In honor of “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” hitting home rental this week, I thought I’d do a ranking of all six “M:I” movies in which Tom Cruise plays Agent Ethan Hunt. As an action movie junkie, my views may differ from the typical critical rankings. Cruise does almost all of his own stunts, and they are just as much the star of the show as he is, so I’ve included a nod to the best action sequence in each film.
6. “Mission: Impossible II” (2000) — Although the weakest of the franchise, “M:I-2” isn’t that bad. Backed by a Limp Bizkit version of the theme song, it hasn’t aged very well, and all future movies have topped it, but it’s still a decent John Woo action flick.
A perfect follow-up to Woo’s 1997 blockbuster “Face/Off,” the film uses the “mask” gag to perfection, as it’s always fun to see actors playing other actors. One of the most interesting twists is when villain Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) uses an Ethan Hunt mask to fool Nyah (Thandie Newton), who is undercover as his lover, into giving up details of their plan. It’s an unexpected, smart plot twist. Woo also makes his mark by giving us the first big stunt scene in the franchise when Hunt hangs from a cliff by his fingertips while mountain climbing on vacation.
“M:I-2” has been bested in every way since its release, therefore knocking it to the bottom of the list, but don’t let that sway you from watching a solid, albeit dated, action film.
Best action sequence: The motorcycle chase between Hunt and Ambrose in which they end up playing chicken before fighting to the death on a beach is silly, and very unbelievable, but it works.
5. “Mission: Impossible” (1996) — The one that started it all, “M:I” is a smart, smaller-scale spy thriller that brought the 1960s TV series to the big screen and restarted the franchise.
In the most iconic scene of the saga, Hunt hangs just inches above the floor in an attempt to hack a computer with sweat nearly alerting the enemy to his presence. Featuring the most suspenseful beads of sweat ever filmed, the scene paved the way for the franchise.
With plenty of surprising twists along the way, the original still stands strong as a suspenseful spy thriller, but it’s sometimes boring, notching it near the bottom of my list.
Best action sequence: There is a race between a train and a helicopter in which the helicopter flies through a tunnel in pursuit. It may be unbelievable, but it’s fun!
4. “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation” (2015) — Cruise will do nearly anything to entertain his audience, and the stunts just get bigger and bigger. In this case, the opening scene is truly jaw-dropping, with Cruise literally hanging onto the side of a plane as it takes off. That everyone knows the stunt is real makes it that much more exciting.
That sets the stage for one of the more formulaic entries in the franchise. Hunt is searching for a rogue organization that exists for many of the same purposes as the Impossible Missions Force, only they will do whatever is necessary to achieve the goal, lacking the morality of Hunt and the IMF. This concept is intriguing but seems too familiar to “M:I-2” for my liking. I never really felt the tension or concern for the characters as I had in previous films. Instead, I was just along for the ride.
With that said, what sets “Rogue Nation” apart from the other entries is Rebecca Ferguson. Playing Ilsa Faust, an undercover MI6 agent, she commands as much of the screen as Cruise and kicks ass, literally and figuratively. This is the first time in the series that a woman has taken a lead role. Even Newton in the second film is more of a Bond girl than a central character. With Ferguson’s character and Jeremy Renner (who debuted in “Ghost Protocol”), there is now truly a team dynamic that provides both comedy and stability.
Although I rank this No. 4, it is still an outstanding entry and could easily be ranked higher depending on your preferences.
Best action sequence: Hunt ends up chasing Faust on a motorcycle. This sequence alone is almost enough to propel “Rogue Nation” higher in my rankings. Using on-board cameras, the sense of speed is incredibly tense in the chase, making it a front-runner for one of the best sequences in the series.
3. “Mission: Impossible III” (2006) — A lot of people will rank the third film much lower, but I enjoy it for two main reasons.
First, “M:I-3,” helmed by J.J. Abrams, is the first movie to dig into Hunt’s personal life rather than just portraying him as a super spy like James Bond. We meet Ethan’s fianceé Julia (Michelle Monaghan) and see some everyday interaction between them. At a dinner party, and later their wedding, we see the love they have and it drastically raises the stakes for Ethan, now having someone he cares about in the picture.
