As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m kind of on a Mission: Impossible kick. (If you want to read about that journey and determine whether you should get into this franchise, read about some of the best M:I tropes.)
One of the things that I like about this movies, besides it being really fun to watch Tom Cruise run around various cities as fast as he can, is that they’re all kind of different. There’s a lot that connects them as a cohesive group, but I also think each movie puts its own unique spin on the mission at hand. For this reason, despite the fact that they are all definitely action movies, each entry in the franchise gives you a little something different.
If, for some reason, you don’t want to spend your one precious life watching six very silly action movies, I’ll give you a guide. This way, you can decide on the movie that best fits your tastes and your mood. Much like Thomas More, there is a M:I for every season. (I think that joke is a bit of a stretch, but I’m leaving it in.)
The Original Mission: Impossible
Choose this one if: You like action movies that make you think, clever(ish) spy games, a mystery, lower stakes that still feel significant, you want fewer explosions, Tom Cruise looking like a young baby
The first entry into the franchise might be the most distinct. While it certainly still has goofy moments, some ridiculous set pieces, and an absolutely absurd action scene at the end, the original Mission: Impossible is the quietest and slowest moving of all six movies. I was surprised to discover that overall its more of a spy thriller and mystery and less of a big action piece.
If all you remember from this movie is Tom Cruise dangling in a white room, then you might be surprised by the rest of it too.
It’s definitely not a huge think piece. The scene where Ethan Hunt tries to use a 90s search engine to figure out what Job 314 stands for is, frankly, hilarious by modern standards. (The email addresses he concocts and the messages he writes are equally hilarious.) And near the end, I commented aloud that I was surprised by the lack of unrealistic action right before some absolutely absurd shenanigans.
But overall, it’s a pretty good little thriller. In scenes where Ethan Hunt confronts another IMF agent, the camera does these wacky angles to make the conversations more tense and I actually really enjoyed that it tried to put its own visual footprint on things. You know, before Ethan blows up a restaurant with a stick of gum or whatever.
(Oh, also, quick warning that this movie has one of the ickiest lines about women in the entire franchise. More on that in another post.)
Mission: Impossible 2
Choose this one if: You love the theatrical stylings of John Woo, you want to see Prince Henry from Ever After be a bad guy, early 2000s action movies are your thing, you like plots where the threat is a deadly pandemic, you want to turn off your brain completely
This Mission: Impossible is trying so hard to be cool. It’s like when you were a teenager and suddenly discovered what you needed to do and wear to be cool so you tried to do all those things but instead of being cool everyone could tell you were a major dork who was trying too hard.
Anyway, this movie is very early 2000s action movie and because John Woo is always going to do his thing, it is also at times hilariously stylized and doves fly around for no reason.
The plot is sadly extremely relevant because the bad guy is trying to make money off a pandemic (he wants to start the pandemic and invests a bunch in the holdings of the pharmaceutical company that has the cure). I love a movie where the real villain is capitalism and greed! Also, Prince Henry from Ever After is cartoonishly villainous and it’s extremely over the top.
This movie also unfortunately invests very heavily in the “here’s a woman who is super awesome at her job but she’s going to become a love interest and do nothing interesting for the rest of the movie.”
I know all of the above makes this probably sound like a fun watch. It can be, but it’s also kind of painful at times and ultimately gets very boring, much like someone witnessing you trying to be cool when you were a teen.
But you do get the theme song exclusively played on an electric guitar, so there’s that.
Mission: Impossible 3
Choose this one if: You like a gritty reboot, you want to see JJ Abrams on full display, you revel in peak Philip Seymour Hoffman, you like someone trying to get out of the game but they keep getting pulled back in, the ultimate goal of the bad guy doesn’t matter to you, good mask shenanigans
I don’t know what it is, but when two sweaty, dirty characters end up in a dirty building and one of them is attempting to bring the other back to life through a form of CPR that is mostly just hitting the other person in the chest really hard, you know you’re watching a JJ Abrams joint.
It’s not that this movie has no jokes, but it definitely turns away from the stylized thriller and the campy action of the first two movies to present you with the real shit. Ethan Hunt only trains agents now, he’s out of the game. He’s in love for real. (Although the amount of time he spends lying to his fiancee in his movie, she should really leave him.)
