With the news that Mission: Impossible is landing on Netflix, we thought there was no better time to rank the movies from worst to best.
The Mission: Impossible franchise is a curious tale of evolution and reinvention, from its inception as a 1960s TV show to its rebirth as a modern cinematic behemoth led by Tom Cruise. A wild kaleidoscope of spy-jinks and audacious action, it began as the brainchild of Bruce Geller, whose high-concept television series focused on the Impossible Missions Force (IMF) and their covert operations. It was a sign of the times, a product of Cold War anxieties and the burgeoning spy genre, epitomised by the iconic line: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…”
Fast forward three decades to 1996, when the sands of Hollywood started to shift. The genre had grown stale, and the spy game needed a new player. This was Tom Cruise’s cue – a leading man with a reputation for high-octane performances and an unquenchable thirst for adrenaline. Backed by Paula Wagner and Cruise/Wagner Productions, Mission: Impossible was about to get a much-needed facelift. The television show was dusted off, repackaged and presented as a blockbuster movie under the direction of Brian De Palma, a maestro of suspense and psychological thrillers. This new iteration was grittier, sleeker, and, most importantly, led by a bona fide movie star.
Cruise, reprising the role of Ethan Hunt, brought with him a raw intensity and passion for practical stunts that became the franchise’s signature. Despite changes in directors and varying tones, each instalment carried this thread, embodying Cruise’s fearlessness and relentless pursuit of authenticity. The franchise morphed into an ever-escalating series of impossible stunts, from scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa to hanging off an airborne plane, most performed by Cruise himself. The transformation was stark: from a quiet, methodical show about subterfuge and deception, Mission: Impossible became a roaring testament to Hollywood’s capacity for spectacle.
Over the years, the franchise, much like its relentless star, has refused to slow down. Seven films in, with Part Two of Dead Reckoning on the horizon, Mission: Impossible has become synonymous with Cruise’s daredevil persona and “high-risk, high-reward” action filmmaking. What began as a leap of faith in the mid-1990s has become a cinematic institution, forever changing how we perceive spy thrillers and the boundaries of film stunts. And now, for our mission, should we choose to accept it…
Ranking every Mission: Impossible movie:
7. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One (Christopher McQuarrie, 2023)
Dead Reckoning Part One represents a seriously unfortunate stumble in the franchise’s otherwise impressive stride. Despite boasting the combined talents of Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie, this entry felt like a tepid intermission rather than a gripping standalone chapter. Even the stunning action set pieces couldn’t lift it above the feeling of being a placeholder for a future instalment.
The action feels disoriented, lacking the clear purpose and urgency that the franchise is renowned for. Although a few high-octane stunts hint at the franchise’s former glory, the overall narrative fails to build up substantial suspense, and its high-concept AI villain feels severely undercooked.
6. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Brad Bird, 2011)
This one is a noteworthy entry in the franchise due to its visual spectacle and the smooth transition of director Brad Bird, known for The Incredibles, from animation to live-action filmmaking. However, its antagonist, the somewhat bland Cobalt, lacks the dramatic weight that adversaries in other instalments have brought to the table.
Despite this shortcoming, the film does manage to entertain, mainly due to its commitment to practical effects and breathtaking stunt sequences – including an incredibly memorable prison sequence. This film truly solidified the franchise’s reputation for daring stunt work, including the now-famous scene with Tom Cruise scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa.
5. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)
McQuarrie’s directorial debut in the franchise Rogue Nation brings a fresh new voice and direction. It introduces an exceptionally threatening villain with Solomon Lane, portrayed by British actor Sean Harris, whose croaky voice and quiet menace infused the series with a real threat.
Despite some narrative complexities that had some viewers scratching their heads, the film delivers a singularly engaging experience filled with high-stakes espionage and thrilling stunts. McQuarrie’s knack for crafting sleek, heart-pounding action sequences combined with Cruise’s trademark fearlessness is on full display.
4. Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 2000)
Mission: Impossible II, with its flair for slow-motion action and a plotline that revels in its over-the-top nature, is a distinctive entry in the franchise. John Woo’s distinct direction and the inclusion of Anthony Hopkins add a unique touch to this instalment, making it a fun rollercoaster of a film – and a bizarrely drastic departure from the first film.
Although not as sophisticated or nuanced as some other entries, this instalment perfectly captures the spirit of early 2000s action cinema and is still great fun to watch today. Its blend of stylistic action sequences and unabashedly cheesy dialogue makes for an entertaining throwback to a different era of filmmaking.
3. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie, 2018)
Fallout was, and still is, an exceptionally high point in the franchise. It introduced the audience to a formidable new adversary played by Henry Cavill, equipped with an iconic moustache. It’s a thrilling adventure, offering a solid antidote to some of the less satisfactory spy thrillers of recent years – many considered it an answer to the disappointing 007 film Spectre.
The story, woven around a tense nuclear threat, brings a sense of previously unseen urgency that adds to the film’s surprisingly high level of tension. The stunning Paris chase sequence and the climactic helicopter showdown are among the most intense and best-executed action scenes in the entire franchise.
2. Mission: Impossible III (J.J. Abrams, 2006)
J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible III ventures into darker territories, offering a grittier and more character-focused instalment in the franchise. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn as the ruthless antagonist is an absolute, bonafide standout performance. His grounded portrayal of an arms and information dealer brought the series into a terrifying new place.
With its themes of personal loss and shockingly grim consequences, the third Mission Impossible brings a sense of realism lacking in other Hollywood action blockbusters. Its real-world approach results in a high-stakes thriller that provides the perfect backdrop for some of the series’ most powerful performances and character-defining story beats.
1. Mission: Impossible (Brian De Palma, 1996)
The first film in the franchise, Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, remains its best, with its captivating blend of suspense and intrigue. It’s less about flashy stunts and more about high-tension espionage, reminiscent of a Hitchcockian thriller and utilising De Palma’s penchant for stylistic and heightened cinematography.
It really feels more like a De Palma film than a Mission: Impossible film, and despite the objective quality of the later instalments, that defining quality is what makes it the best. Hunt’s resourcefulness and intelligence take centre stage over brute force, creating a nuanced character study within the frame of a spy thriller. This film’s unique focus on cerebral action over physicality sets it apart in the franchise – not a single shot is fired by our hero.