Non format-specific portions of this review were also published in our Blu-ray review of 'Mission: Impossible - Ultimate Missions Collection.'
Non format-specific portions of this review were also published in our Blu-ray review of 'Mission: Impossible - Ultimate Missions Collection.'
What is it about boys and James Bond? Is there not a major A-list leading man who hasn't at one point or other wanted to do his own spin on that long-running franchise? Even if a Tom Cruise or a Matt Damon would never want the long-term baggage that comes with playing such an iconic character as Bond, it is not hard to see such popular franchises as the 'Mission: Impossible' and Jason Bourne films as their way to live out their boyhood spy fantasies yet still enjoy the fruits of a piloting a big blockbuster franchise that rests entirely on their broad shoulders. It is hard not to imagine that a young Cruise, who once was a geeky high school kid just like the rest of us, didn't go to see the latest Bond flick in the theater and, giddy with excitement, rush home to practice his best one-liners in front of the mirror (in his underwear). And with the 'Mission: Impossible' series, he finally achieved his dream.
So in honor of Mr. Cruise and all the wanna-be Bonds out there in Hollywood, Paramount presents the 'Ultimate Missions Collection' box set. Making its debut simultaneously on HD DVD, Blu-ray and standard-def DVD, it pulls together all three entries in the franchise and "declassifies" them with a host of bonus features. And as the first box set for both Blu-ray and HD DVD -- a milestone in high-def history -- it is a tidy package with plenty to recommend in terms of video and audio quality and breadth of supplemental content. So even if the 'M:I' films are arguably not great films in and of themselves, they do seem tailor-made for the high-def experience. So, your mission -- should you choose to accept it -- is to survive this brief history of 'Mission: Impossible':
The series began with 'Mission: Impossible' in 1996. Directed by Brian De Palma, things didn't exactly start off with a bang, at least to my eye. Plotty, emotionally inert and far too convoluted for its own good, I've seen the flick about three times now and I still can't figure out what the heck is going on for most of the movie. Though I will give De Palma props for not simply replicating the flat look of the TV show on the big screen -- lots of typical De Palma elaborate camera moves in this one -- ultimately, the film doesn't amount to much. None of Hunt's team registers (Emilio Estevez is wasted, while Emmanuelle Beart is an utterly forgettable love interest), and when his mission isn't impenetrable, it is simply uninteresting. Even the climax on a speeding bullet train is hampered by illogical physics and dated CGI. I call this one Mission: Forgettable.
Though I might be in the minority, I personally preferred 2000's 'Mission: Impossible 2' (official title 'M:i-2,' funky capitalization intact) over the original. John Woo hops on board as director and, if the mission details are still a bit clunky, at least the action is so torqued up it's easy to be distracted. Woo stretches the plot so thin that it is barely a coat hanger on which to hang action sequences. Here again, as in the orginal film, Hunt's team is largely irrelevant. Instead, this is Cruise in full-tilt action hero mode, complete with a longer, grungier hairdo (i.e., "I'm a rebel, so don't fuck with me!") and plenty of James Bond-like quips for the bad guys. Still, as relatively inane as all this is, I enjoyed watching Cruise climb steep cliffs with one finger and doing wheelies on a motorcycle while firing two machine guns simultaneously. I also admire how Woo manages to insert slo-mo pigeons flying about in the climax of every film he makes even when -- as it does here -- the action takes place in an underground bunker.
Finally, we come to 'Mission: Impossible III' (the official title is again weirdly-punctuated, this time as 'M:i:III'), a rather maligned recent sequel that was branded a disappointment at the box office because it didn't gross a billion dollars. Still, as I pointed out in my full-length review of the stand-alone Blu-ray release of the movie, it is perhaps the most emotionally satisfying chapter in the franchise. Television auteur J.J. Abrams steps in behind the camera, and the result is somewhat 'Alias'-esque at times, but at least Hunt finally seems like a real person and not a caricature. Abrams and Cruise were also wise to tap recent Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman as the baddie, and his nastiness gives the film a nice kick that the other two were lacking. 'M:i:III' is a lot of fun.
As a trilogy, the 'Mission: Impossible' films don't really gel. The decision to hire a different director for each installment does give each film its own identity but does little for consistency. Hunt feels like almost an entirely different character each time out, as if Cruise was feeling his way through as he went along. There is also a disappointing lack of cohesion and camaraderie between Hunt and his ever-changing team, which was a mainstay of the television series, and one of its biggest strengths. The 'M:i' films often feel like wanna-be James Bond flicks with little humanity. Still, the 'M:i' films are pretty entertaining, and it is nice to finally have all three in one box set. And with the jury out on whether we'll see any more of them, the 'Ultimate Missions Collection' is a nice way to package what may end up being the complete series.
