If you believe the press, Tom Cruise's latest mission -- should he choose to accept it -- is to rescue his career from obliteration. After all the couch-jumping, Scientology rantings, the birth of TomKat Suri Cruise-Wagner, and his very public ouster from former studio home Paramount, the media tells us that the public has fallen out of love with Cruise, who is now apparently perceived as either too old, too irrelevant or just plain too crazy to continue to rule Hollywood. It's an assertion that is certainly debatable, but one which does have at least one number to back it up -- the lackluster grosses for the mega-star's anticipated return to box office supremacy, 'Mission: Impossible III.' The would-be blockbuster took in "only" $135-odd million at the domestic box office this past summer, a hefty sum by most estimations, but still not up to snuff for such a major franchise. To put it into perspective. 'M:I III' was beaten at the multiplexes by 'The Devil Wears Prada' -- who ever thought Meryl Streep and that chick from 'The Princess Diaries' would outgross Tom Cruise as a superspy?
But whatever the reasons for 'M:I III's apparent failure to rack up huge box office numbers, on its own terms it actually plays rather well, and on multiple levels: as a spy caper, a thriller and a domestic drama. And this is coming from someone who cared little for either earlier installment in the franchise. Perhaps 'M:I III' is just the kind of movie whose flaws are less egregious when it's only a Netflix rental, or maybe the talents of director J.J Abrams (TV's 'Lost,' 'Alias') are simply better suited for the small screen. But I was thoroughly entertained by just about every second of Ethan Hunt's third adventure, even if that Tom Cruise guy really is nuts.
To try and recap the convoluted plot would be useless, so let's just call 'M:I III' the one where Hunt does the chick flick thing and gets all gooey with the fiancee (Michelle Monaghan), and is only reluctantly pulled back into the spy business after an ex-partner (Keri Russell, of Abrams' 'Felicity') is killed during a botched mission. Perhaps that seems odd, given the past two M:I adventures, where Hunt carried little romantic baggage and certainly would have given James Bond a run for his money. But despite preconceptions of Abrams as some sort of tech-geek or sci-fi nut (his upcoming restart of the 'Star Trek' franchise notwithstanding), one look at his TV efforts such as 'Felicity,' 'Six Degrees' and 'What About Brian?" should quickly dispel such theories. 'M:I III' is quintessential Abrams material, with the emotional heart of the story Ethan's push-pull relationship between career and family, not all the hi-tech gadgetry and spy movie cliches.
Granted, 'M:I III' does often play like an extended episode of Abrams' beloved 'Alias.' Though the action sequences are as slick as anything Hollywood has put out and the film is lightning-paced, there is little personality to all the mayhem when the romantic angle is not front and center. It is almost as if Abrams handed over all the spy and action stuff to the second unit and focused with laser-like precision on the domestic drama. Which isn't a bad thing, really -- at least 'M:I III,' for the first time in the series, finds Hunt in a mission with real emotional consequences. That gives the film a extra level of tension and resonance missing from the first two adventures, and is certainly a trademark of Abrams' small screen efforts.
Abrams also surrounds Cruise with a great supporting cast. Recent Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman overdoes it a bit as arch-villain Owen Davian, but his sparrings with Cruise are both vicious and hilarious. (I also longed for a better demise for Davian, which is far too anti-climactic for such a thoroughly despicable character.) Ving Rhames is also back as Luther Stickell, sort of Ethan Hunt's "Q," and I enjoyed the addition of Billy Crudup as a duplicitous CIA operative, and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as Hunt's crafty gadget specialist. We even get a great extended cameo by genre fave Simon ('Shaun of the Dead') Pegg, who really should be a bit more famous by now. 'M:I III' may turn off some diehard fans of the series by downplaying the action a bit in favor of drama, but this is far from the boondoggle some in the press have made it out to be, box office be damned.
Paramount is making high-def history by releasing 'Mission: Impossible III' simultaneously on HD DVD and Blu-ray day-and-date with the standard-def DVD -- a first for a top-shelf, A-list new release. 'M:I III' is also the only release on either format to get two full discs, one for the movie, and one for the majority of the extras. That's exciting news, because it means the HD DVD (on an HD-30, 30GB dual-layer disc) boasts a very high bitrate -- only the HD DVD exclusive, picture-in-picture video commentary really takes up any discernible additional disc space. Note also that the HD DVD version has been encoded using the VC-1 codec (the Blu-ray is MPEG-2, but more on that in a minute).
