Released right in the time for blockbuster season 25 years ago this week, the first 'Mission: Impossible' was a strange beast then and even stranger now.
It was directed by Brian DePalma, best known for making movies as varied as 'Scarface', 'The Untouchables', and 'Blow Out'. It was written by Robert Towne of 'Chinatown' fame, David Koepp fresh out of 'Jurassic Park', and Steven Zaillian, who only six years prior to this had written 'Schindler's List' and 'Awakenings'.
Flash-forward to now, Tom Cruise is still trying to find ways to jump out of moving things and on to other moving things, the theme music is still as recognisable as ever, the world still needs the IMF, and nobody's getting tired of it either. At six movies deep, most franchises either shift gears entirely - like the 'Fast and Furious' franchise, for example - or they simply reinvent themselves every so often.
Largely speaking, 'Mission: Impossible' has remained relatively intact, bar one brief interlude which saw it take a sharp turn into new-millennium-John Woo-directed calamity.
No points for guessing, then, where it ends up on our ranking...
6. 'Mission: Impossible 2'
To be fair to 'Mission: Impossible 2', it does have a lot of things going for it. The soundtrack was pretty great. You had Metallica, Foo Fighters, Limp Bizkit(!) mixed in with Hans Zimmer, for one. John Woo was also throwing everything at the screen in an attempt to make something - anything at all - stick. Tom Cruise, likewise, was up for anything and everything. Climb up the side of a cliff with no ropes? Sure. Drive a motorcycle at full speed on one wheel and flip the thing? Yeah, man. Grow out bangs and look like you're ready to join the cast of 'Point Break 2' with Patrick Swayze? Absolutely.
Sadly, for all of these good intentions, 'Mission: Impossible 2' is by far the weakest of the bunch. While subtlety may not play a big part in the franchise, it was utterly non-existent here. Not only that, some of the casting choices seemed to be more about throwing star-power at the screen than anything else. For example, were you aware that Anthony Hopkins was in this? He had a pretty big role in it too.
For all of the cast, the good intentions, 'Mission: Impossible 2' failed to make any kind of a dent. The reviews were largely middling, but the box office figures were enough to keep the whole thing moving. It went on to become the highest-grossing movie of 2000. The best thing to come out of this movie, however, are two things almost completely unrelated to it. One is the VMAs with Ben Stiller pretending to be Tom Cruise's stunt double. The other is Thandiwe Newton revealing that the Cruiser managed to manifest a zit into a blackhead in the space of a couple of hours.
5. 'Mission: Impossible III'
After the madness of the second one, 'Mission: Impossbile III' feels far more conventional and staid by comparison. Yet, take it out from this comparison and it's quite nuts. In terms of the time in which it was released, it was suprisingly on the button for the franchise. The big twist involving Billy Crudup's character and his reasons for doing so were pretty on the nose in the era of the Iraq War and the missing WMDs. Not only that, the idea of having not one but two Americans as enemies was pretty unique.
All that aside, 'Mission: Impossible III' had a lot going for it. JJ Abrams was hot off of his TV work and you could tell that he had an innate understanding of what made 'Mission: Impossible' fizzle and pop. 'Alias', his TV show starring Jennifer Garner and a pre-fame Bradley Cooper, regularly drew comparisons with 'Mission: Impossible' during its run. On top of that, Abrams was eager to prove himself as a big-budget director.
For his part, Cruise knew the assignment and more than that, it was one of the only movies to acknowledge his years. Hunt has, in this movie, effectively retired from being an active agent and instead trains them while he tries to maintain a veneer of normalcy for Michelle Monaghan. Of course, this is Ethan Hunt we're talking about. The man literally blew up a helicopter while he was on it and landed on a moving train.
If there's one character who should have had a second outing throughout the franchise, it's undoubtedly Laurence Fishburne and his "I'm sick of your shit" attitude. Sure, Alec Baldwin has played an absolute blinder in his role as Ethan Hunt Hype-Man and CIA Director Hunley, but Fishburne's character, Ted Brassel? Oh, he could see right through him.
4. 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol'
A common complaint about many franchises is that directors rarely get to actually direct. Instead, what we see is often merely a committee-led version of a movie that's been extensively audience-tested and made with all considerations intact. 'Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol' takes up after 'Mission: Impossible III' and sees Brad Bird, late of Pixar's brain trust, in the director's seat. While it absolutely has the same overall feel, you can see Bird's animation influences throughout the movie.
More specifically, you can see his innate understanding of comedy. The hallway scene is like something you'd see Peter Sellers doing. The final fight sequence with a spinning carpark is bizarre as to be comical. Even a deliberately tense scene where Jeremy Renner is photocopying some documents with a contact lens gizmo has a comedic undercurrent.
So much of 'Mission: Impossible', not just 'Ghost Protocol' in particular, is ridiculous as to be humourous. It's not that it's winking across the screen at you, but more that it understands this is all just high-flying antics. 'Ghost Protocol' kicks off with a team of US spies blowing up the Kremlin. Where can you possibly go from there? The answer is to jump off the tallest building in the world and then drive a BMW through a sandstorm with the top down.