All three 'Mission: Impossible' flicks are hitting HD DVD in 2.35:1 widescreen and 1080p/VC-1 transfers. The results are typical of a box set, with presentation variable depending on the age of the film. Of course it's predictable, but the quality of these transfers really does increase respective to the roman numeral. So let's start with the first 'Mission: Impossible.' This film has been released on video so many times in the past ten years they are too numerous to count. Certainly, the Blu-ray and HD DVD versions are the best yet. Still, there are some problems. While I felt the source material was, despite a bit of dirt here and there, in nice shape with no major wear and tear, the transfer is rather dark and soft. Fall-off to blacks are a bit steep on the low end of the grayscale, which hampers shadow delineation. Colors are also oversaturated, which further decreases detail. Fleshtones, too, look funny -- they skew quite noticeably towards the red end of the scale. Those issues aside, the transfer still packs a good amount of depth, and brighter daylight scenes excel. I was also impressed with the smoothness and clarity of the image, and I noticed no compression artifacts or macroblocking even during fast action.
Quality picks up further with 'M:i-2.' More recent and, in my opinion a better-shot movie than 'Mission: Impossible,' 'M:i-2' benefits from better colors and improved detail. The print is again in good shape with no major blemishes and only slight grain. Colors are less overbaked, which helps detail, and fleshtones are the proper, lovely shade of orange. However, the transfer again looked a bit dark to me, with some scenes suffering from flattened shadow delineation. Sharpness is noticeably superior to 'Mission: Impossible,' and brightly lit scenes deliver the kind of striking high-def experience up there with the best recent transfers I've seen on HD DVD (such as 'Batman Begins'). Generally an above-average transfer quality for a now six-year-old film, 'M:i-2' is a solid triple on HD DVD.
Though I only threw in 'M:i:III' for quick refresher, my impressions matched those of my initial review of the stand-alone HD DVD release. 'M:i:III' is up their with my favorite HD DVD discs, with a terrific transfer that delivers top-notch video quality. The source material is predictably pristine, with blacks and contrast excellent throughout. Sure, there are many low-light, rather "hot" sequences with slightly blown-out whites and noticeable film/video "grain," but it replicates the theatrical showing I saw and gives the movie the appropriate slick but gritty texture. Color reproduction is heightened to great effect, with impossibly real colors, so vibrant that they can literally leap off the screen. Stability is always dead-on, smearing and chroma noise don't intrude, and compression artifacts are, again, not an issue. Simply put, 'M:i:III' boasts one of the most three-dimensional images I've yet seen on high-def, period.
All three 'Mission: Impossible' films also get Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround tracks (encoded at a luxurious 1.5mbps), and the results are again consistent with the roman numeral attached.
Perhaps it's because it is now a decade old, but the first 'Mission: Impossible' just doesn't dazzle aurally. Sure, the film still sounds good -- dynamic range is predictably terrific for a big-budget action spectacle, with impeccable sound reproduction (impressive are all the constructed sounds for the various gadgets and the like) and strong clarity to the dialogue -- which, alas, didn't help my comprehension of the plot. However, surround use is a bit more sporadic than a totally modern mix. The action scenes come alive, with some nice whoosh-pans in the rears and solid imaging, but atmosphere is generally lacking, with even scenes in crowded restaurants and the like failing to create that bustling, realistic ambiance that I hoped for. The film's score by Danny Elfman, however, comes through loud and clear, as does the great opening montage featuring U2's modern updating of the series' classic theme song.
Both 'M:i-2' and 'M:i:III' are more comparable. Dynamics are very strong on both, and downright fantastic on 'M:i:III.' Rare is the Dolby Digital-Plus soundtrack I've heard with such transparent imaging and highly aggressive discrete effects. Sound transitions are just about seamless, creating a truly immersive 360-degree soundfield -- the motorcycle scene during 'M:i-2' and the bridge attack in 'M:i:III' being notable examples -- these are reference quality scenes that belong on the top shelf of every enthusiast's library of great demo material. Low bass is also rock solid, and atmosphere and the use of score far more pronounced than on the first 'M:I.' Though pretty silly, the "car ballet" love scene in 'M:i-2' benefits greatly from strong score deployment to the rears, while 'M:i:III' is even more creative in its use of ambient effects. I can only imagine what a TrueHD or DTS-HD version of these soundtracks would feel like -- I hope Paramount begins to support lossless or uncompressed sound formats soon.