Disc types and codecs aside, 'M:I III' looks magnificent on HD DVD. This 2.40:1 widescreen, 1080p transfer rivals what is probably the best live-action title out there on the format, 'Batman Begins.' I don't think I can pick a favorite among the two, but this is definitely first-rate demo material. The source material is predictably pristine. Interestingly (and as you'll learn more about in the extras), 'M:I III' was shot using both anamorphic 35mm film and 24 frames-per-second HD video, yet the image looks, for the most part, surprisingly consistent. I imagine director J.J. Abrams chose this dual-format approach to filming to both allow for flexibility when it came to filming effects-heavy scenes in HD, though the two disparate technologies actually match up quite well. Blacks and contrast are terrific throughout. Sure, there are many low-light, rather "hot" sequences with slightly blown-out whites and noticeable film/video "grain," but the HD DVD replicates the theatrical showing I saw and gives the movie the appropriate slick but gritty texture. I know some may complain that a specific shot here or there can look slightly less sharp than another, or more grainy, but I'm not going to knock any points off this transfer for what appears to be stylistically intentional.
Detail and depth are also fabulous. 'M:I III' boasts one of the most three-dimensional images I've yet seen on high-def, period. For example, in the very cool scene where Ethan Hunt "impersonates" the evil Owen Davian, the amount of visible detail and texture to the interiors of the art museum Hunt and company infiltrate is often extraordinary. I was also impressed by the nighttime sequence in Shanghai, where Hunt performs a death-defying (if completely ludicrous) building-to-building bungee jump. The glittery surfaces of the structures look great, even in the wide shots. The dual-format filming technique also benefits the colors. Reproduction is heightened -- these are impossibly real colors, so vibrant that they can literally leap off the screen (I know, hyperbole, but I couldn't resist). Yet stability is always dead-on, and smearing and chroma noise don't intrude.
So, how do the HD DVD and Blu-ray stack up? Perhaps it is the mega-bitrate afforded both transfers -- and I know I might get taken to task by some for even daring to say this -- but this is one comparison that makes a pretty good case for MPEG-2. It seems clear that, with enough bits behind it, the codec is not ready to be put out to pasture just yet (VC-1 was developed and optimized with low bitrate applications in mind, so is less space-hungry). Compression artifacts, posterization and macroblocking are just not a problem on either version. Black, color reproduction and overall detail are consistently impressive regardless of codec, and of all the dual-format releases I've yet seen, 'M:I III' is probably the best proof that both HD DVD and Blu-ray are clearly able to deliver absolutely first-rate video quality when at their best. Yes, I'm sure if there was enough time in the world to go through and compare the entire film frame-by-frame, perhaps there could be some differences noticeable. And there is no telling how 'M:I III' may have looked on Blu-ray had it been encoded with VC-1 (or AVC MPEG-4, for that matter.) But both the HD DVD and the Blu-ray of 'M:I III' packed equal punch for me. If nothing else, 'M:I III' should be great fuel for proponents on both sides as to what their preferred format is capable of.
'Mission: Impossible III' may look great, but if it didn't sound great, too, this release would be a wash. Thankfully, the Dolby Digital-Plus track on this HD DVD delivers in spades.(Note that we've received updated info that the HD DVD is in fact encoded at 1.5mbps, though Paramount has yet to confirm to us the bitrate for the Blu-ray.) Of course, the big disappointment here is that no lossless mix is offered. According to the latest info from Paramount, that's because the studio is still concerned with compatibility issues with current next-gen hardware. However, that should change very soon, as even Toshiba's first-gen HD DVD players are now Dolby TrueHD-ready, and a wealth of new Blu-ray models are hitting stores this holiday season that promise to support such uncompressed formats as DTS-HD Master Audio.
That caveat aside, 'M:I III" just about breaks the sound barrier even in its compressed form. This is one gangbusters soundtrack, and I expected no less. Dynamics are fantastic. Rare is the Dolby Digital soundtrack I've heard with such transparent imaging and highly aggressive discrete effects. Sound transitions are seamless, creating a truly immersive 360-degree soundfield. Notable sequences include the early helicopter-through-the-windmills chase, the big bridge destruction mash-up and the high-rise bungee jump. These are reference quality scenes that belong on the top shelf of every enthusiast's library of great demo material. Pure tonal quality of sounds is also stunning. Low bass is incredibly deep and rock solid. Also very impressive is how differentiated minor sounds are -- even hushed dialogue and minor ambient effects, such as the crowd noise and songs in the early party scenes, is incredibly intricate and detailed. I can only imagine what a TrueHD or DTS-HD version of this soundtrack would feel like -- I actually hope Paramount someday re-issues this one someday. But even as is, this is likely the best Dolby Digital-Plus track you're going to hear on HD DVD.