This movie would benefit, I think, from leaning into its strongest asset: Philip Seymour Hoffman. He chews the scenery with relish and is overall incredible each second he’s on screen, which is not often enough! Also, spoiler alert: the late third act twist that the real villain of the movie is someone else is forgettable. Because who cares about that other guy.
While this movie features more than one woman, one of them dies for Tom Cruise’s character development, one of them is the one he must protect, and the third one can be a spy but only if she’s a sexy spy.
What does the bad guy in this movie ultimately want? I don’t know! It’s mostly just Tom Cruise and Philip Seymour Hoffman being mad at each other! And that’s beautiful.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
Choose this one if: You love a romp, good action set pieces, fun spy capers, banter, you don’t need a strong bad guy to center around, increased landmark destruction, limited mask shenanigans, tropes are lampshaded
This might be the most fun of all the movies. And possibly the movie self-aware of the franchise as well. (If it’s not the most self-aware, it’s certainly the one that points out it’s self-awareness out loud the most often.)
I was initially shocked to discover this movie was directed by Brad Bird, who had previously only directed Pixar films. But if you think about it, who better to direct an action romp than the dude who helmed The Incredibles? It especially works because the action in these movies is often goofy and over the top.
Even if you haven’t seen this movie, you might be familiar with the most impressive stunt in it where Tom Cruise climbs the side of the Burj Khalifa, a super tall hotel whose sides are made up entirely of glass windows. It is pretty frickin’ incredible to watch and will make your adrenaline spike at the same time you’re laughing.
This movie probably also features one of my favorite car crashes ever (Tom Cruise purposefully driving off a ramp to go like twenty feet straight down).
Some of the movie doesn’t make much sense. But it’s so entertaining! You will laugh and enjoy. It’s not a chore. It’s just plain fun. The bad guy remains a mystery for a chunk of the movie and when he does finally appear he’s so underwhelming I can’t remember a single thing about him. But who cares? Tom Cruise climbs the Burj Khalifa!
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Choose this one if: You want a straightforward action film
Of all the options, this one most solidly falls into the modern action movie category. I say that sort of rudely because I think this is the movie with the least personality. It’s more watchable than the second movie in the franchise, but it does not have a style. At least you know John Woo is doing John Woo. This movie doesn’t have a stamp on it.
It definitely has its moments. The opening is fun. Some of the technology is ridiculous in a good way (like Simon Pegg’s book computer or whatever the hell that thing is).
But I think ultimately it’s the most forgettable. Maybe if it just had a little more fun. There’s a pretty good moment after Ethan Hunt sort of drowns where he’s trying to do his normal action movie star thing but he can’t. The physical damage makes him slow down. But only for a couple minutes until he’s leaping around on motorcycles again. I thought it would have been much funnier and more memorable if he couldn’t recover, forcing him into increasingly desperate mental gymnastics as Simon Pegg attempts on the physical work.
I do remember that there were two bad guys who looked vaguely the same and I couldn’t tell them apart. Not much else has stuck in my brain!
Mission Impossible: Fallout
Choose this one if: You like when the stakes, action scenes and characters have all been cranked up to 11, you like some brooding and consideration, you like to see an action hero stare down previous actions and face the consequences of those actions
The first half of this movie is pretty good. The second half is nuts.
That’s a compliment.
I watched this one over the course of two nights. At the end of night one, I was a little underwhelmed. There had been some good scenes and moments (the fight scene in the bathroom being one), but I was waiting for something to click. Where were my mask shenanigans? Where was Tom Cruise running as fast he could?
The next night I sat down and the second half delivered hard.
I actually do like that in the first half of the movie, Ethan Hunt is forced to think about some of what he’s done. The brooding was extremely dramatic, but I am a sucker for the late installment of a franchise letting you know that the main character is messed up. It only makes sense that Tom Cruise would be traumatized by some of what’s happened to him! It doesn’t always make for super entertaining storytelling, but damn it if I don’t appreciate the swing.
And, like I said, the sheer amount of over-the-top absolutely ridiculousness of the second half more than makes up for a slow start.
If I have failed to capture your mood or preferences here, let me know, and I’ll happily assign you a Mission: Impossible movie to watch.