My girlfriend and I recently watched the first three MIs back to back in order to see which is the best. I think we both agree on the ordering; 1) MI4, 2) MI3, 3) MI, 4) MI2. The ranking obscures the fact that the second movie is far worse than the other three.
Let me start with the first movie which doesn’t really fit into the franchise. Here is a movie with a lot of more traditional spycraft and all the paranoia you expect from your traditional spy novel. The iconic scene with Ethan hanging from the ceiling is still fantastic stuff dripping with tension, though it’s not clear why the French dude has to hold him up. Similarly, the point where Ethan puts all the pieces together is one of the best conspiracy resolutions put to film. Sadly the last act loses cogency and the ridiculous scene with the helicopter in the train tunnel and it’s explosion propelling Ethan onto the train shatters the careful plausibility of the rest of the film. Still a three out of four star movie.
The second movie is the one that sets the template for the rest of the series and yet is a real clunker with some appallingly bad moments. John Woo directs and I guess this was before everyone realized that he actually wasn’t very good. Dumb ideas abound, but the worst has to be the female lead’s decision to shoot herself up with the virus. Also nobody explains how the evil corporation will actually make money off the virus. It would look suspicious if the virus spread and they just happened to have the cure and governments could always appropriate the cure anyway.
As I said before this stepped away from the low-key spy thriller of the first movie to a more generic action film. So you would think that since Woo made his name on action sequences they would be good here? Well, you would be wrong. The shootout in the Chimera lab is inert and the final sequence where Ethan escapes is downright ludicrous. The bad guys try to run him over with motorcycles (you know rather than shooting him) and he does completely unnecessary rolls to evade them. The final hand to hand combat is drawn out by Ethan despite his love being on the clock and then in the final scene Ethan manages to kick a gun up, grab it, turn around and shoot the villain who already had a bead on him before he started. The bad guy must have the reflexes of a small child despite apparently being part of the Impossible Mission Force. Really awful stuff that would have aborted any other series.
We then come to the third film which rescues the series from the failure that was the previous film. This has a great opening scene where Cruise’s wife is killed by Phillip Seynour Hoffman as the villain. Unfortunately, it made me anxious to return to that point which didn’t happen until very nearly the end and it was in fact a big cheat. This kind of annoyed me, but I guess as a Hollywood blockbuster it can’t be too dark. Everything was competently directed and Hoffman was a completely credible villain who was refreshingly brutal and unfortunately, did not get enough screen time. The weakness of the whole film mostly comes from it’s reliance on Ethan’s relationship with his wife and his former student. Neither is well developed and yet much of the pathos in the film relies on his feelings for these two women. Yet for all that it was also three out of four star material.
As for the fourth film, well we didn’t watch that again and it was too long ago to give a fair review. All I can recall was that for a fourth movie it blew my expectations away and my memory places it as the best of the four films. What else could you expect from the director of the Incredibles?