Combing through every mask reveal and mind-blowing stunt, Yasmin Omar decides which are the best films in the Tom Cruise blockbuster action series.
After extensive delays and seven Covid-related production shutdowns, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One is finally (finally!) parachuting into cinemas in July. Each entry in the hugely popular espionage franchise finds Tom Cruise’s intrepid, rule-breaking spy Ethan Hunt – who works for the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) – chasing after various nuclear bombs and confidential documents in a bid to save humanity from mortal danger. There are, inevitably, many clocks counting down, double-crossing agents and, of course, Lalo Schifrin’s indelible, fist-pumping theme music.
The series has gained renown for its awe-inspiring, how-did-they-do-that stunts that Cruise insists on executing himself, despite collaborators’ concerns for his safety. This dedication to practical effects helps the M:I movies distinguish themselves in today’s blockbuster landscape, where VFX of varying quality dominate mainstream filmmaking. Also, these movies never feel like stopovers announcing the next film, and are standalone enough that you can dip in at any point and understand what’s going on. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to consider which of the Ethan Hunt movies are the best. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds…
6. Mission: Impossible II (2000)
The One with the Honey Trap
The sequel to Brian De Palma’s $457 million hit is the runt of the Mission: Impossible litter. It received a critical drubbing upon release, with multiple publications calling out its corny dialogue, clichéd fight sequences and predictable set pieces. Brendan Gleeson’s McCloy is the billionaire CEO of a pharma company that is manufacturing the cell-destroying disease Chimera in order to control dispatch of the cure and further line his pockets. Ethan Hunt, with the floppiest, Herbal Essences-advert hair he’s ever sported, is enlisted to foil this diabolical plan. So far, so Mission: Impossible.
The problem is that the film hinges on the somewhat rushed relationship between Ethan and Thandiwe Newton’s thief Nyah, brought on to seduce her ex Sean (Dougray Scott), a rogue IMF agent who’s plotting to get rich quick off Chimera. God love him, but Cruise lacks sexual chemistry with his onscreen love interests at the best of times, and the innuendo-laden dialogue fails to raise the temperature here. It stretches credulity that Ethan willingly puts his life on the line for Nyah when their love story is, to quote the BBC, ‘painfully silly’. (For a more successful outing of Cruise the romancer, I recommend Jerry ‘You had me at hello’ Maguire.)
With the notable exception of Cruise free-soloing precipitously up a Sydney cliff face, even the action sequences – usually engineered with Swiss-watch precision in Mission: Impossible – offer precious little to get excited about. Over an hour elapses before this movie’s first mission-critical stunt and, when it finally arrives, it’s essentially a less memorable rerun of the original’s CIA break-in, with Cruise lowering into a building then hovering inches from the floor. Clearly, Mission: Impossible’s house style, cemented by the franchise’s current steward Christopher McQuarrie, had not yet been established by M:I II. Instead, its director John Woo goes his own way, overrelying on a stylistic quirk that hobbles the film’s momentum: slow-motion. I don’t come to this franchise for slowness, I come to it for speed. Despite the camp appeal it has garnered in certain circles, Mission: Impossible II ultimately misses the mark. It’s trying desperately to be cool. The others are cool. And they know it.
Cruise running: 2/10. There’s not nearly enough, and what we do get is hampered by slo-mo.
Mask reveals: 5/10. They introduce the voice-changing strips here, a crucial tech innovation going forward.
Villain rating: 3/10. Dougray Scott is hammy as all hell.
5. Mission: Impossible (1996)
The One with the CIA Heist
It’s perhaps antithetical to call a film that features a high-speed train dragging a helicopter through a tunnel ‘low stakes’, but that’s exactly how the original Mission: Impossible feels in comparison with its increasingly go-for-broke successors. The 1996 movie – in spite of itself, for who could have foreseen such a gargantuan franchise back then? – lays the groundwork for future instalments, introducing themes, characters and imagery that would come to define these films. It all starts with the most brilliant wrongfooting. Jon Voigt’s Jim Phelps and his IMF team – including Kristin Scott Thomas and Emilio Esteves – are in Prague to stop a rogue agent from obtaining the NOC list, a document revealing the identities of CIA operatives. Mission: Impossible is set up as an ensemble movie (in a further diversion tactic, Cruise is relegated to the end of the opening-credit montage). That is… until the crew is swiftly picked off, leaving one man standing and plaintively screaming out, ‘My team is dead!’ You guessed it, it’s Tom.
