Nobody does it like Tom Cruise. Having established himself as a gifted leading man more than four decades ago, the ageless Hollywood star (who was once destined for the priesthood, lest we forget) reinvented his career at the turn of the century to become one of the industry’s foremost action heroes.
That title continues to ring true in 2022, largely thanks to the enduring appeal of Paramount studios’ mega-popular – and seemingly never-ending – Mission: Impossible franchise, which is preparing to welcome a couple more Cruise-led entries (both bearing the Dead Reckoning moniker) over the next few years.
So, in celebration of the stuntman-cum-actor’s 60th (sixtieth!) birthday this month – and following on from the stratospheric success of Cruise’s latest action-packed release, Top Gun: Maverick – we’ve chosen to accept the nigh-on-impossible mission of ranking all six Mission: Impossible movies, from worst to best. Cue the theme music…
6. Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)
Anything other than last place for Mission: Impossible 2 would have resulted in the end of this writer’s career, but director John Woo’s madcap sequel to Brian De Palma’s 1996 original still holds a strange, hard-to-justify place in the heart of many franchise fans.
The film kicks off with a floppy-haired Cruise dangling – some 2,000 feet in the air – from a precarious rock face on the edge of Utah’s Dead Horse Point, which immediately sets the tone for the antics to come. Upon returning to flat ground, series hero Ethan Hunt is tasked with preventing rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) from releasing a deadly virus on the population of Australia, the antidote to which he intends to sell to the highest bidder.
All fairly standard Mission: Impossible fare, then – except Mission: Impossible 2 is as ludicrous as action movies come. Woo’s signature Hong Kong filmmaking style (think hyper-stylized imagery and excessive use of slow motion sequences) is evident at almost every turn, bludgeoning the viewer with more guitar riffs and gunplay than can reasonably be processed in the average two-hour period. It’s all either relentlessly enjoyable or numbingly chaotic, depending on who you ask – unfortunately for Woo, most cinemagoers thought the latter.
5. Mission: Impossible (1996)
Scarface director Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible kicked off the now storied franchise in 1996, and while it’s an objectively enjoyable adventure, it’s also the least Mission: Impossible of all the Mission: Impossible movies.
The film finds Cruise’s Hunt framed for the murder of his IMF (Impossible Mission Force) team during a botched mission in Prague, and accused of selling government secrets to an arms dealer known only as "Max". Jon Voight, Ving Rhames, Henry Czerny, Emmanuelle Béart and Jean Reno also star as various allies and nemeses.
Make no mistake, Mission: Impossible features some downright iconic action sequences – the restaurant aquarium explosion, the vault infiltration mission and so on – but the movie appears a victim of its own success when compared to later franchise entries that up the ante and then some.
4. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
If you’re watching the Mission: Impossible movies in order, then Rogue Nation, the fifth entry in the series, is the first to lack its own distinct sense of identity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since it serves as a follow-up to the excellent Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but you’d be forgiven for struggling to differentiate between Rogue Nation and the series’ three most recent outings.
That being said, the movie is still an absolute hoot, finding Hunt and his IMF team under threat from a mysterious terror organisation known as the Syndicate. Led by Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane, this highly-skilled group (or rogue nation, *wink*) forces the movie’s band of heroes into some truly outlandish stunts, which include a phenomenal motorcycle chase through the streets of Morocco, a gripping underwater sequence and, of course, a now immortalized scene involving Cruise hanging from the side of a cargo plane.
Everything is dialled up to 11 in Rogue Nation, and although the movie’s tongue-in-cheek humor isn’t to everyone’s tastes, it raised the bar once again for the series' adrenaline-inducing action.
3. Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)
The most serious, and possibly divisive, movie in the Mission: Impossible franchise, J.J. Abrams’ Mission: Impossible 3 was the first in the series to make audiences truly fear for the life and happiness of its seemingly invincible hero, Ethan Hunt.
Playing more like a Bond or Bourne film than the two Mission: Impossible movies that preceded it, this one finds Cruise’s Hunt on the brink of a quiet life with fiancée Julia (Michelle Monaghan) when elusive arms Owen Davian (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) emerges with plans to release a mysterious chemical weapon on the world.
Hoffman is, without a doubt, the most compelling Mission: Impossible villain of the lot, and what the series’ third entry lacks in explosive action – save for the excellent bridge sequence and skyscraper fulcrum jump – it more than makes up for in nail-biting tension. Monaghan, for her part, is also brilliant, lending a much-needed emotional core to a franchise that risked becoming shallow.
2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol set the tone for the franchise as it exists today, introducing audiences to a new level of action and a special brand of Mission: Impossible charm that placed greater emphasis on teamwork and camaraderie over the individual exploits of one-man-army Ethan Hunt.
In this fourth entry, Hunt and the entire IMF are blamed – and disavowed – for the bombing of the Kremlin, leaving the villanous Michael Nyqvist free to pursue his designs on global nuclear war. If that plot sounds conventional and, by extension, unremarkable, that’s because it is, but Ghost Protocol manages to throw in enough meaningful emotional stakes to make audiences care about the characters running, jumping and punching their way through various exocitc locales on screen.
Ghost Protocol’s trump card, though, is its absolutely ridiculous Burj Khalifa sequence, which sees Hunt rappelling down, climbing up and leaping around the world’s tallest building. As has been customary throughout his career, Cruise performed the gravity-defying stunts himself, which are considered by many to be among the best – if not the best – in the entire Mission: Impossible franchise.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
Most lists of this kind have the series' latest entry, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, at the number one spot, and as much as we’d love to go against the grain, it’s hard to argue against the sheer Mission: Impossible-ness of director Christopher McQuarrie’s Rogue Nation follow-up.
The film finds Hunt and company on a mission to stop the Apostles, a new terrorist organization (formed by former members of the Syndicate) whose world-ending mission hinges on the acquisition of stolen plutonium cores. A CIA agent (Henry Cavill) and arms dealer (Vanessa Kirby) join in the fun as new friends (or foes?), while Michelle Monaghan’s Julia returns to add a healthy dose of nostalgia into the mix.
Again, that synopsis may read as quintessential Mission: Impossible fodder, but Fallout combines the best elements of the series’ five previous films into a chaotic, gripping and surprisingly emotional adventure that stands tall as the most entertaining to date. Honestly, you’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite moment from the movie’s two-and-a-half hour runtime (we’ve settled on the bathroom fight sequence), which says something of its relentless quality.
The Mission: Impossible movies aren’t the only films to receive the TechRadar ranking treatment in recent weeks. Whether you’re keen to get the lowdown on all 25 Pixar films (prior to Lightyear’s release) or the countless number of Marvel movie villains, our listicles aim to separate the treasure from the trash when it comes to pop culture’s most popular (and divisive) entertainment franchises.
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Axel is a London-based Senior Staff Writer at TechRadar, reporting on everything from the latest Apple developments to newest movies as part of the site's daily news output. Having previously written for publications including Esquire and FourFourTwo, Axel is well-versed in the applications of technology beyond the desktop, and his coverage extends from general reporting and analysis to in-depth interviews and opinion.
Axel studied for a degree in English Literature at the University of Warwick before joining TechRadar in 2020, where he then earned an NCTJ qualification as part of the company’s inaugural digital training scheme.