Second, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Owen Davian, the best villain of the series. The opening scene (which technically takes place later in the story) is one of the best as Davian is an emotionless, terrifying villain. He threatens to kill Julia if Hunt does not provide him with the rabbit’s foot (the code name for the device the terrorists are after). Hoffman was one of the great actors of his era and it’s a shame he doesn’t have more screen time here, but the time he does have is magnificent.
The scene mentioned above is a standout, as Cruise’s portrayal of Hunt at his lowest is one of the series’ high points and truly brings his character to a human level. The whole film really gives a sense of tension as the stakes are more personal. Abrams has a unique style of extreme close-ups and a bit of shaky cam that lends itself well to the story.
Overall, it’s Hoffman who elevates this film to the third position on this list, but Cruise is also at his best when he is emotionally and physically beaten down before coming out ahead. Because it has action, suspense and character drama, it earns the third spot.
Best action sequence: With only minutes to live, Hunt scrambles to find Julia before it’s too late. In a semi-long shot, Ethan frantically runs through the streets and docks of Shanghai and it’s clear how important it is that he finds Julia before time’s up. (It’s really amazing how fast Cruise appears to run in these films.)
2. “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” (2011) — “Ghost Protocol” is to “Mission: Impossible” what “Fast Five” is to the “Fast and Furious” franchise. It simply brings it to another level.
Beginning with Ethan in prison and his team breaking him out, we see right away that the team dynamic is beginning to take hold and become a focal point. Soon after the team is framed for bombing the Kremlin, they go after a nuclear extremist (the actual bomber) who believes nuclear war is necessary to reset civilization. With no help from the government, the team is on their own with limited technology and assistance.
Whereas the previous installment focused on Hunt’s personal life and character, “Ghost Protocol” focuses on teamwork and chemistry. With new addition William Brandt (Renner, who was originally supposed to take over the franchise) in the mix, and Benji (Simon Pegg) now in the field rather than strictly behind the desk, there is a strong family element in play.
That being said, the stars of “Ghost Protocol,” as with nearly all of the films, are the action set pieces. In one nearly 40-minute piece, the film moves from a tense building climb to hand-to-hand combat to a car chase in the middle of a sandstorm. It’s a wild ride.
Best action sequence: It’s the scene everyone has heard about: the Burj Khalifa building climb. Watching Cruise climb the tallest building in the world without safety harnesses will make anyone’s hands sweat. If you haven’t seen the behind-the-scenes footage, check it out. Even with harnesses, it’s a scary thing to see someone running and climbing the outside of a building 2,500 feet in the air.
1. “Mission: Impossible — Fallout” (2018) — For the first time, the franchise uses the same director for a second movie. Serving as a direct sequel to “Rogue Nation,” this entry finds Christopher McQuarrie back at the helm. Mere months later, we see Ethan having nightmares about his decision to keep alive villain Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). While still working against Lane’s underground extremist group the Syndicate, Ethan chooses to save a friend’s life, causing him to lose a case of plutonium cores meant to be used for three nuclear devices.
The following two hours are almost constant action as the team seeks the missing plutonium. Setting the bar for what an action movie should be, “Fallout” frantically moves from action scene to action scene. With Henry Cavill along for the ride as the no-nonsense CIA babysitter and resident badass, the action is ratcheted up and yet again tops the previous entries. Oh, and did I mention that Ferguson is back also? Reprising her role of MI6 spy, she throws a monkey wrench into the mix when it turns out that she is not on board with Hunt’s plan.
The reason “Fallout” makes the top of the list, in addition to the fact that it is flat out one of the best action movies ever made, is that it delivers a lot of continuity missing from previous entries. We find out what Julia is up to, we learn more about the Syndicate and Lane, we get to see more between Isla and Ethan, and we continue to dig into Ethan’s psyche. It’s amazing that the sixth movie in a franchise could be its best, but it clearly is.
Best action sequence: There are a lot of choices (the bathroom brawl, the foot chase across building tops, the motorcycle chase …) but the clear winner is the helicopter battle. As Cruise once again does his own stunts and pilots a helicopter this time, the IMAX footage is pure insanity and once again makes me wonder “How can they top this?”