The Mission: Impossible films, ranked

It seems an accepted truth these days that the only American franchise with consistent flair and lasting power is Tom Cruise's endless barrage of physics-defining stunt work and intrigue that is the Mission: Impossible series. Cruise, now sixty one (!!) continues to fly motorcycles off cliffs and hang by a thread of certain death out the back of a descending train car. Some of this obfuscates a series with (albeit in varying successes) legitimate thoughts on its mind about the state of the world and how state-sanctioned violence plays out in real terms. Coupled with Cruise's Jackie Chan-like insistence on immortal feats of bravery, its the grounded nature of these films that make them so interesting, especially as our long national nightmare of Marvelized superhero films seem to be at an ebb. But which are the best? My mission, should you choose to accept it, is to rank them for you, in ascending order. *This post contains some spoilers*

Mission: Impossible screenshots: Paramount Pictures

7. Mission Impossible III (2006)

The worst of the franchise is still better than most action films of the past thirty years. Director J.J. Abrams decides to try and make Cruise's Ethan Hunt as relatable as possible by giving him a clueless wife (Michelle Monaghan) who is in danger of death by a bomb inserted in the brain if he can't beat the clock fast enough. The plot is inscrutable, the lighting is insane, and Abrams busies up the frame. What does work here is Philip Seymour Hoffman's legitimately disturbing turn as Owen Davian, the film's most noxious villain by a long shot. Though Abrams does give voice to America's role in worldwide imperialism through Billy Crudup, much of this is pretty muddied. 2.5/5 Impossibles.

6. Mission: Impossible II (2000)

Whatever silliness occurs in terms of early 2000s era stylistic flourish (there's more whip pans and slow motion shots in this than motorcycle jumps), this is still a John Woo film. As such, it might be the most distinctive of the series. The plot has gone from bonkers to oddly prescient, as Ethan races to stop the release of a virus that has the speed and deadliness to wipe out entire worlds. It's COVID! Okay, maybe not, but the excess here is ludicrously fun – replete with too much face-swapping and identity interchangeability. 3.5/5 Impossibles.

5. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

The Christopher McQuarrie era of the MI series has transformed the series from noir-ish espionage into the Cruise show on indestructibility. Fallout is remarkable for some indelible action sequences, namely the finally fifteen minutes or so in which Cruise wrestles with Henry Cavill in rapidly decaying, broken helicopters in the canyons of Eastern Europe. Fallout takes a hit as a film of unapologetic surveillance apologia, however, asking us to consider that maybe the world just needs more security apparatuses to keep us "safe." That, and Cavill – for as inhumanly gorgeous as he is – is as wooden as manikin. 3.5/5 Impossibles

4. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

To love: a throwback to Cold War-era espionage, smooth kinetics, and a delightful cat and mouse subplot as Cruise chases Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). The plot, such as it exists beyond a canvas for Cruise's most daring stunts yet, hovers around the team in a journey to infiltrate the Bizarro version of IMF in "The Syndicate" – which really translates mostly to a ton of shadows and one especially electric fight sequence behind the curtain of an Austrian opera house. Sean Harris's Solomon Lane is a generic villain, but the film makes up for it with a scene with the franchise's best cold open, in which Cruise hangs from a literal plane. 4/5 Impossibles.

3. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One (2023)

The latest (and not last) of the franchise features one sequence where Cruise and Hayley Atwell are dropping from one falling train car to the next in what can only be described as the logical endpoint of Buster Keaton-inspired stunt work. In another sequence, Cruise runs through the foggy night of the Venice canals in an attempt to save Ilsa, a smokey, anxiety-induced moment that firmly recalls the franchise's origins. In tone, Dead Reckoning is oddly mournful – for a world at the threat of AI, but also for these characters who seem imprisoned by a life always on the run. The doing away of brunette after brunette leaves questions about the franchise's treatment of its female characters, but Ferguson, Atwell, Vanessa Kirby and Pom Klementieff counter with pristine performances. 4/5 Impossibles.

2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

Newcomer director Brad Bird stitches together every scene in Ghost Protocol with a bewildering seamlessness. Ghost Protocol isn't the first to see Hunt go rogue from the IMF, but Bird uses it as an excuse to craft the franchise's most James Bondian entry. The team behind Hunt is at its most fleshed out, and the sequences – from a sandstorm in Dubai to Cruise's free climb on the face of a 200 story hotel, are incomparable. 4.5/5 Impossibles.

  1. Mission: Impossible (1996)

Yes, the Brian De Palma original is still the best. De Palma benefits from starting this franchise off before it necessarily became the Cruise Show (not that I mind its current iterations), and the result is this web-like mix of Italian crime Giallo films and From Russia With Love, equal parts spy thriller and existentialist dread. De Palma has fun with the gadgetry but only in service of a post-modern doubling and redoubling, faceless bodies that still somehow get etched in the brain. Undoubtedly one of the great action films of the twentieth century.