Ranking the Mission: Impossible films

I love Mission: Impossible. It’s one of my favorite action franchises of the last few decades. Across five films, they’ve taken espionage, action and breathtaking stunts to a whole new level. With the fifth entry, Rogue Nation opening this weekend, I watched the other movies in the series for a totally awesome refresher course.

One of the many cool things about Mission: Impossible is that each film has been helmed by a different director, which means that, while they share many cool things in common, they also each have their own distinct personalities and styles. They also share the impressive physicality and grounded presence of Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. But which MI film is the best? And do they all hold up when compared against each other? I set to find out with my ranking of the first four.

4. Mission: Impossible II

The good news about MI2 is that it’s not as terrible as its reputation suggests. The bad news is that it really feels like a missed opportunity. On paper, action maestro John Woo seems like a potential good fit for the franchise. As he demonstrates here, he really knows how to shoot an action scene, and the film is breathlessly paced and often thrilling. But there’s way too much of a good thing here: the movie is painfully John Woo. The endless gunfights. The overused slow-mo. The gratuitous shots of doves. This movie checks off every box on the Woo trope list and then some. It’s immensely silly and not believable for a second.

The film starts off confusing and doesn’t really get less so. It likes to place Ethan Hunt in crazy situations with little context, before backpedaling to explain the situation. The audience would be much more engaged if we knew why we’re supposed to care about an action scene before it happens. Hunt’s characterization is confusing here: he’s suddenly cocky, and a Bond-like playboy to boot. Nothing in the previous or subsequent films explains this sudden shift in behavior.

The plot concerns former IMF (Impossible Mission Force) agent Sean Ambrose (a pretty bland Dougray Scott) attempting to get his hands on a deadly virus because he wants to be rich! The man to help him is pharmaceutical bigwig John McCloy (Brendan Gleeson, great as always). Hunt attempts to get to Ambrose through old fling Nyah (a young Thandie Newton).

MI2 is fun but a bit too goofy to be taken seriously.

MI2 is fun but a bit too goofy to be taken seriously.

The best way to describe the film is gratuitous. There’s a glamorous car chase just because an MI film is supposed to have one, I guess? It adds nothing to the plot or the characters. There’s a sex scene because all the other action films are doing it. Then there’s the face swapping. In the MI universe, there’s a technology that allows people to wear lifelike masks of other people as disguises. While the later films explain this tech, this one just has someone pulling off a mask every few minutes with no explanation except PLOT TWIST! It’s pretty amazing that this revolutionary stuff is just lying around a seemingly anyone can use it, but the film just treats it as normal.

It’s not all bad, though. Hans Zimmer’s Latin-inspired score is maybe my favorite in any of the films. The climax, a big, epic motorcycle chase, is pretty thrilling, if completely ridiculous. But the movie’s biggest flaw is that it never feels like an MI movie. A well-paced and suspenseful scene involving the handoff of a memory card at a racetrack is the sole exception. Mostly, MI2 is a standard John Woo action film—stylish and cool but breezy and ultimately pretty forgettable.

3. Mission: Impossible

The original Mission: Impossible film, released in 1996, had a pretty impressive lineup of talent backing it up. Auteur director Brian DePalma directing; Tom Cruise, hot off a string of hit roles, as the lead. Not to mention a story and screenplay by Robert Towne (Chinatown), David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler’s List). The supporting cast included the likes of Ving Rhames, Jon Voight and Jean Reno.

Thankfully, Mission: Impossible was a film that lived up to its promise, starting with a stylish intro and only getting more intriguing from there. We’re introduced to the IMF, an undercover government agency that goes on off-the-books, dangerous assignments. Ethan Hunt’s team, while attempting to secure a list of undercover operatives in Eastern Europe, is brutally murdered, and Hunt is the only survivor. This naturally draws suspicion, and soon Hunt finds himself on the run from the IMF after he’s framed as the mole who betrayed his team.

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The original Mission: Impossible is a thrilling introduction to the franchise.

This film gives me everything I like in an MI film; cool gadgets, a focus on espionage over gunfights, and an incredibly simple setup that gets us into the action quickly. I recently discovered that this movie does not contain a single gunfight, a feat remarkable enough in itself. It also introduced us to the massive, dangerous set piece moments the series is known for. The classic vault scene, where Hunt is extended into a top-secret room where even raising the temperature one degree will set off an alarm, is considered a classic for a reason. It’s one of the most expertly paced and suspenseful scenes in cinema history. Even better is the fact that no music is used, ratcheting up the tension even further.

There’s a central twist toward the end of the film that’s pretty obvious, but it works because the acting is so good. I especially like Ving Rhames as a shady hacker that ends up becoming Hunt’s right-hand man.

Mission: Impossible is slower and less flashy than its sequels, but it still hits where it counts. On the whole, it’s pretty nonsensical, but the action and set pieces are thrilling, and I’m still blown away that the filmmakers managed to do so much with relatively little.

