When a much-hyped sequel is released, one question seems to pop up time and time again: "Do I have to see the others to get this one?" For the most part, when you're dealing with a franchise that has as much momentum as the Mission: Impossible films, we're hardly discussing an ongoing storyline. Yes, there are nods toward past plotlines, and familiar characters in greater or lesser capacities, but those 15 minutes of script devoted to continuity could easily be removed and replaced, leaving the audience with an entirely new film to be spun-off-of and, eventually, driven into the ground.
So, with a film like Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (which marks the first but inevitable film in the series to fall under the modern film statute of "We Can't Use Numbers in the Title Anymore"), the answer is no. Of course you don't need to see the other films. It's a raucous, straight-ahead action film, and it does what the M:I films do best: over-the-top spy shenanigans, extremely tense and unfailingly exciting action sequences, and occasionally throwing Tom Cruise through the air through the use of an explosion. In this film, that explosion happens to be the entire Kremlin, and that supposed act of terrorism forces the U.S. to shut down IMF, the agency which Cruise's Ethan Hunt works for, and forces his strike force of specialist agents to go rogue, unearthing the plot behind the bombing and the true motivations of those behind it, while clearing their names, as well as exonerating their agency.
I watched the film having never done my research, never seeing the previous three films and understanding little about them save what I was able to gleen from my normal absorption of popular culture, and upon leaving the theater I was truly impressed. So impressed I then backtracked and watched the M:I predecessors. If anything, strangely, the film might be better viewing if you haven't experienced the first three, simply because you're unaware of the few tongue-in-cheek references to the other films that show up, inorganically, at several points throughout the film. Coming in fresh and bare, untainted by the earlier films, you can see the movie as amost a one-shot joyride, and there's a kind of exciting purity in that. At the fourth film of the series, if they've managed to not completely botch a basic spy-drama action film storyline, they pretty much know what they're doing when it comes to a Mission: Impossible film, and we pretty much know what we're getting when we head in.
It's actually liberating, watching a film that is not attempting in any way to present a realistic portrayal of the secret agent. Jason Bourne did a good enough job of rebooting the spy film for a more discerning and particular audience. Damon and screenwriter Tony Gilroy gave us the blockbuster-cum-thriller that the sensibilities of modern audiences need, it seems, to ground the genre. But when you watch Ethan Hunt rappelling off the Burj Kalifa (and all credit to Cruise, he apparently performed the stunt himself) and witness a man being floated into a giant computer, suspended in a chainmail suit above a magnetic rover-esque robot you know which direction your suspension of disbelief is coming from, and you're free to release yourself into a truly ridiculous but ultimately entertaining world of espionage and intrigue.
Well shot and capably acted, no one is expecting Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol to be an Oscar contender or a cult hit, but it's a great movie to watch if you're looking for a fun night out and you want to see Tom Cruise in what is, perhaps, the last role in which the human race is prepared to tolerate him.