(Photo by Paramount /Courtesy Everett Collection)
If you want to watch the Mission: Impossible movies in order and see Ethan Hunt get in his daily steps, fall from high up, take a deep breath, defy mask policy, catch a plane, and kick ass and chew bubblegum (he gets them from the IMF snack room), you can watch the movies as they released, no prequel plotting here.
Now, if you’re new to the series, do you actually need to watch all the Mission: Impossible movies in order? If you were a big fan of the original TV series, you’d probably give a bellowing NO, since the 1996 Mission: Impossible movie re-introduced the Jim Phelps hero role and then gave him a thoroughly impressive character assassination. But that’s just director Brian de Palma taking the piss out of the blockbuster and Tom Cruise taking the reins of the IP on his own terms.
So the first M:I movie is a perfectly good place to start if you’ve never seen the TV show, likely since it’s over 50 years old at this point. It’s also more of a spy thriller — all dense plotting and subdued action, but with an explosive set piece or two that would become the series’ trademark. There isn’t really an overarching story to Mission: Impossible until the latter-half of the franchise, but this movie does introduce support characters like hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames, who’s appeared in every movie) and then-IMF director Eugene Kittridge, who returns for Dead Reckoning.
Mission: Impossible 2 is the most skippable of the series, both in story and quality. Anyone who’s seen director John Woo’s Hong Kong stuff will likely find this one more palatable, believing that a man can fly and motorcycles can duel.
Cruise hand-picked J.J. Abrams to direct a soft reboot for Mission: Impossible III, which expands more of Hunt’s IMF team (including Simon Pegg’s Benji) and introduces Michelle Monaghan as Ethan’s fiancée Julia.
For the fourth Impossible, Ghost Protocol, Cruise made another unlikely choice for director: Brad Bird, making his live-action debut. This is where the series really establishes itself in the upper echelon of action filmmaking, and set the standard for death-defying practical stunts for each release.
Beginning with Rogue Nation and continuing into Fallout and the two Dead Reckoning entries (releasing a year apart starting 2023), director Christopher McQuarrie is the impresario of these ballets of bullets and espionage. The story has now fused into a single burning thread, with callbacks and character re-introductions now in play. —Alex Vo