With Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation hitting theaters last weekend, it affords us all an opportunity to look back at the entire series and reflect on what gives them staying power. It also offers a chance to embark on a fool’s errand: ranking the five films. MTV said that ranking the top four Mission: Impossible movies is a “game of inches” (with the obvious outlier of #2, which is decidedly less good than the others.) I agree wholeheartedly. Each of the five movies are probably someone’s favorite. As Entertainment Weekly stated, “[T]he problem of ranking the Mission: Impossible films is, initially, a problem of applying definition to the undefinable.” Five different directors made the five films and each has its own distinct vibe. Ultimately, your own personal preferences will determine your ranking of the movies. Here is ours:
Plot: I think there is a virus called Chimera that threatens the world’s population. The villain wants to buy stock in the corporation that can cure the virus … I think. Who cares, really. Right? Because stunts, slow-motion, and motorcycles.
Memorable scene(s): The early scene of Tom Cruise dangling from a mountain is breathtaking. It redefined Ethan Hunt for the sequel.
Memorable for the wrong reasons – Cruise and Dougray Scott leap from their respective motorcycles and meet in the air, balletically, with the goal of taking the other down.
Sidekicks/Villain: Though Ving Rhames gets some great lines, the rest of the IMF team is basically nonexistent. Thandie Newton is supposed to be Ethan Hunt’s equal and the epitome of sexy, and she is not terrible, but the script doesn’t really give her much of substance to do. (Naysayers would claim that her decision to inject herself with Chimera is heroic and surprising. But, what is Chimera, really, other than a plot device? And why do we care?) Dougray Scott is as over-the-top as they come, spittle flying from his mouth as his shouts orders at all who cross gis path.
Overall Quality: John Woo’s style was bombastically on display. The movie is trashy fun, for sure, but it’s dreadfully serious for the majority of its running time and, again, hinges on the villain getting money from manipulating stock options. There’s some stylish shots and genuinely thrilling moments, but it’s ultimately a hollow action blockbuster.
Plot: The IMF team is disavowed after the Kremlin blows up. Hunt and his team must clear their name and prevent another possible attack. Also, the most believable uses of the series’ signature masks.
Memorable scene(s): Tom Cruise’s scaling of the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa) was wonderful. In IMAX, my stomach dropped when the camera pushed out over his head to show the magnificence of the height. The scene manages to be exciting, believable, and funny, all at the same time. It kicks off the best sequence in the film and one of the best sequences in any of the Mission movies.
Sidekicks/Villain: The villain is arguably the most forgettable in all of the movies. At least Dougray Scott chewed up the scenery with his intense screaming. Jeremy Renner proved a worthy addition to the stable of Ethan Hunt helpers and Simon Pegg was hysterical as techie Benji Dunn. Paula Patton is fine, but mostly there to wear eye-catching clothes. The lack of Ving Rhames, however, was glaring. Though he shows up for a fun cameo in the film’s final scene, his wry sense of humor was missed.
Overall Quality: Perhaps knowing that this is many people’s favorite of the series is what takes it down a few notches in my mind. I thought that the climax was less satisfying than in previous M:I movies. The humor was perfect (especially because they beefed up Simon Pegg’s role) and Brad Bird honestly goosed the series for the better, as seen in the superior Rogue Nation, but, with the exception of an effective final nod to Hunt’s wife from M:I3, it didn’t include enough personal stakes for my liking.
Plot: The plot of the first Mission: Impossible is a common punching bag. Many found it to be overly complicated or borderline incoherent. I remember, as a 16-year-old, I was prepared to be mystified by its incomprehensible twists. However, the movie, though byzantine, is actually fairly easy to follow. The IMF team is sent on a mission that is actually a mole hunt. Since Ethan Hunt is the only one who survives, he is identified as the mole. However, he is not the mole, so he sets out to prove his innocence with the help of some off-the-grid colleagues.
Memorable scene(s): As Jean Reno deals with a bothersome rodent, Cruise hangs precipitously in a secured CIA office. It is one of the most recognizable scenes from the entire series. Also, the scene where Kittridge and Hunt converse in a restaurant is shot with claustrophobic precision, ending with Cruise outrunning a broken aquarium in slow motion.
