Our mission — and we decided to accept it — is to rank from least to best all six of the “Mission: Impossible” thrillers toplined by Tom Cruise as Impossible Missions Force agent Ethan Hunt.
6. Mission: Impossible III (2006)
THE PITCH: When he isn’t busy wooing, and eventually wedding, Julia Meade (Michelle Monaghan), a nurse who knows nothing about his spy-guy activities, Ethan Hunt leads his IMF team in pursuit of a MacGuffinish device (known as “Rabbit’s Foot”) coveted by arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
THE RUNDOWN: Despite the game efforts of director J.J. Abrams to humanize Ethan by supplying a civilian romantic interest — and showing he’s not so ruthless that he’d make good on his threat to drop an uncooperative bad guy out of an airplane — the threepeat is a curiously bland spectacle that is nothing more (or, to be fair, less) than the sum of its sporadically exciting action set pieces. Not surprisingly, it is the lowest-grossing entry in the entire franchise (so far).
THE SCORE: 2 ½ out of 5 stars.
5. Mission: Impossible (1996)
THE PITCH: After IMF chief Jim Phelps (Jon Voight) dies in the line of duty — yeah, right — special agent Ethan Hunt must assume command of a mission to keep a list of deep-cover CIA operatives from being sold by an IMF mole.
THE RUNDOWN: More than a few fans of the original “Mission: Impossible” television series were positively furious when Brian De Palma’s big-screen, franchise-spawning reboot turned Phelps (played on TV by Peter Graves) into a traitor. No, really. Twenty-two years later, however, the most unsettling thing about the movie is the quaintly retro look of formerly cutting-edge technology (note the floppy discs and portentous references to “The Internet”). On the other hand, some things never look dated: Hunt’s wire-supported drop into a high-security CIA vault remains one of the most suspenseful (and frequently imitated) heist sequences in all of movie history. And there’s still something richly amusing about the shameless flirting between Tom Cruise’s boyish Hunt and Vanessa Redgrave’s bemused arms dealer.
THE SCORE: 3 out of 5 stars.
4. Mission: Impossible II (2000)
THE PITCH: Ethan Hunt convinces beautiful thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) to renew her affair with IMF turncoat Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) in order to retrieve vials of an artificially created virus. Complications arise when Hunt falls for Nyah — and she is infected with the virus.
THE RUNDOWN: Although relatively restrained when compared to director John Woo’s dizzyingly kinetic and flamboyantly stylized previous films (“The Killer,” “Hard Boiled,” “Face-Off,” etc.), this chronically and unfairly under-rated sequel serves up a generous amount of suspense-fraught thrills and impressively choreographed spills, along with a side order of borderline-operatic emotional intensity. Yes, the climactic seaside confrontation between Ethan and Ambrose (first on motorcycles, then up-close and lethal) is outrageously over the top. But, well, it’s supposed to be. Also worth noting: The sly allusions to Alfred Hitchcock classics, especially “Notorious” (the racetrack sequence and the entire Ethan/Nyah relationship) and “North by Northwest” (Ambrose’s back-and-forth with an underling played by Richard Roxburgh echoes the vaguely kinky give-and-take between James Mason and Martin Landau).
THE SCORE: 3 ½ out of 5 stars.
3. Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011)
THE PITCH: After Ethan Hunt is (wrongly) blamed for destroying a significant section of the Kremlin, the Impossible Missions Force is temporarily disbanded. On his own, he employs three comrades — techie Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), special op Jane Carter (Paula Patton) and “intelligence analyst” William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) — to stop a deranged Russian nuclear strategist (Michael Nyqvist) from triggering World War III because… because… well, because he wants to.
THE RUNDOWN: Making a smashingly successful debut as a live-action director, Brad Bird (“The Iron Giant,” “The Incredibles”) propels the globe-hopping narrative at an entertainingly brisk clip, pausing only for such sensational set pieces as Ethan’s death-defying dangling outside an upper-floor of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (a.k.a. “The Tallest Structure in the World”) and a climactic confrontation on various levels of a Mumbai automated parking garage. And yet: The primary appeal of “M:I4” is its wink-wink willingness to repeatedly demonstrate how the high-tech gadgetry sometimes doesn’t work — at one point, even the usually reliable mask-making dingus is glitched — forcing Ethan and his teammates to improvise while ratcheting up the suspense. (This occasionally happened on the old TV show as well.) Only complaint: Franchise mainstay Ving Rhames appears only in a fleeting cameo as ace computer hacker Luther Stickell. (By the way: You know that Ethan/Julia marriage in in the third “M:I” movie? It is more or less removed from the equation here.
THE SCORE: 4 out of 5 stars.
2. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015)
THE PITCH: Overcoming efforts by CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) to absorb the IMF into his agency, Ethan leads compatriots Benji Dunn, William Brandt and Luther Stickell in a mission to neutralize The Syndicate, a rogue outfit led by fanatical former British spy Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). Another Brit operative — the formidable Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson)— may be friend or foe.
THE RUNDOWN: Writer-director Christopher McQuarrie keeps the franchise firing on all cylinders while effectively emphasizing, to a degree greater than in previous “M:I” films, IMF teamwork as much as Ethan’s solo derring-do. The most memorable sequence is at once low-tech and highly suspenseful, an ingeniously sustained, cleverly Hitchcockian backstage skirmish during a performance at a Vienna opera house. (Bad guys wish to assassinate someone; Ethan doesn’t want that someone to be assassinated.) And it’s nice to see that Ethan isn’t the only one who gets to kick ass during a final-reel face-off: Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust is a knockout as she causes grievous bodily harm to a villain who foolishly mistakes her for just another pretty face.
THE SCORE: 4 ½ out of 5 stars.
1. Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)
THE PITCH: Ethan once again deals with a hostile takeover attempt as new CIA boss Erica Sloan (Angela Bassett) demands that her hand-picked operative, August Walker (Henry Cavill), go along for the ride to observe and report (and, maybe, eliminate) while our hero tries to retrieve three plutonium cores seized by The Apostles, an offshoot of The Syndicate (see “Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation”).
THE RUNDOWN: The latest and best entry in the ongoing franchise certainly can stand on its own as a rousing rush of breakneck excitement and sensational stunt work. (Credit “Rogue Nation” writer-director Christopher McQuarrie with leaping over the bar he raised in the previous outing.) But for anyone who’s been following the adventures of Ethan Hunt over the past 22 years, “Fallout” is all the more satisfying as a cinematic class reunion, with pointed allusions to images and incidents from previous “M:I” movies (note the reprise of Ethan’s rock-climbing from the opening of “M:I2”)and welcome return appearances by long-time and recently introduced series regulars. As Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise has aged gracefully into something like gravitas while maintaining his boundless and infectious enthusiasm. And Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell and Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn do standout double-duty as backup crew and Greek chorus, playing it fast-and-frantically straight during the turbo-charged action but also offering wink-wink observations about Ethan’s trademark penchant for unpremeditated risk-taking. All that’s missing is a paraphrase of Britney Spears: “Whoops! He did it again!” The very best thing about “Fallout,” of course, is that it leaves you hoping that Ethan Hunt will keep on doing it.
THE SCORE: 5 out of 5 stars.