'Mission: Impossible III' continued to make headlines when it was announced that the majority of the HD DVD's features (as well as Blu-ray) would be presented in full 1080p high-def video. However, I'm not putting any of these extras in the HD Bonus Content section below, if only because the material is the same as the standard-def DVD release. That said, as I wrote in my review of the Blu-ray 'Click,' watching well-produced supplemental content in 1080p is an experience I could really, really get used to. It just elevates the material to a new level, and gives you the kind of consistent, immersive HD experience that the majority of next-gen disc releases thus far have only hinted at.
Now, onto the good stuff. First up (on the main movie disc), we have a screen-specific audio commentary with filmmaker J.J. Abrams and some guy named Tom Cruise. I was genuinely surprised by this track. I don't know -- I just expected some fluffy Tom Cruise-on-autopilot thing, but this commentary is anything but. Though Cruise often defers to Abrams (say what you want about Cruise, but the guy at least knows how to act humble, even if it is a performance), the information comes almost non-stop. Funny and at times ironic is how differently both view the material -- Abrams likens it to a cartoon that is both over-the-top and nearly absurd, while Cruise takes his role so seriously at times you almost expect James Lipton to chime in with rapturous applause. But this is still a very cool, relentlessly listenable track, and certainly a must-listen for diehard fans and casual admirers like.
The majority of the video-based extras are found on disc two. First up is the 28-minute "The Making of the 'Mission.'" This one is your prototypical EPK, and plays largely like a digest version of the shorter, more focused featurettes that follow. Fairly good, if predictable, stuff -- Abrams, Cruise and fellow cast members all talk about the thrill of being involved in a third 'Mission: Impossible,' and Cruise also briefly touches on his hopes and expectations for Abrams' take on the material, specifically on developing the Ethan Hunt character beyond the two-dimensions seen in previous installments in the series.
Better are the six more specific featurettes that follow which, combined, form a very comprehensive, hour-plus documentary that benefits greatly from the direct input of Abrams and Cruise. "Inside the IMF" (21 minutes), "Visualizing the Scenes" (11 minutes) and "'Mission' Unit: Inside the Action" (26 minutes) are probably the most familiar of the bunch. Maybe I'm just a bit tired of CGI, green screen explosions, stunt men flipping over cars, etc., but there isn't too much here that we haven't seen before on other in-depth, effects-geared making-ofs. I enjoyed "Inside the IMF" the most, as it gives us some genuine insight on the story and characters, and if it wasn't already clear where Abrams' main interests laid with 'M:I III's story, this proves it.
More fun for me were "'Mission' Metamorphosis" (8 minutes), "Scoring the 'Mission'" (5 minutes) and "Launching the 'Mission'" (15 minutes). "Metamorphosis" is particularly cool, as it details how they created the film's most enjoyable sequence, the "assimilation" of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I'm also always glad to see composers getting their due, though "Scoring the 'Mission'" suffers from being a bit too short. I also enjoyed the global premiere footage of "Launching the 'Mission,'" even if the smug, smiling Cruise gets to be a bit much after 15 minutes.
More promo material includes an 8-minute "Moviefone Unscripted" interview that Cruise and Abrams conducted for the online ticket service, plus two domestic theatrical trailers, a theatrical teaser, another Japanese theatrical trailer, and six TV spots. All but the "Moviefone Unscripted" segment and the TV spots are in 1080p video and Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 audio.
But wait, there's more. We also get five deleted scenes, again in 1080p and 5.1. Unfortunately, at barely five minutes in length, there is little here to get really excited about. All character bits, but no unused plot twists or the like. Still, it is sweet to see deleted material that most studios just puke out on disc be treated so kindly. We also get what has to be a first, a Photo Gallery in HD. Largely comprised of onset production photographs plus some publicity stills (totaling about 100 images), it is still fun to give this one a look, again if only to see still- and text-based extras presented in such fine quality.
Lastly, we have the only piece of pure fluff on the disc. The "2005 Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence in Film" excerpt is just a four-minute montage of scenes from Cruise's best movies, plus the actor accepting the honors. Certainly skippable.
'Mission: Impossible III" as a film has already earned the distinction of being labeled a disappointment, but it is no stinker. Though it is understandable that many have become turned off by Tom Cruise, 'M:I III' is a strong thriller in its own right, and for me, it is superior to the first two installments in the franchise. As for this HD DVD release, it is a major home run for Paramount. Fantastic video, fantastic audio, and tons of HD content make this perhaps the best demo material available thus far on the format. Unless you absolutely hate Tom Cruise, this one is a must-own just to show off what next-gen high-def can do.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.