.
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Cruise once again takes his stunt work to new levels with leaps from buildings, an incredible motorcycle chase, and what can only be called a battle between helicopters.
Yet, Fallout also employs quiet moments of poignancy that ring true because of the character development and the cast’s talent. The film features terrific scenes between Cruise and Michelle Monaghan, Rhames and Monaghan, Simon Pegg and Rebecca Ferguson, and Cruise and Ferguson. We also see great performances by Alec Baldwin, Angela Bassett, and Henry Cavill.
Although we greatly miss Jeremy Renner, and the plot feels complicated, Fallout establishes a new pinnacle with dramatic tension, heart-pounding action sequences, and emotional character moments.
4. Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation (2015)
Rogue Nation features stylish direction, surprising twists, and incredible action sequences. The installment also sports one of the best-supporting casts, which includes Rebecca Ferguson, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Tom Hollander, and Alec Baldwin.
The government disbands the IMF in the film, deeming the organization “too reckless.” But Hunt and his team continue their work when they learn of a nefarious organization called the Syndicate. Throw a mysterious woman named Ilsa, whose motives are unclear, into the mix, and you’ve got a solid action movie.
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Rogue Nation features some of the most stunning locations of the series, traveling to Morocco, Vienna, and London. Hunt, Benji, Luther, and Brandt work together to uncover the person behind the Syndicate, the truth about Ilsa, and to stop an assassination attempt. The first in the franchise directed by Christopher McQuarrie, he takes the sleek and fast-paced style and tension to an extraordinary level, firmly establishing a distinct tone for the series. With high stakes and twists, this film delivers a fascinating and thrilling story.
5. Mission: Impossible- Ghost Protocol (2011)
The fourth installment continues the attributes they establish in Mission: Impossible III and improves upon them. Directed by Brad Bird, the series begins to hit its stride with character development, chemistry, dramatic tension, and action.
The movie follows a dangerous terrorist who bombs the Kremlin and obtains Russian nuclear launch codes with plans to strike against the United States. While the government blames the IMF for the bombing at the Kremlin, Hunt and his team (which still includes Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg while pulling in new members Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton) go Rogue to prove their innocence and prevent another attack.
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With a captivating, high-stakes plot, Ghost Protocol successfully balances action, espionage, humor, and chemistry with its core cast. The story takes the missions to grander scales, but we still witness grounded and personal moments for the characters.
Following the excellent introduction in Mission: Impossible III of Simon Pegg’s Benji, the new characters portrayed by Renner and Patton feel fleshed out, with clear motivations, distinct characteristics, and fantastic chemistry with Cruise and Pegg.
The moments that Renner showcases his particular style of humor add so much nuance and fun. Cruise may be the franchise’s star, but the Mission: Impossible films succeed with a great supporting cast that helps round out the series amongst all its death-defying and action-packed moments.
6. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Six years after a bit of a misfire with Mission: Impossible II, the series finds its footing again with the most personal and unique of all the films. The only entry in the franchise directed by J.J. Abrams, the acclaimed director kicks the series into high gear with his distinct form of storytelling.
In this film, Hunt attempts to live a semi-normal life. No longer in the field, he trains agents for combat missions, keeping his real job a secret from his fiancée Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Grudgingly, he accepts what he thinks will be his final mission when the nefarious arms dealer, Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), kidnaps Ethan’s protégé (Keri Russell).
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With a new team that includes Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q, their rescue plans go awry. Davian, who proves to be as devious as he is malicious, directs all of his anger onto Ethan when he kidnaps Julia.
The scale and scope feel smaller regarding death-defying stunts and danger- though those are certainly present. Yet, the movie adds a more extensive scope with life’s most grand motivator – love. Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q add a great dynamic, though they never fully develop, while Hoffman makes a charismatic villain. They say good things come in threes, and Mission: Impossible III proves it.
7. Mission: Impossible II (2000)
In the franchise’s second installment, Hunt and his team venture to Sydney when the disgraced and disavowed IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) steals a genetically engineered disease called Chimera and the antidote. Ethan recruits Nyla (Thandiwe Newton), a thief with a romantic history with Ambrose. She agrees to go undercover and gain information about Ambrose’s plans.
While still worthy, the film suffers from odd directing choices from John Woo, including the overuse of slow motion and a drawn-out motorcycle chase. However, the film still has some merits. The opening scenes of Ethan’s impressive rock climbing establish the skills he brings to the table in this film and later installments.
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Moreover, the story further solidifies the camaraderie between Ethan and Luther (Ving Rhames). Their interactions delight viewers and have become a significant draw of the series, along with several fun moments and quips we expect as staples in the franchise. Flawed but fun, Mission: Impossible II ranks last but acts as a diverting and necessary entry when viewing the entire series in order.
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