The "Mission: Impossible" movie series is one of the best current action series - consistently delivering the goods with style. Their success hinges on the star, Tom Cruise, with his charismatic performance and dedication to performing stunts he really has no business doing. He famously suffered a broken leg performing a stunt for the sixth movie in the series, "Fallout," which opens this weekend. The incident reportedly made the final cut of the film. 

As the executive producer of this series, Cruise has been smart enough to work with some talented, unique filmmakers to create some memorable action sequences, even when the movies themselves might have been somewhat forgettable at times. But in this ranking of the first five movies in the series, even the one ranked at the bottom is still better than most action drek that makes it into theaters. 

I've said I will watch as many of these "Mission: Impossible" movies as Cruise wants to make. At 56 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down. Hey, if Harrison Ford can come back as Indiana Jones at age 76, Cruise's stamina should keep us supplied with "Missions" for the next 40 years or more - right?  

Here's my ranking of the movies so far:

5. "Mission: Impossible 2"

The sequel to the 1996 smash hit was a major departure in tone from the first. It was an over-the-top, empty-headed action movie rather than an intelligent spy thriller. Director Brian De Palma was replaced with veteran action director John Woo, who just had to bring his stupid doves to the proceedings. 

Cruise's Ethan Hunt seemed superhuman, rather than mildly relatable (say nothing for his new rock star hair). The movie over-uses those tricky masks, and the action sequences are eye-rolling. The finale involves Cruise and the Bad Guy driving motorcycles at each other at full-speed, head-on, and crashing into each other with a bear hug. It's a sequence so nonsensical, Roger Moore's James Bond would scoff at it. Oh, and the "Mission" theme was re-imagined by Limp Bizkit. Yeah, forgot about that, didn't you?

But even with all these problems, I'll watch "M:I-2" if I ever pass by it channel surfing. It's fun in a way that it's fun to play with a dumb dog who keeps doing the only trick it knows over and over. 

4. "Mission: Impossible: Rogue Nation"

I just re-watched the last movie in the series this week for the first time since I saw it in theaters in 2015.  I'll confess I only remembered certain scenes rather than the details of the plot. And in the end, that's really all that sticks even after a second viewing. I thoroughly enjoyed it, though, as Director Christopher McQuarrie stages some of the series' most impressive action sequences (a motorcycle chase through Morocco and the fight at the Vienna Opera House are both stunners). It also contains one of the most amazing Cruise stunts - hanging on to the side of a plane as it takes off.

It all works so well that McQuarrie was asked to return for the sixth "Mission" movie - making him the first repeat director. "Rogue Nation" also contains the series' best female character by far in Ilsa Faust, played by Rebecca Ferguson.

3. "Mission: Impossible III"

Director J.J. Abrams certainly made this his movie - complete with the plotting fake-outs and time-jumping he became known for in his TV writing for "Alias," and "Lost." He's a capable action director, but the movie lacks a real "wow" moment. There are three main reasons I enjoy this third installment:

  • Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the best villain of the entire series. He nearly steals the whole movie with a performance that indicates he's having a great time. (Oh, but there's that ridiculous plot point where Cruise's Hunt poses as Hoffman with a mask - not like they have similar body types, right?)
  • There are real emotional stakes as the movie opens with the (apparent) murder of Hunt's wife. It adds some darkness and gravity to the proceedings that the other movies don't really have - until it's revealed to be a rouse with another one of those stupid masks. 
  • Abrams acknowledges that nothing in these movies matter. Hoffman and Cruise are after something called "The Rabbit's Foot," but we are never told what the thing does or why it's so valuable. It's a very clever commentary on how movies like this are constructed. We hardly ever really care about the "MacGuffin" or what the Bad Guy is really up to, do we? Abrams knows that, and makes a pretty good joke out of it.

2. "Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol" 

Everything works in "Ghost Protocol", which represented a shift in the series and established the formula for future installments. It tells one of the best stories of all the movies, added welcome comedy relief in Simon Pegg, and forced Cruise into a game of topping himself with stunts. This fourth installment contains the series' most amazing sequence with Cruise dangling off the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa in Dubai). It's a scene that still makes my head spin. 

That. Is. Amazing. Sorry, Rock - I'm sure "Skyscraper" is cute. 

A lot of the credit for "Ghost Protocol" being so good belongs to writer and director Brad Bird. He may have seemed an odd choice to direct a "Mission" movie at the time, until one remembers he wrote and directed a dandy of an action movie in 2004 with the first "Incredibles" (which he just pulled off again with the sequel). Bird's quippy writing also smartly comments on the absurdity of so much of what we're seeing, but without making "Ghost Protocol" a parody of the "Mission" movies. It's perfectly balanced, like Ethan Hunt on the side of a skyscraper. 

1. "Mission: Impossible"

The first one is still the best, in part, because it was such a radical kind of blockbuster. Producing his first movie, Cruise chose director Brian De Palma - a true auteur. De Palma had made big movies before, ("The Untouchables," "Scarface") but this was going to be different. His "Mission" is a twisty spy thriller where the action works in service to the story, rather than the other way around as with the rest of this series. People whined the story was too complicated, but I just think they didn't want to be challenged during a summer movie (they'd just watched cows in tornadoes with "Twister" two weeks prior to this movie's release). 

It's a genuinely tense thriller where beads of sweat and heavy breathing are more nerve-wracking than simply running from explosions. The scene in the vault with Hunt on wires is instantly iconic.

I'm guessing the negative response to De Palma's hyper-intelligent cloak-and-dagger is the reason the series took a hard left over-correcting turn into stupid with "M:I-2." After 22 years, the first "Mission" more than holds up in a series packed with heavy-hitters.