2. Mission: Impossible III

The mark-up in quality between MI2 and MI3 is pretty pronounced. From the immensely intense opening, we realize we are playing in a whole different ballpark. That’s mostly thanks to director J.J. Abrams and co-writers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. I think there is more compelling character development in the first 20 minutes of this movie than in the previous two combined.

This entry finds Ethan desiring to settle down with his fiancé, Julia (Michelle Monaghan). He chats at parties about his boring job at the Department of Transportation, but secretly he has retired from field work in the IMF, instead training new recruits. But he’s soon pulled back in, tasked with taking down a ruthless arms dealer (Philip Seymour Hoffman, killing it as always).

What makes this outing so memorable is the personal stakes involved. We learn from the first scene that Julia is in very real danger, which provokes a more emotional response form Ethan and a more nuanced performance from Cruise. His relationships with both Julia and a particularly close trainee (Keri Russell) is believable thanks to both the dialogue and the great performances. I appreciate the return to the team-based format from the original, something lacking in the second installment. The humor and dynamics between the IMF team is really engaging, particularly thanks to some new faces, including the always brilliant Simon Pegg as a comedic hacker.

MI3 is relentlessly intense and full of memorable set piece moments.

The set piece moments here are pretty insane. One early scene requires the team to break into the Vatican, and things only get crazier from there. The exotic globetrotting takes our IMF team to the likes of Rome, Berlin and Shanghai. A thrilling parachute jump is particularly inspired.

I can’t praise Hoffman’s villain enough. These films are not known for their memorable villains, but this one is definitely an exception. Owen Davian is downright diabolical, and the head games he plays with Hunt are terrifying. The cast as a whole is incredible. We also get great performances from Lawrence Fishburne and Billy Crudup as constantly headbutting IMF agents.

MI3 is almost heart-stoppingly intense. It doesn’t let up for a second, but it doesn’t have to. It’s “cool” without trying too hard, unlike its predecessor. It’s exotic, sexy, and a total blast, but, like a traumatic episode of 24 or The Walking Dead, it’s best to avoid watching it before going to bed.

1. Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Ghost Protocol is an absolute marvel and, for my money, one of the best action films of the past decade. It takes all of the good stuff from the first and third films while avoiding all of the bad stuff from the second. It’s pretty much the perfect Mission: Impossible movie.

In stark contrast from the last film, we open on Ethan Hunt attempting to escape from a Russian prison(!). The reasons for his incarceration aren’t revealed until the end of the film, but that’s one of the things that makes this movie so good. It never leaves you hanging. Every plot thread, every mystery is solved eventually, but director Brad Bird and writers Josh Applebaum and Andrew Nemec tease out the reveals slowly, requiring a good deal of patience from the audience.

Thankfully, when everything else is this good, we don’t mind waiting. Ethan’s mission to obtain a stolen set of nuclear launch codes brings him into contact with a new team. Great casting additions include Paula Patton’s Jane and the always great Jeremy Renner as the mysterious Agent Brandt. We also get a thankfully expanded role for Simon Pegg’s Benji. His performance is easily one of the film’s highlights.

Ghost Protocol is the total package, with great action, writing and casting.

Ghost Protocol is the total package, with great action, writing and casting.

The actors work off each other incredibly well, making for easily the funniest movie of the bunch. If there’s a complaint to level at MI3, it’s that it gets a bit too dark. This one remains light on its feet and briskly paced without getting overly frenetic. It’s more cleanly plotted and easy to follow than its predecessors, too. The characters are memorable and given a great deal of depth.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Mission: Impossible without exotic globetrotting and mind-boggling stunts. This one contains some of the best ever put on screen. This adventure takes IMF to the likes of Berlin and Dubai, and the results are breathtaking. I’ve always been impressed by Tom Cruise’s physicality and his desire to do his own stunts. Here, that reaches levels of pure insanity. When Hunt is required to climb the Burj Khalifa, aka the world’s tallest building, wearing nothing but some technologically fancy adhesive gloves, the danger is palpable. It’s a jaw-dropping sequence, one that eventually leads to a thrilling foot (and later car) chase through a sandstorm. It’s the coolest action sequence in any MI film and one of the coolest I’ve ever seen. Director Bird, a Pixar animation veteran, does wonders with his first live-action film. The action is clearly shot and choreographed, with none of the shaky-cam nonsense many of his contemporaries have fallen prey to. This is also thanks to master cinematographer Robert Elswit, who won an Oscar for There Will Be Blood and shows off his brilliant composition even in a more conventional action film such as this.

Ghost Protocol is the total package. A clean, thrilling story is topped by stellar performances, a sharp and surprisingly hilarious script and some of the coolest action put to screen. There’s nothing not to like here. I feel Rogue Nation will have a hard time topping this one.

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