With the latest Mission: Impossible film now available for home viewing – and an eighth film soon to come – we at Screen Speck ranked the films of the enduring spy-action franchise. Once upon a time, each entry would see the reins handed over to a new filmmaker, which resulted in some interesting (and sometimes divisive) tonal shifts between each movie. But as star Tom Cruise and his creative partner/director Christopher McQuarrie settled into a Mission groove, the films pivoted toward slowly building out more continuity and mythology.
Arguably, there isn’t a terrible film in the franchise, just not as good ones, and depending on who’s ranking them, some people’s last ranked film is another person’s first. Here, a group of Mission obsessives at Screen Speck rank all seven current films in the series, from best to worst.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
As writer-director Christopher McQuarrie brought more cohesion to the series, with it came more continuity in character arcs, team-building, and emotional storytelling. Working so well together as creative partners, Tom Cruise and McQuarrie also learned how to find a rhythm in upping the stakes with each movie, in both character and the scope and size of the action sequences. If Ghost Protocol is where McQuarrie and Cruise started to build this out, Rogue Nation is where they started to refine it, and Fallout is where they perfected it. Mission: Impossible – Fallout, the sixth entry in the series, finds a perfect balance between high-octane action, stunningly executed set pieces, character journey, and the team building that would come to make up the heart of the franchise.
Though amiably serving as a standalone, Fallout nevertheless picks up where Rogue Nation left off. Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane returns as one of the main villains, somehow evoking an even more menacing presence than he did in Rogue Nation. And most importantly, Rebecca Ferguson returns as Ilsa Faust, the first recurring female character in the franchise to have a fully developed arc over more than one entry. McQuarrie also smartly brings back Ethan’s now ex-wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan), and together, these two women build out the heart of the story as McQuarrie and Cruise start to reflect more deeply on what it means to be Ethan Hunt, what sits at the center of his morality, and the lengths he would go to protect not just the ones he loves, but all lives. A few other wonderful cast additions in Fallout include Henry Cavill’s antagonist August Walker, Vanessa Kirby’s slippery Alanna Mitsopolis (the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s Max in the first film!), and the incomparable Angela Bassett as Erika Sloane, the new director of the CIA.
Fallout earns the top spot in our rankings because of everything it does, it does better than every other movie on this list. And it does what great action films should do, which is perfectly marrying the action with the emotional components of the story. The third act, involving a race to dismantle a bomb, sees the core team all responding in ways that are not only true to their characters but also reveal more about each in the process. The result is truly seat-gripping tension, and not just because Tom Cruise is literally flying a helicopter, but because of the emotional stakes involved. Mission: Impossible – Fallout proves not only to be the best of M:I, but one of the best action films, period. (Sam Moya)
2. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the fifth installment of the franchise, points the direction for the future for these films, and boy, is that future bright. Coming from previous films with different directors, each bringing their own taste and flavor, Ghost Protocol co-writer Christopher McQuarrie cracks the recipe in his directorial debut for the franchise. Rogue Nation offers us a haunting villain, high-speed motorcycle chases across a Casablanca backdrop, and one of the most stunning set pieces of the whole film series at the Vienna Opera House. All of these special ingredients make for a tightly honed, stylistic, and delicious action film.
New characters bring renewed energy to each film, and for Rogue Nation, the most notable addition is Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust, an undercover MI6 operative who weaves her way into Ethan’s life in unexpected ways. Romantic love is the last thing on Ethan’s mind. He’s not one to fall deeply over every woman he meets. However, Ilsa’s different. She knows the game and all of its risks, just as well as Ethan. In a sense, they are two sides of the same coin. And while Mission: Impossible isn’t one for depicting traditional romance on screen, Ilsa and Ethan bring such intense romantic energy to the film that by the end of it, you can’t help but root for them to find their way back into each other’s life.
Rogue Nation has always been a personal favorite for many Mission fans, perhaps because of its easy rewatchability. We see the team dynamics start to come together in the fifth installment, as it features all of our regular IMF gang, a new ally in Ilsa, and a top-tier villain in Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Rogue Nation is the sweet spot of the franchise, the beginning of the emotional continuity Christopher McQuarrie would bring to the franchise. It’s what you see before you lift off into the rest of the journey, and it’s what you look back on when you want a reminder of how the journey all started. (Miya Bacall)
3. Mission: Impossible III (2006, dir. J.J. Abrams)
The Mission: Impossible series is at its best when it finds a balance of gravity-defying stunts and tender pathos, and while J.J. Abrams’ film doesn’t quite reach the adrenaline-filled heights of the previously discussed entries, this movie’s emotional core boosts it in the rankings.