Sidekicks/Villain: Ving Rhames almost steals the movie as Luther Stickell, starting a friendship with Hunt that has lasted throughout all of the movies. Emmanuelle Beart is sexy and devious as Jim Phelps’ apparent widow. Jon Voight was solid in the thankless role as the (SPOILER ALERT) double-crossing former IMF leader. All of them went for realism above action movie over-acting, and it elevated this first time out.
Overall Quality: Brian De Palma built the movie like a Hitchcockian puzzle, increasing suspense with close-ups and tastefully deployed slow-motion. The movie’s fiendish twist, that offended purists but provided a genuine shock, that Jim Phelps betrayed the IMF team, is what elevated this movie above #4 and #2.
Plot: In the end, the story boils down to mano a mano mind games between Ethan Hunt and Sean Harris’ soft-spoken but conniving head of The Syndicate. Since the IMF has been disbanded (a common thematic device, obviously), Ethan must hide from the government (led by Alec Baldwin) and eventually enlist friends to help him track down the mysterious and possibly fictional Syndicate.
Memorable scene(s): Much has been made of the opening scene where Tom Cruise was LITERALLY strapped to the side of a plane that was taking off. It’s a doozy. Every scene where Rebecca Ferguson fights is worth the price of admission. And there is a scene that takes place during an opera that is so well-edited and well-shot, you feel like you are there, sweating with the team.
Sidekicks/Villain: It was great to see Luther back on the team in a real way. Ving Rhames, with his underplayed arrogance and nonchalant charm, helps anchor the series. Rebecca Ferguson, new to the series in this film, is perfect. Not only is she badass, but her shifting loyalties and ultimate redemption demonstrate a sophistication from Christopher McQuarrie in dealing with a female action hero. She even employs a signature “move” in her multiple fight scenes. She is pretty but not part of the movie JUST to be a pretty face. And the villain, though not as memorable as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian, is suitably creepy and faces off against Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in an engaging intellectual battle of wits.
Overall Quality: I have a feeling I may ultimately find this movie to be the best in the series. As it stands, it has not yet stood the test of time. But, from its nefarious use of the “mission message” from headquarters at the start of the movie, to its poetic justice climax, Rogue Nation is the most well-put together of all the films and an adrenaline blast that never lets up. It also showed Mission: Impossible II what a real motorcycle chase should look and feel like.
Plot: J.J. Abrams and his fellow screenwriters made it a priority to look inside the real life of Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. After someone he trained is killed, Hunt re-enters the field, even though he is about to get married (to Michelle Monaghan), to get revenge and secure the mysterious Rabbit’s Foot before it can wreak some sort of worldwide havoc.
Memorable scene(s): The rescue of Keri Russell’s young agent is exciting and well-shot. When Hunt threatens to drop Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Owen Davian out of the bottom of their plane, it’s intense and memorable as both of them angle to get the upper hand.
Sidekicks/Villain: Russell is a perfect mix of intensity and nerves as Hunt’s protege that (SPOILER ALERT) dies in the first twenty minutes of the movie. She would later make good on the action promise she shows here with FX’s The Americans. Hoffman plays the best villain in the series, bar none, elevating every scene he is in with his ice-cold stare and his seeming disdain for everyone and everything. Though Maggie Q and Jonathan Rhys Meyers are ultimately wasted, Russell and Hoffman more than make up for it.
Overall Quality: There are wildly contrasting opinions about Mission: Impossible III. I happen to think that, even though Abrams was a film newbie at the time, he helmed the ship with flair and surehandedness. His biggest contribution was imbuing the story with a more personal aspect that didn’t work for some but did for me. The rescue of Russell and the final scene where Ethan races–on foot–to find his new wife are both marvels of suspense-building that find time for lighter moments. (Hunt, to his wife, upon waking up after shocking himself to death and seeing dead people on the floor: “You did that?”) Though all of the movies are exciting, M:I3 delivered the most complete movie, in my mind.