A comprehensive list of Mission: Impossible movies ranked, including Ghost Protocol, Fallout, Dead Reckoning Part One, and more
The newest Mission: Impossible movie, Dead Reckoning Part One, hit theaters not too long ago after an extensive five years since the previous installment. Tom Cruise is back, and he brings his usual bag of death-defying stunts and insistence on practical visuals with him. After spending some time reflecting on his latest movie and reviewing it earlier this week, I wanted to attempt an impossible mission that I tasked myself, should I choose to accept – ranking each of the seven released movies in this franchise so far.
Before I begin, I want to make one small note about the Mission: Impossible franchise and the films that have built it out through the past 25+ years. All seven of them are *certified* good, so while I’m making tough choices about where to rank each, just know that putting something at seven or six doesn’t mean that I don’t think the movie works. I think they all work.
But some feel more necessary than others, and some are inherently bolder than others given technological advances (in front of and behind the screen) since the first movie premiered in 1996, as well as the cast of characters they’ve introduced with each new entry. I can’t wait to watch them all again and read this over and realize how foolish I was with my ordering. That’s another piece for another time. Here’s the ranking I’m currently thinking for them:
7. Mission: Impossible II
Considered by many to be the biggest misstep in the Mission: Impossible lexicon, the second entry lands last on my list as well. While I still like many of the aspects in John Woo’s reimagining of the source text, it’s the most forgettable of this unforgettable string of movies. It has many of the tropes and common set pieces we’ve come to love, but it doesn’t add much beyond that.
Except for fantastically overzealous shots of motorcycle jousting and mask unfurling. The last act feels like it’s worth the wait, and the movie’s final twists and turns are still genuinely surprising. The supporting cast doesn’t do much for me, but perhaps that could’ve changed had they brought back Thandiwe Newton as Ethan Hunt’s love interest Nyah – a character who was surprisingly effective in her lone appearance in this franchise. Needless to say, Mission: Impossible II is sweaty, very sweaty.
6. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
Perhaps another detriment to the ranking of Mission: Impossible II in this list is that the rest the movies in this franchise are so damn good. And while Mission: Impossible II is the most forgettable movie in the original trilogy, the same can be said for Rogue Nation, which again, I still think is pretty great!
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation attempts to set up the future of Ethan Hunt and the IMF. Rebecca Ferguson is introduced as Ilsa Faust, a rogue MI6 agent and future regular of the series. Soloman Lane (Sean Harris) gets his first crack at being the big bad of the franchise, acting as a source of anarchy opposite Ethan Hunt.
And yet Rogue Nation feels like the set-up for something much better and bolder – a set-up that would prove worthwhile with Fallout. Maybe I just have to return to it again, but this feels like the middle child in an incredible run of movies under the Tom Cruise banner.
5. Mission: Impossible III
This one hurts, because Mission: Impossible III is the point when the franchise fully transforms into its current state – a twitchy, nonstop eruption of delicate set pieces and absurd storylines. Ethan Hunt races against time in each of the installments, but none quite like this. You can feel the seconds ticking away as he tries to save his wife from the sadistic arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in my favorite villain role in the franchise).
The action feels like the early summation of the J.J. Abrams oeuvre, a barn-burning spectacle delight I’m not sure he’s replicated since despite a valiant effort. Yet Mission: Impossible III feels slightly dated in a manner that the following films don’t. Maybe because of the color schematic here, which resembles 2006 almost too well and feels outsourced to the Michael Bay school of Transformers. But like I’ve mentioned numerous times now, it’s all make-believe. Two days ago I may have had this number three. Already regretting my decision.
4. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One
The newest movie in the Mission: Impossible franchise lands right in the middle. I wrote extensively in my review for Dead Reckoning Part One about the few pieces of this movie that don’t quite fully work for me. It stretches itself pretty thin with characters, and there’s a lack of core Mission: Impossible elements in it that I struggled to get through – mainly a shockingly small amount of Tom Cruise in comparison with past installments.
But Dead Reckoning Part One continues Mr. Cruise’s decade-long attempt now of trying to die on the big screen. The practical stunt work here is simply incredible. In a time where studios seem comfortable shooting on big soundstages and relying on CGI to clean up any loose ends, this movie defies these trends to deliver a singular moviegoing experience. I couldn’t believe it the first time I saw it, and I’m not sure I will the second time.
Each set piece is authentic and fully realized, from an Abu Dhabi airport cat-and-mouse game, to a car chase in Rome, to a final showdown on top of a moving train (and Ethan Hunt managing to get on said train), I can’t wait to see how they attempt to top it in Part Two.
3. Mission: Impossible
Watching each of the Mission: Impossible movies in order before seeing the new one and ranking all of them really puts into perspective how far this franchise has come. The first is great, but the stakes and scale of it is so much smaller than what it’s become. Director Brian De Palma set out to make a spy thriller with so many twists and turns that it hurt your brain by the end of it. And he sure succeeded on that vision.
I was relatively new to the franchise before this last watch through, yet I found myself so enthralled in the lore and expanding universe of Mission: Impossible following the first movie. It’s so much fun, and there’s no sense that the movie is too big for its own shoes. It never gets away from De Palma, and that’s impressive with a script like this. The first is still one of the best.
2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
I knew Ghost Protocol was where the Mission: Impossible movies evolved into something else. The mythology got deeper, the world felt larger, and the stakes were increasingly more dire. Director Brad Bird transforms and transcends whatever I thought his career path was with a single movie – a movie where Tom Cruise scales the Burj Khalifa to stop a missile strike heading for San Francisco.
It’s slightly unseated by the scale of the film in the first spot, but Ghost Protocol deserves the credit for relaunching this franchise’s ideals. It’s a slightly campy, occasionally serious, and always heart-pounding tour de force of real visuals and even realer acrobatics.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout
I’m not sure there’s much more to say about Fallout that hasn’t been regurgitated in the culture over and over again since it’s release. It’s a masterpiece, no matter how you reframe it. Fallout is the intersection of so many old and new character arcs, from Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames’ reoccurring characters rounding out the IMF team, to Henry Cavill’s nesting doll performance of foe turned friend turned foe. The movie exceeds expectations, even if you go in knowing its reputation among fans.
And it certainly contends with the best action movies ever made. The final act drops you right in the middle of the action, slowly compounding the tension until a final set piece that I still can’t believe they pulled off. Fallout is the pinnacle of this franchise and this genre of filmmaking, and it felt relatively easy placing it at the top spot.
View a Letterboxd version of this list here