The darker tone of this film’s introduction, no doubt influenced by the six-year gap since Mission: Impossible II – which included the September 11th attacks and the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – is an interesting turn, capturing some of the sentiments in the time when it was made. In M:I III, personal threats are the name of the game, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s villain, arms trafficker Owen Davian, is terrifying in his monotone and indifferent cruelty. Meanwhile, Billy Crudup’s slimy little B-villain, John Musgrave, is a great addition to provide some much-needed context and some direct connection to real-world American imperialism.
And despite the lack of a big, memorable stunt, the Vatican City heist sequence is so brilliantly choreographed that it almost makes you forget this fact. There are costume changes! There’s the excellent needle drop of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family!” Maggie Q, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, and Laurence Fishburne are there! They set up Simon Pegg as Benji! Plus, we get to see Ethan cry and be vulnerable in a genre that often doesn’t let its leading men show their fear.
My favorite aspect of the Mission: Impossible series is its focus on Hunt’s desire to protect those he cares about. It’s visible here in the beefed-up relationship between Ethan and Luther (Ving Rhames), in the way that the trouble facing Ethan’s trainee Lindsey (Keri Russell) pushes him back into the field, and in the way, it introduces Monaghan’s long-term tragic love interest Julia. Though we don’t know exactly what the “Rabbit’s Foot” is, the “Mystery Box” -ness of it works in favor of the emotional core: in this movie, Ethan’s motivation is not to save the world but to save his wife. I root for Ethan and Julia — a couple whose tragedy is fully realized in Fallout — because of how much the script and performances convey the love these two have for each other. They get married in a hospital! Just end the movie right then and make it a rom-com.
The film should have had a little more explanation of what happened to Thandiwe Newton’s Nyah from the previous film, as doing so would have made the series more seamless as a whole. Nevertheless, M:I III is a necessary step in showing the emotional depth of Ethan Hunt as a character, and in doing so, it sets up the emotional core of the next four films. It doesn’t quite nail the balance between action and tenderness that the top two films in our ranking have, but it typically gets left out of the broader conversation surrounding the great Mission films when it should be a larger part of it. (Catie McCarthy)
4. Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One (2023, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)
Always trying to narratively up the stakes and think of creative new ways Cruise may kill himself doing his own stunts, McQuarrie’s third directorial effort in the franchise simultaneously builds on the thrills of Fallout while also, story-wise, producing something a bit less satisfying on the whole. The inherent nature of this being a “Part One” means the movie leaves you on an uncertain note. The film has finished, but the story isn’t complete, and with many questions left to be resolved in Part Two, the audience does not feel the same sense of closure as previous outings. We expect Dead Reckoning Part One to be more appreciated in time, once we arrive at its natural conclusions in the next installment.
In many ways, Dead Reckoning Part One presents Ethan with his most unpredictable foe yet – an AI, known as The Entity, with the power to disrupt the world through the manipulation of technology. It’s certainly topical, and McQuarrie and co-writer Erik Jendresen successfully recall the paranoid, unsettling tones of De Palma’s original film. It’s been a minute since Ethan faced an adversary that the audience is unsure of whether he can actually beat – we assume he will, but the vision of “how?” is yet to come. Dead Reckoning Part One also functions as an origin story of sorts. Who is Ethan Hunt, and how did he come to join the IMF? If Fallout is about Ethan’s moral struggle to care for one life at the risk of the many, then Dead Reckoning is about what drives that dilemma.
With the addition of several new characters, including Grace (Hayley Atwell), a skilled pickpocket and thief who finds herself recruited to the IMF team, Gabriel (Esai Morales), a mysterious man from Ethan’s past who does The Entity’s bidding, and Paris (Pom Klementieff), one of Gabriel’s mysterious henchpersons, Dead Reckoning keeps a lot of plates spinning in the air. With the weight of telling a much bigger story across two entries, the ambition is impressive, if a bit messy in execution. But, it gives us something to look forward to as we wait for the resolutions to come. (Sam Moya)
5. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011, dir. Brad Bird)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is the unsung hero of the M:I franchise. The middle child, if you will. Sandwiched somewhere between the era in which a new director put a new spin on each installment and when Christopher McQuarrie would eventually take full reins of the franchise (McQuarrie’s addition as a writer on Ghost Protocol starts to get his feet wet here.)
While the first three, especially Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible, are foundational in a lot of ways, the series starts to feel like it’s taking a more cohesive shape in tone and character with Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol. With Mission: Impossible III, we start to see a new, less stoic side of Ethan Hunt, and Ghost Protocol continues this trend – with a team dynamic starting to form, we get more insight into his basic humanity and his care for his friends. Ghost Protocol gives us an Ethan who can be funny and cares about the people he works with. Ethan becomes even more accessible to viewers through his interactions with Pegg’s Benji Dunn in particular, their banter rounding out the sharper edges of Ethan’s character. He’s found a family in these people who also provide endless bouts of short comedic moments amid tragedies. No one in this world has more faith in Ethan Hunt than Benji Dunn does, even at the cost of one of Hunt’s limbs.