3. 'Mission: Impossible'
Brian DePalma's career has always been difficult to trace, as we mentioned earlier. His work in the '70s was almost grimy and grizzly with the likes of 'Carrie', 'Blow Out' and 'Dressed To Kill'. In the '80s, he'd gone full Reaganaut and was making big, expensive movies like 'The Untouchables' with its Armani wardrobe, 'The Bonfire of the Vanities' with its New York pomposity, and 'Scarface' with its coked-up swagger.
In the course of his filmography, 'Mission: Impossible' looks like a sore thumb initially. It's a big-budget blockbuster with a name-recognition star and a remake of a TV show from the '60s. Yet, scratch the surface and you'll see his fingerprints all over it. There's the playful sense of murder, sex and mystery to it, right from the opening scene where the IMF stage a death of a sex worker - who is also an IMF agent, nonetheless - in order to capture a target. You also have DePalma's signature close-ups and Dutch angles, evidenced in the restaurant scene with Henry Czerny, the '90s Government Asshole of choice.
Beyond that, it's effectively set the structure for each movie after it. The mask pull is now an intrinsic part of the franchise, thanks to this. You can't look at any character in any 'Mission: Impossible' movie without thinking it's Tom Cruise underneath. It started here, in this. Likewise, the idea of untrustworthy authority figures also stemmed from Jon Voight's fuddy-duddy traitor matched alongside Vanessa Redgrave hamming it up as the Thatcher-inspired Max.
The Cruiser, meanwhile, was playing the role as he's played it throughout the franchise. Ethan Hunt is, when you come right down to it, completely nuts. Cruise plays him with a bug-eyed intensity, all crazed sprinting with an insane lack of fear. Who else would think about blowing a helicopter while they were still on it?
2. 'Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation'
You'd think by the time a franchise hit its fifth movie, the wheels would begin to creak a little. Yet, it now seems that any movie franchise worth its salt that hits the fifth movie is only getting started. In 'Rogue Nation', Christopher McQuarrie as director took off with a bang. The action setpieces throughout the franchise have always been well constructed, but here and in 'Fallout', there was much more spark to it all.
The opera sequence, set during a performance of 'Turandot', sees Cruise battling it out behind the scenes while Rebecca Ferguson tries to murder someone with a rifle she's constructed out a flute. There's a terrific car chase through the streets of Marrakech. Oh, and of course, Tom Cruise hung off the side of a military jumbo-jet as it took off into a climb of around five thousand feet. That was the opening scene. Naturally.
Although 'Ghost Protocol' saw Jeremy Renner enter the cast and stick around, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, and Alec Baldwin joined and all made fantastic contributions. Baldwin, as previously discussed, joined the Ethan Hunt Fan Club in one glorious scene opposite Tom Hollander. Rebecca Ferguson, meanwhile, provides the icy glamour but it's Sean Harris who becomes the most effective villain the franchise has ever had. It helps that he looks and sounds absolutely terrifying, but he was also a perfect photo negative to Tom Cruise. He spoke rarely, and only in short sentences. His looks weren't what one would describe as movie star level. He looked more like an art dealer than an international terrorist, yet he was intimidating.
Indeed, introducing a recurring villain like this was a bold move for a franchise that began out of a villain-of-the-week TV show. It was a gamble that worked. Why? Because 'Fallout' needed some kind of anchor for the craziness of it all.
1. 'Mission: Impossible - Fallout'
Look back over the 'Mission: Impossible' franchise and you'll see that it's always escalated itself in every movie. It just keeps getting bigger, better, and bolder each time. 'Fallout' is the most recent entry, yes, and it is the best, but not because of this.
Instead, what makes 'Fallout' the best of the franchise is because it fully and completely embraces two facts that 'Mission: Impossible' that keeps people coming back to it. One is people want to see Tom Cruise fling himself across the screen in well-executed, choreographed setpieces with a competent, ambitious director behind the camera. The other is trying to figure out how they're going to get out of each and every caper they wind up in. Really, 'Mission: Impossible' is probably the only kind of movie that can get away with a rug pull and have people clapping at it. Wolf Blitzer ripping off his face to reveal Simon Pegg? A double-bluff with Henry Cavill and Sean Harris?
Credit where it's due to the Cruiser for literally breaking his ankle on screen, but we need to talk about the supporting cast a moment. Henry Cavill looks like a juiced-up sales rep for a failing paper company, yet it makes total sense when it shouldn't. Also, he reloads his arms in a fist fight. More on that in a bit. Angela Bassett is in the mix for all of maybe three scenes and steals them right out from underneath everyone. Likewise, stuntman Liang Yang has only one scene and he's beating the shit out of Tom Cruise and Henry Cavill - and yet, his performance is astounding.
The twists, the turns, the action, the thrills - it's all pulling along at such a relentless pace that you barely notice the two-and-a-half-hour runtime zip past. More to the point, there isn't one ounce of fat on the movie anywhere. The story as well dictates the action, not the other way around. Sure, it looks spectacular that they're parachuting into Paris, but in the context of the story, it has a point.
Few franchises get to six movies (with two more on the way) and remain quite so cinematic as 'Mission: Impossible' does. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, for all of its charms, doesn't have the same sense of spectacle to it. Yes, there are massive scenes made for cinemas, but 'Mission: Impossible' has Tom Cruise jumping out of an airplane and beating a stuntman with a bathroom sink. It doesn't sully itself with CGI fights. Why would it need to? Tom Cruise is willing - no, eager - to put himself in harm's way every time if it'll look cool on screen.