The Mission: Impossible series has had its production hiccups (initially and between the second and third entries) but has grown to be one of the most popular franchises and a showcase for the spectacular, with each iteration one-upping the previous with more spectacle. The one constant has been Tom Cruise, who's created a character rivaling those of other movie series fame such as Bond or Ripley, however "Ethan Hunt" is not the name referred to as the role and character itself is synonymous with Cruise himself. Luckily Cruise's commitment to the character and his ability to do his own stunts has built Hunt into a legend and helped Mission: Impossible surpass other spy franchises like Bond and Bourne in quality. One aspect of Mission: Impossible the series, versus Mission: Impossible as an individual film is that they all surprisingly stand on their own. There is hardly any crossover except for the characters, and past missions, relationships and plots are all but forgotten. It's very similar in that respect to the Bond series, however, the Mission: Impossible series has it beat in that each film in the series has been directed with a new director at the helm, and each film, save for the last two have generally different style and tone.
It's interesting to look at gross and budget of each movie as it doesn't correlate to their quality (at least in my opinion, and Rotten Tomatoes would agree), but all have been successful.
Mission: Impossible by Worldwide Gross
Each of the five entries in the series have their merits and only one stands out as poor (but is still fun, for the most part). Ranking the best Mission: Impossible movies begins with the worst:
Not the Best Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible 2
Director: John Woo Released: 2000
Mission: Impossible 2 was directed by John Woo, and as you can guess, it features over-the-top action (no doves though). It's not the action that makes this film the worst Mission: Impossible, it's the actual mission scenarios. Unlike literally all the other films in the franchise, when it comes time for the main "impossible mission" to take place, MI:2 is extremely lacking. There is nothing clever about it, it's as simple as a stylish set-piece. And while the impossible part of the mission has always been a gimmick, it's not only the case in MI:2, it's boring, unoriginal and lazy too. There is one standout scene that brings the tension the rest of the film is missing to the forefront with a wonderful piece of music from Hans Zimmer called 'Injection.' It's the only emotion inducing scene of the movie (besides the oh brother moments). Mission: Impossible 2 got away from what it's predecessor and the following films did so well, a fun and clever way to succeed. Much of this is due to the demand of the time (generic 90s action movies) and the somewhat lackluster response to the first movie. In many ways it worked, as it out grossed the first installment by 20% and grossed 42% more than M:I III. One bright spot was the introduction of Thandie Newton in her first big starring role. Her character starts out as a master thief and a short-lived adversary to Ethan Hunt that shows the ability to handle herself. She's an important part of the story and plays the undercover hero role for nothing more than it's the right thing to do. This is all forgotten by the end of the film as she slowly devolves into a damsel in distress. Again this feeds into the action movie tropes of the 90s, but the first Mission: Impossible had a different tone, and so did the film's that followed. In retrospect Mission: Impossible 2 set the series back and is an outlier in style compared to the rest of the series.
Best Mission: Impossible Honorable Mention
Director: Brian De Palma Released: 1996
The first Mission: Impossible probably has the most spy-worthy plot of them all, and for the most part the movie is grounded in realism (at least until the finale in regards to a certain helicopter). The first installment also ties best into the original television show, with an incredible first scene introducing the team, and a huge twist later on (that many fans of the show disliked). The precedent was set for future entries, as were many of the plot devices as well, with the Ethan Hunt character going rogue to clear his name. Most of it all it is smart, fun and in some instances more complicated than is typical for this type of fare. The deficiencies are such that it does nothing to hurt the film, but it's just not on the same level as later entries. The smoothness and bravado of Hunt was only just getting introduced, the stunts became more impossible, and despite director Brian De Palma's best efforts, the style, spectacle and majesty changed for the better. Many of the concepts introduced here were new to the genre and have been replicated since (Bond's Skyfall, seemingly no one seemed to notice, or cares). The idea of exposing undercover agents was a novel one, however the risk and danger it poses should have been explored further and more seriously. The personal stakes are high, but the higher stakes are dismissed with what accounts to one conversation. In short, Mission: Impossible is a good film, it's just not as good as many of the others in the series.