In the end, Ghost Protocol is simply the definition of a cool action flick. It’s fun, clever, and the Burj Khalifa set piece set the standard for dramatic stunts in future films. In this fourth installment, you can begin to see the franchise take shape in a cohesive form. And that’s before we’re introduced to one of the best additions to the franchise, Ilsa Faust. (Mariana Delgado)
6. Mission: Impossible (1996, dir. Brian De Palma)
The first Mission: Impossible, the one that started it all, comes out fully swinging. Brian De Palma brings Hitchcockian elegance and edge to the espionage-spy thriller, imbuing the film with his signature sense of paranoia. While each film has subsequently found its own flair, the first Mission: Impossible, with its love of Dutch angles and smoke and mirrors, still has the deepest sense of pure filmmaking style. The first Mission will always stand apart because of how deeply imbued it was with a sense of conspiracy, which was missing from subsequent entries until Dead Reckoning Part One revived some of these stylistic components.
Frankly, nobody was more surprised than I was to actually be entertained by Tom Cruise as an empathetic himbo spy. As the enduring protagonist of the Mission: Impossible movies, he’s exciting to watch, easy to root for, and quickly establishes himself as his own kind of action-spy hero. His charm leaps off the screen, but he is far from being just another James Bond.
As a kick-off to the franchise, Mission: Impossible quickly sets up what would make every subsequent entry a true Mission movie. That many of the later films in the series would continue to build on the quality of previous entries is only a testament to how well De Palma establishes Ethan as a protagonist, the IMF as an organization, and the signature elements of the franchise, such as a central heist sequence and plentiful mask gags. When we think of Mission: Impossible, most of us will probably still think of the Langley heist, a study in tension-building, and – depending on who you ask – still one of the most iconic set pieces of the franchise (if not the most iconic).
As it is, Mission: Impossible sits a bit lower on our rankings, not because it’s a lesser entry, but because most movies following it in the series progressively find new ways to retool, reinvent, and build on the characters, plot, and action of the previous films. And yet, those entries still can’t diminish how good Mission: Impossible is, and how well it set the foundation for a film franchise still going nearly 30 years later. (Laura Wanberg)
7. Mission: Impossible II (2000, dir. John Woo)
When it comes to the Mission: Impossible franchise, there is before Christopher McQuarrie, and after Christopher McQuarrie. With Ghost Protocol, the writer-director became the de facto shepherd of the franchise — and under his watchful eye, the series really gelled into one coherent vision. But after its excellent debut, the franchise became a bit uneven until then, especially when it comes to the first Mission: Impossible sequel.
On paper, Mission: Impossible II had no reason to fail. With John Woo behind the camera, the most in-demand creative force of the aughts, most knew they were in for an absolute juggernaut. Unfortunately, M:I II was more like a John Woo movie than M:I sequel. It boasted every aesthetic trademark that Woo would become synonymous with (and later ridiculed for): balletic slow motion, gratuitous gun-fu, and copious flocks of doves. Paired with Tom Cruise’s bonkers stunts and the hypersexual — yet completely sexless — dynamic between Ethan Hunt and Newton’s Nyah Nordoff-Hall, the film nearly veers into the machismo niche of ‘90s action cinema.
There’s also the sense that M:I II wants to be taken seriously. Like … really seriously. Anthony Hopkins is there for some reason, spewing lines like “This isn’t mission: difficult; it’s mission: impossible” with 100% conviction. M:I II also works to reshape its leading man into a new kind of hero, one that could convincingly compete with slick gentleman sleuths like James Bond. The film is influenced by one of the twistiest noirs around, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. It’s a near beat-for-beat retread of the 1946 film, especially when it comes to the love triangle between Ethan, Nyah, and her evil ex, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott). Unfortunately, none of that really works, but it’s certainly fun watching this cast work so tirelessly to add some depth to the franchise.
While time hasn’t exactly been kind to M:I II, it didn’t actually fail. For a long time, it was the highest-grossing Mission film, dethroned only by Fallout in domestic revenue … and only just barely. Its wildly disparate tone wasn’t really an issue when it bowed in the summer of 2000 — in fact, Cruise was actively trying to make a sequel that was entirely unique. As a result, M:I II tries a lot of things, and takes a big, earnest swing for romance. It doesn’t exactly pay off, of course — and depending on who you ask, it’s the weakest of the series — but in a franchise that’s constantly raising the bar with each installment, the bottom’s not a bad place to be. (Lyvie Scott)