Prising the centrepoint of the film from his colleagues’ lifeless hands, Ethan resolves to complete the mission, recruiting Ving Rhames’ hacker Luther (the only actor who appears in every M:I movie besides Cruise) for tech assistance. He also has an amusing sit-down with Vanessa Redgrave’s venomous villain, who strokes his earlobe in a strangely alluring way. Mission: Impossible is very dial-up internet, with its mediaeval-looking computers, floppy disks and bulky Nokia phones. Ethan types ‘internet access’ into a server at one point, for goodness sake.
There are significantly fewer set pieces – perhaps because the production was so troubled that the screenplay was being rewritten during the shoot – and the stunts are quite tame. That being said, the film does feature the signature stunt of the franchise: Cruise gently descending into a secure, state-of-the-art room in CIA HQ, that detects changes in temperature and pressure, to steal the NOC list. The sequence is impeccably crafted – De Palma is the filmmaker behind the Carrie (1981) pig-blood prom scene, after all. By cutting the sound and using extreme close-ups, the director makes a bead of sweat dripping onto a gloved hand a moment of throat-catching tension. The original Mission: Impossible is certainly a fun, sleekly mounted spy thriller; its impact has just been lessened by how far-reaching the later sequels are.
Cruise running: 5/10. Up some stairs, across a bridge… it’s fine but far from top-tier Tom.
Mask reveals: 4/10. Very Scooby Doo.
Villain rating: 8/10. Vanessa Redgrave softly purring her evil intentions is dynamite.
4. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
The One with the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Explosion
Part of this franchise’s genius lies in its casting. The filmmakers consistently hire actors who elevate the material, which, let’s face it, could easily fall into schlocky ridiculousness with lesser performers. As the black-market trafficker Davian in M:I III, Philip Seymour Hoffman is darkly imposing, menacing enough that he doesn’t need to raise his voice to make your skin crawl. The real coup, though, is Michelle Monaghan’s Julia. From here onwards, she is the beating heart of the M:I movies. Ethan’s in a good place when we catch up with him in director JJ Abrams’ series outing. He’s going steady with Julia, a nurse at Virginia Regional Hospital, who thinks her partner works for the Department of Transportation, but actually he’s training up IMF recruits. Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in, and before long he’s a field agent again in an epic helicopter chase, soaring through a wind farm at oblique angles, trying to prise a detonator from a teammate’s skull.
Given that Cruise now exclusively plays action heroes in the Ethan Hunt/Pete Maverick mould, he doesn’t often get the chance to show us he’s still a gifted dramatic actor. Ethan’s marriage to Julia adds a personal dimension to the story, since she becomes a chess piece for villains to toy with in various blackmail schemes. (Ethan’s a wife guy! Who knew?) It also gives Cruise the chance to flex his actorly muscles. This is, for my money, his best performance in a Mission: Impossible film. When Julia’s life is threatened in the blood-pounding cold open, his naked desperation is deeply felt in the roughness of his voice, the choked-down tears. Their relationship hikes up the stakes beyond the standard, nebulous save-the-world objective. As for the action sequences, they’re filmed with a nervy, shaky-cam aesthetic that gets the pulse racing. The pièce de résistance is a shootout on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge where bullets slash through glass and bombs blast holes in the tarmac. M:I III is a solid, emotionally gratifying film that feels especially welcome after the sophomore slump of M:I II.
Cruise running: 8/10. His form is magnificent: perfectly upright, arms folded into right angles, feet pummelling pavements. He sprints with greater determination now he’s trying to save his lady love.