Some of the Best Mission: Impossible Films
Mission: Impossible III
Director: J.J. Abrams Released: 2006
Directed by JJ Abrams, Mission: Impossible III draws heavily from the Abrams penned television series, Alias. Tom Cruise has even admitted he was inspired to contact Abrams after watching Alias. This is in every way a good choice as after the the second installment, Mission: Impossible had lost some of what makes Mission: Impossible, Mission: Impossible. Alias the series was a terrific fusion of spy machinations of the first M:I film and combining it with the action-focused tone of M:I2. This was JJ Abrams first film and his television influence is apparent in the tone of M:I III. In typical Alias fashion, the movie starts with a scene from the apex of the film, only to revert to "one week earlier." It can be an effective storytelling technique because not only is that not the very end of the film, yet is still at a critical junction in which it's important to consider how they've arrived there, but it completely sets the stage of what's at stake. M:I III also has what can be considered the best villain in the series. And unlike villains in so many other movies, this isn't a physical nemesis, but a mental one. Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives a great portrayal and provides a menace that overcomes his somewhat ambiguous physical profile. It's in this difference that the ending isn't the typical mano-a-mano showdown. It's not even a battle of wits and it can be disappointing when it's not found refreshing. Fortunately I did find it refreshing, and loved the feel of Alias albeit on a bigger stage. M:I III also saw the evolution of Ethan Hunt into a charming persona and his personal side. It's only a small touch to the film, but seeing Hunt in the "real world" sells the desperation later in the film when it collides together with his spy life.
Mission: Impossible III performed the worst of the series at the box office, but much of that can be attributed to the poor critical reception (especially over time) of M:I 2. However, overall MI:III injected new life into the series and made it Mission: Impossible again, and not just an action film. It helped to change the tone in the following entries with slight moments of humor and the elimination of false melodrama all culminating in a tightly created film.
Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
Director: Christopher McQuarrie Released: 2015
Rogue Nation is fantastic and follows up Ghost Protocol phenomenally but somehow feels like it's only mimicking it. Set pieces are grand, the plot is similar (Ethan's been disavowed once again) but Rogue Nation does do one thing particularly well and different from the other films in the series, it focuses on characters other than Ethan Hunt. Hunt is still the main character, by far, but his story has been told and it's his two supporting characters that grow particularly well here. The characters of Ilsa, played here by Rebecca Ferguson, and Benji, played by Simon Pegg both receive somewhat emotional character arcs. Whereas Benji has to pretend not to know Ethan and is stuck as a glorified data clerk, weighing the risk of revealing what he knows and continuing to waste away, or joining Hunt and risking what little he still has left, it's Ilsa who just wants out of the 'game' and is a complicated piece to say the least. Is she a double or triple agent? What has she been tasked to do, and at what cost will she go to to get out? These characters break up the monotony of the "rogue" agent plot line that has been seen in four of the five entries in the series, helping to flesh out the world that Hunt has always been the center of and lends itself well to creating depth. The tone, style and look of Rogue Nation is just so similar to Ghost Protocol that you'd be remiss to differentiate the set pieces of each. This is a minor complaint and both film's are great but there is hardly anything that really feels "new." Rogue Nation also has a better villain than Ghost Protocol but he's still quite one-dimensional. Hunt is trying to definitively prove his and his secret organization's (The Syndicate) existence but of course "management" doesn't believe him. It may have benefited Rogue Nation to play off this angle more delicately by having The Syndicate framing other entities, or Hunt himself in order to drive an even bigger wedge between Hunt and the CIA and IMF. Instead it's a one-note song that never really has you believing Hunt is in danger.
The Best Mission: Impossible
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Director: Brad Bird Released: 2011
What makes Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol the best in the series is its set pieces and how shrewdly they play out. Set pieces can be grand, such as the famous scaling of the Burj Khalifa that's populated every promotional piece for this film, but it's the smaller, less awe-inspiring scenes in which Ghost Protocol excels in. Particularly the first infiltration scene of the Kremlin. Introducing an impressive new technology to do a simple task, combined with the costumed tropes the series is known for, it's a fantastic scene that for the most part, is quiet and subdued, infused with smatterings of humor and light-heartedness. The scene that directly follows the Burj Khalifa climb (which is marvelous of its own accord) is a game of timing and impersonations that is terrifically well-staged. They are by far, two of the most thoughtful and well-laid impossible missions on the entire series, and neither presents grandeur as its device for success. Director Brad Bird infuses Ghost Protocol with the charm seen in The Incredibles and it comes off so natural. There are some weak points within the movie, such as a less than optimal villain (with a weak motivation), a lack of restitution for Brandt (played by Jeremy Renner) and Carter (played by Paula Patton) and an awkward, unnecessary seduction scene that fails in humor and practicality. For the most part however, Ghost Protocol succeeds because it is adept and cunning in it's missions, that not only relying on grandiose set-pieces at the risk of desensitizing its audience but are extremely clever as well.