The 'Ultimate Missions Collection' box set comes loaded with extras -- so many that there is really nothing to say but that any 'M:i' fan should find enough here to keep themselves occupied for hours and hours. God knows I'm so over these films after watching all this stuff that I don't think I could take even one more TV spot. (Note that both 'M:i' and 'M:II' are single-disc sets, while 'M:i:III' spreads the movie and the extras out over two platters.)
First up is 'Mission: Impossible,' and this HD DVD version gets the same extras as both the Blu-ray and the recent standard-def DVD '10th Anniversary Edition,' released earlier this year. As director Brian De Palma apparently doesn't do commentary, there is none on the disc. Instead, we get about an hour's worth of making-of material to pick up the slack. The first four featurettes offer an overview of the production aspects of the film, and feature new or recent interviews with De Palma, Cruise, Ving Rhames, Jon Voight and other members of the cast and crew, as well as actual CIA operatives to lend the proceedings an air of authenticity. "Mission: Explosive Exploits," "Mission: Agent Dossiers," "Mission: Spies Among Us" and "Mission: Catching the Train" are somewhat overfilled with talking heads, as there is not a boatload of behind-the-scenes footage available, though "Catching the Train" is a highlight. I have never been as blown away by the sequence as some others, but it is definitely the film's effects highlight, and this is a good deconstruction of what is a quite a complex scene.
The disc's other two featurettes are somewhat more interesting. Though I wanted more out of "Mission: Remarkable - 40 Years of Creating the Impossible," it at least offers a solid introduction to the original series and its transition to the big screen. Of course, I could have done with less of the shameless PR for the films and more of the original show and its cast. A little less fluff next time, please. "Mission: International Spy Museum," meanwhile, reveals the existence of the top-secret museum depicted in the film. Turns out the fiction of spy gadgets is actually reality -- would you believe a piece of poop that functions as a short-wave radio receiver? Neither did I.
Moving on to 'M:i-2,' director John Woo jumps in for a commentary on this one. Despite his broken English, I enjoyed listening to him, and he's quite animated at times. Though many still hate 'M:i-2,' Woo really believes in his action cliches, which I thought was endearing. Unfortunately, the gaps of silence are frequent, and by the end of the track I was starting to snooze. Still, Woo fans will probably enjoy this.
"Behind the Mission" runs 15 minutes and is your typical promo EPK. On-set interviews with Woo, Cruise, Thandi Newton, Dougray Scott and other cast and crew offer little insight -- it's all the usual fluff about how great the movie is gonna be, etc. I honestly couldn't remember a word anyone said five seconds after this one ended. "Mission Incredible" is a pithy five-minute featurette on the film's stunts that really serves as an introduction to "Impossible Shots," a series of eleven vignettes breaking down a key scene in the film. Stunt coordinator Brian Smrz takes the lead with Woo, and I think even the film's detractors will admit that it includes some genuinely breathtaking action sequences.
Lastly on 'M:i-2," we have an Alternate Title Sequence, though nothing in it is really all that different enough to warrant more than a passing glance.
'M:i:III' made 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. (All of the extras on 'M:i' and 'M:II' are standard-def video only.) 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 of 'M:i:III.' That said, as I wrote in my review of 'Click' on Blu-ray, 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.
Onto the good stuff. First up, we have a screen-specific audio commentary with filmmaker J.J. Abrams and some guy named Tom Cruise. This is actually the only extra on the main movie disc, but thankfully a stereo audio-only commentary hardly steals precious bits away from the video and audio quality. Anyway, 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 Abrams and Cruise 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 a must-listen for diehard fans and casual admirers like.
The majority of the video-based extras are found on the 'M:i:III' supplements disc. 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.
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 aol movie web site, 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.
Rounding out the extras on all three discs is a collection of promotional materials. Each film gets its theatrical teaser and full trailers presented in full 1080p video, while 'Mission: Impossible' and 'M:i:III' get a Photo Gallery with production and publicity stills ('M:i:III's is in HD as well). Also replicated on each disc (for some unknown reason) are the only pieces of pure fluff on the whole box set -- the "2005 Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence in Film" excerpt is just a four-minute montage of scenes from Cruise's best movies, and "Generation: Cruise," which is more icon-worship. Certainly, these are skippable. Lastly, we have a music video on 'M:i-2' for the Metallica song "I Disappear."
'Mission: Impossible' is the first box set release to come to HD DVD and it's pretty darn explosive. For once, the TV ads don't lie -- this one packs plenty of bang for your buck. Great transfers, soundtracks and tons of extras make this one a four-star box set. If you at all like the 'Mission: Impossible' movies, then you better make sure Santa leaves an 'Ultimate Missions' box set under your tree this holiday.
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.