Mask reveals: 7/10. The first scene takes on a whole new meaning when you find out who’s wearing a mask…
Villain rating: 9/10. Philip Seymour Hoffman is an extremely threatening big bad.
3. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
The One with the Underwater Theft
Don’t fear, Christopher McQuarrie’s here! The Oscar-winning screenwriter, affectionately known as McQ, has established a successful partnership with Cruise, and their many collaborations together – from Top Gun: Maverick (2022) to Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and the last two Mission: Impossible movies – have been pretty special. Drawing on his action-cinema background, the filmmaker has helped develop the M:I set pieces’ wow factor. What would’ve passed for the apex of a stunt in earlier iterations (a skydive, for instance), is now folded into a much grander, more daring feat.
Such is the case when Ethan parachutes onto a Moroccan Computer Facility, then plunges into 70,000 gallons of pressurised water, without an oxygen tank and against a raging current, to switch a security card. Rogue Nation is tightly scripted, laying out the mission and its pitfalls in advance, and highlighting its dangers in real time (ensuring Cruise’s wetsuit signals his dwindling air supply in the aforementioned sequence is very smart). The film’s star is, of course, up to his usual death-defying antics: hanging from a plane in flight and leaning off his full-speed motorbike at steep, kneecap-scalping angles.
Cruise is really feeling himself and it shows. He spends an inordinate amount of the movie topless – then again, if you can propel yourself up a pole, while handcuffed, purely using your ab muscles at 53, why wouldn’t you? Besides Ethan, Rogue Nation’s key character is Rebecca Ferguson’s newly introduced MI6 agent Ilsa. The pair join forces for an operation in Casablanca, naturally. Here’s spying with you, Ilsa.
It’s no secret that Mission: Impossible has something of a woman problem. Across the franchise, Cruise’s revolving door of female colleagues (Maggie Q, Paula Patton etc.) are mostly there to wear silk gowns with leg slits north of the crotch. The fact that Ilsa’s kill method of choice is to straddle marks and snap their necks between her thighs is no accident. Ferguson, and her cut-glass vowels, makes do with the role’s limitations. (Thankfully, Ilsa is given space to develop across the series, as she’s one of the franchise’s few recurring female characters.) The actress comes into her own when the punches start raining down, powerfully incapacitating opponents – and even gets to use a flute as a silencer during an assassination attempt at the Vienna Opera House. We love to see it.
Cruise running: 9/10. He runs along the wing of an airborne aircraft?!
Mask reveals: 7/10. There are some cheeky switcheroos in a sequence with Tom Hollander’s British Prime Minister.
Villain rating: 6/10. Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane, a former British intelligence officer who mounts ‘an anti-IMF’, is serviceable, if not all that memorable. Surprised he came back for Fallout.
2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
The One with the Burj Khalifa Ascent
This could’ve been a turning point for Mission: Impossible. Unspeakable as the idea may be now, the studio wanted to fire Cruise after the reputational damage he suffered post Oprah sofa-gate. His replacement? Jeremy Renner as the low-level IMF agent William Brandt. But, just as he failed to permanently replace Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, Renner did not take over the M:I movies. We’ve all seen Maverick, we know what Cruise does to young upstarts. In light of this information, Hunt and Brandt’s frosty working relationship takes on an amusing, metatextual dimension. (That Cruise doesn’t shake Renner’s hand when their characters meet feels pointed.)
The writers really rub the newcomer’s nose in it: Brandt is ‘just a helper’, offering useless advice and asking Hunt for espionage tips. He was pulled from the field for botching a mission – he’s partially responsible for Ethan and Julia’s separation – and his chief trait is cowardice. The guy is so apprehensive about dropping down a 25-foot shaft, wasting time limbering up and discussing the risks, that an exasperated Ethan screams down the phone at him: ‘Commit. Jump. Now. Jump. Jump!!’ William is the foil to Ethan, his obvious gawkiness gold-plating his superior’s smooth confidence.
