The Mission: Impossible soundtracks ranked from Danny Elfman to Lorne Balfe

One does not get to Mission: Impossible without invoking that classic Lalo Schifrin theme. Rendered in an unusual 5/4 time signature, the theme helped define the very essence of espionage, its fat brassy sound and tapping bongos lending a dynamic and slyly tongue-in-cheek tone to the exploits of the IMF.

Both this theme and Schifrin's accompanying, 'let's get the plan done' Plot Theme have been interwoven into the scores for the big-screen Mission: Impossible movies. With Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One now on release, it's time to celebrate the musical heritage of the series again, as composer Lorne Balfe deploys his second score for the franchise. Take a listen to the following extract.


Scroll down to discover our definitive ranking of the Mission: Impossible soundtracks to date.


6. Mission: Impossible II (Hans Zimmer, 2000)

The John Woo-helmed Mission: Impossible II took a lot of flack for deviating away from the classic espionage aesthetic. But it remains a lot of fun in all its hair-flying, motorbike-duelling glory, and Hans Zimmer's electric guitar-heavy score gets the vibe immediately. It almost certainly abandons the classic Mission: Impossible sound, but in a movie this operatic, the composer has to go with the flow.

From the Eric Clapton-esque guitar wailing for Dougray Scott's villain Sean Ambrose to Lisa Gerrard's Gladiator-aping vocal work for the relationship between Ethan and Nyah (Thandiwe Newton), there's no denying that Zimmer (who reunites with Woo following their collaboration on 1996's Broken Arrow) re-authors the aural tone of the franchise in his own image.

Zimmer's lineage shines through with overtones of his earlier classic scores including Drop Zone (1994) and Crimson Tide (1995), plus the aforementioned Gladiator. The score is big, bold and bombastic – exactly what we've come to expect from the composer.

5. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (Lorne Balfe, 2018)

Lorne Balfe's first Mission: Impossible score impressively walks the line between the sonic overload of his mentor, Hans Zimmer, and the musical intricacy that earmarked Lalo Schifrin's work on the original TV series. The result is a true hybrid score, one that's both contemporary and retro, with a recognisable foot in the post-Hans Zimmer, Inception-style 'bwaaams' and also the eerie ivory-tinkling for the internecine subterfuge moments.

Although Balfe appears to be conforming to many a convention of a 21st-century action score, he brilliantly juices the mix with unexpected tempo shifts and instrumental stylistics. Take the elegance of the piano intercutting with the brass and strings as Ethan Hunt pursues the evil August Walker (Henry Cavill) across the London rooftops, or the tapping bongos, a series hallmark, during their bruising cliffside showdown.

Throughout, Balfe makes excellent and inventive use of the Schifrin quotations, playing them in counterpoint to the orchestral mass. It's a 'heavier' sounding score than most of its Mission brethren (a byproduct of the era in which it was composed), but Balfe more than makes his mark on the series.

4. Mission: Impossible (Danny Elfman, 1996)

The first Mission: Impossible movie is arguably the most distinctive of the lot, played more as a paranoid, creepy thriller than a set-piece-laden extravaganza. Director Brian De Palma originally hired Alan Silvestri to work on the score but had him removed when allegedly, the composer's guitar-heavy sound didn't fit with the mood of the piece.

De Palma and Cruise then made the inspired decision to get Danny Elfman on board. Having risen to the top via his collaborations with Tim Burton, Elfman was undergoing an experimental shift in his music in the mid-90s, playing around more with a raw sense of rhythm and bracing electronics (Dead Presidents et al).

While staying loyal to the two Schifrin themes, Elfman also asserts his influence with an eclectic onslaught of operatic tragedy (the opening Prague massacre) and intricate cells of brass, piano and strings that feel as condensed and claustrophobic as De Palma's camerawork. When it all euphorically erupts in orchestral majesty during the climactic Eurotunnel fight, one cheers at how the score finally lets itself off the hook.

3. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (Michael Giacchino, 2011)

In the second of his two Mission: Impossible scores, blockbuster veteran Michael Giacchino demonstrates once again why he's the heir apparent to the likes of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Giacchino's rich orchestral arrangements are bolted to a distinctive sense of theme and melody, calibrating tempo in line with the temperature of certain scenes and timing the arrival of the Schifrin themes so they land with maximum impact.

One must credit Giacchino's regular collaborator Brad Bird for coaxing the best out of the composer. There's more than a sense of the wit from their earlier collaboration on The Incredibles (2004) as the brass section apes and evolves the classic spy scores of yore. Bird also gets Giacchino to regularly shake things up, from the Soviet pastiche choir during the Kremlin bombing sequence to the snazzy Middle Eastern stylistics for the scenes set in Dubai and India.

Giacchino's attention to musical detail is capable of amplifying intimate moments of fraught, physical humour (the repetitive winds and timpani during the Burj Khalifa ascent) and the grandiose set-pieces (the sandstorm chase that also incorporates a funky drum kit element a la Schifrin).

2. Mission: Impossible III (Michael Giacchino, 2006)

Still, Giacchino's best work on the series was the first mission that he undertook. Mission: Impossible III reunited Giacchino with his Lost and Alias collaborator J.J. Abrams and they've subsequently styled themselves very much in the Steven Spielberg/John Williams mold, following the rousing likes of Super 8 (2011) and the Star Trek reboots.

Remarkably, Mission: Impossible III was Giacchino's first-ever live-action blockbuster score. You'd never know it from the resounding punch that he generates from the Hollywood Studio Symphony, the orchestral might lending genuine desperation to Ethan Hunt's battle with the ruthless Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Amidst plenty of witty flourishes, including the low-end piano and bass flutes for the Vatican infiltration sequence, Giacchino expertly pits Schifrin's two central themes against each other in counterpoint throughout the score. This gives the composer's work a delightful sense of retro heritage even as he works in his own musical voice, a welcome breath of fresh air following the excesses of Mission: Impossible II.

1. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (Joe Kraemer, 2015)

The greatest aspects of Danny Elfman and Michael Giacchino's work come together in Joe Kraemer's confident and muscular score for the fifth movie in the series, Rogue Nation. Relatively uncluttered by electronics and possessing a crisp orchestral mix in the mold of genre masters like Jerry Goldsmith, it's arguably the finest score in the series to date, mixing up a host of new and familiar themes in one pacy package as Kraemer reunites with his Way of the Gun collaborator Christopher McQuarrie.

As ever, there are judicious quotations of the main Mission: Impossible theme to punctuate moments of heroism. The Plot theme is also well-utilised, especially its thunderous application during the opening plane sequence. However, Kraemer goes deeper into the side characters than his predecessors managed to do, fashioning a genuinely portentous and chilling piece for Sean Harris' Syndicate villain Solomon Lane, which pervades the score and movie with a sense of threat.

Counter-acting this, Kraemer quotes Puccini's classic opera Nessun Dorma in his theme for Rebecca Ferguson's Ilsa. It not only alludes to the pivotal Prague opera meeting between her and Hunt, which is where their partnership officially takes off, but also lends poignant melancholic weight to Ilsa's compromised position between the forces of good and evil.

It's a fabulous decision that musically humanises the character, just as the Syndicate theme lends greater depth to a villain who could otherwise be a flavour-of-the-month antagonist. Bolt all this to a terrific onslaught of propulsive action (the Morocco motorbike chase threatens to blow one's ears off with its fiendish brass and string runs) and it's easy to understand why Kraemer's work hasn't yet been topped.

Where will Lorne Balfe's new score for Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One rank on this list? Click the link below to get your tickets for the movie, on release now at Cineworld.