There’s plenty of Cruise’s silken coolness on display in Ghost Protocol, from the opening Moscow prison break, brilliantly soundtracked to Dean Martin’s ‘Ain’t That a Kick in the Head’, where he blows a kiss to the security camera before elbowing guards in the face while a fire rages around him; to his ziplining off the window ledge of a hospital down an electricity pylon – using his belt. The film also features what is probably my favourite stunt in the franchise: Ethan’s climb up the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Director Brad Bird gives a sense of the skyscraper’s incredible scale through the camerawork, tracking up it then peering down from the summit to the ground far, far below.
The task at hand – climbing 11 stories up and seven units across the Burj, starting at the 130th floor – is nothing to be sniffed at in and of itself. But the filmmakers build up the stakes further and further like a Jenga tower: Cruise doesn’t have ropes, his suction gloves gripping the glass malfunction, there’s an incoming sandstorm… The tension is almost unbearable. No matter how many times you watch it, you are screaming at the screen. When he briefly drops, your heart skips a beat.
It should be noted that even Ghost Protocol’s less physically demanding stunts bristle with excitement: a neat hologram trick down a hallway in the Kremlin is fun, especially thanks to the comedy stylings of Simon Pegg’s daffy sidekick Benji. The film strikes the perfect balance between gonzo action, self-serious geopolitics and emotional sincerity (the parting shot is simply devastating). And it’s also still goofy enough to end with Cruise shouting out ‘mission accomplished!’ as he slams a big red button to stop the nukes he’s been chasing the whole movie.
Cruise running: 10/10. He runs down the side of the world’s tallest building! He outruns a sandstorm!
Mask reveals: 5/10. A nuclear-arms dealer whips off a chunk of mask and drops the rubbery monstrosity onto the ground.
Villain rating: 7/10. They don’t give her nearly enough to play with, I just love Léa Seydoux’s cool-eyed contract killer.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
The One with Two Nuclear Bombs
By this stage, we have roundly concluded that these movies are all singing from the same hymn sheet, loosely following the formula of searching for a dangerous object (vials of disease, CIA-compromising lists, plutonium cores), standing off against a bad guy to attain it, delivering it safely to the good guy. What differentiates the series’ more recent instalments is how lavishly mounted they are. Bigger certainly is better when it comes to Mission: Impossible, and Fallout subscribes to a ‘why have one nuclear bomb if you could have two?’ philosophy.
As the franchise’s budgets have swelled over the years – M:I I cost $80 million, Fallout was closer to $180 million – so too has the spectacle. The latter film evokes a sense of wonderment via its impeccable craftsmanship: Peter Wenham’s production design, creating the cavernous belly of an aircraft carrier and the cosy interiors of a speakeasy club; McQuarrie’s script immaculately table-setting the action sequences while maintaining a strong emotional throughline; Eddie Hamilton’s editing expertly cutting between scenes with a propulsive, kinetic energy.
The Fallout team – led by Tom Cruise, their quasi military leader – pours care and consideration into every frame, delivering a tautly constructed action movie with stunning landscape photography worthy of the One Perfect Shot archives. I would, of course, be remiss not to mention the jaw-dropping set pieces, whose utter extravagance was breathlessly reported on by the press in 2018. Cruise HALO jumps out of a plane, dodging forks of lightning as he tumbles through the sky; he dangles precariously from a helicopter’s landing skids over a Kashmir valley; he vaults between London highrises, breaking his ankle (!!) before dusting himself off and running on. Physical exertion aside, the actor is in his element in Fallout. His roguish charm somehow makes drab exposition engaging, and his signature move of repeating a line, slower and with more gravitas, works a treat every time. Mass entertainment doesn’t get much better than this.
Cruise running: 10/10. I cannot stress this enough, he breaks his ankle jumping onto a roof then continues running at full pelt. The man is a machine.
Mask reveals: 7/10. Benji, who spends great swathes of Ghost Protocol complaining that he never gets to wear a mask, finally does. Good for him.
Villain rating: 6/10. Dashing good looks aside, Henry Cavill doesn’t really do much for me. Points for the way he reloads his biceps in that bathroom-fight sequence though.
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