"This is not mission: difficult, Mr. Hunt. It's mission: impossible. Difficult should be a walk in the park."
I'm going to go out on a limb here and admit that I find the Mission: Impossible films perversely fascinating, not because I think they're particularly great action or suspense pictures, but because I can't think of another high-profile movie franchise where the individual entries have so little to do with one another, much less with the old television series from which they're purportedly adapted. Although Tom Cruise stars in all three productions as a character named Ethan Hunt, the character himself seems to be a totally different person from movie to movie. All of the films do carry over certain trappings that supposedly link them together: Cruise, Ving Rhames as his loyal sidekick, numerous plot red herrings, the "This message will self-destruct" instructions from his IMF superiors, and the knowledge that at some point the plot will hinge on Hunt wearing a silly rubber mask to imitate the main villain. Other than that, there's no point in judging one movie against the next. Each should be taken on its own terms as an independent storyline.
Brian DePalma's 1996 Mission: Impossible at least made a token effort at referencing the 1960s TV show with one character name and the basic premise, but took a great many liberties in its zeal to turn the teamwork emphasis of the original into a Tom Cruise vanity project. That one carry-over character, team leader Jim Phelps (played by Jon Voight here), undergoes a major personality rewrite that certainly displeased fans of the old series. If you can get past that, however, the first Mission makes for some pretty damn good slam-bang summer blockbuster entertainment, and frankly is the only entry in the franchise that could honestly be called a spy movie.
As portrayed in this first film, Cruise's Ethan Hunt is a young and inexperienced secret agent, and even kind of a wuss (he actually gets beaten up by an old man at one point). Forced to go underground after most of his team is assassinated in a botched operation, Hunt's bosses back at the Impossible Missions Force suspect him as a mole, an accusation bolstered by a heavy-handed frame job that points all clues directly at our hero. The only way to prove his innocence is to steal some top-secret intelligence info and use it as bait to root out the real mole, a plan that seems simple enough until it's revealed that this intel can only be procured from a highly-secured room in the heart of CIA headquarters. Sounds like a job even James Bond would find daunting.
You couldn't ask for a more appropriate director to launch the series than DePalma, a filmmaker infatuated with convoluted, twisty plots and elaborately-staged suspense set-pieces. The movie lets him indulge these obsessions in just the right measure while keeping some of his greater excesses reigned in. The storyline, heavy on jargon involving N.O.C. Lists and various tricks of the intelligence trade, is confusing on first viewing but just coherent enough to keep the audience involved between the big action sequences. The movie's signature scenes, including the initial ambush and the dead-silent CIA break-in (designed in homage to Jules Dassin's caper classic Topkapi), are nail-bitingly suspenseful. The climactic train/helicopter stunt is obviously digitally-manipulated and arguably goes too far over-the-top at its conclusion, but is undeniably exciting nonetheless. I actually find it hilariously subversive in its flagrant sexual imagery; a phallic train plunges into a tunnel where the action builds and builds until exploding in an orgasmic release, followed by a moment where it deflates in exhaustion. This movie is a blast!
For reasons that I'm sure no one else on Earth will ever understand, after the success of the DePalma picture Tom Cruise hired Hong Kong action maestro John Woo to direct the sequel in 2000. Mission: Impossible II (or M:I-2 as the posters dubbed it) didn't even bother pretending it was in any way connected to the previous movie, instead changing the Hunt character from an untested secret agent into an invincible superhero trapped in an indulgent action melodrama. If you were to strip away the franchise name and change the characters around a little bit, I honestly think the production would be more highly regarded as one of Woo's better American films, but in terms of being a Mission: Impossible movie, bluntly speaking it stinks.
The sequel opens with a group of terrorists hijacking a commercial jetliner and deliberately crashing it, later attempting to release a deadly biological agent on a major metropolitan area. In the summer of 2000, events like that must have sounded like ridiculously far-fetched Hollywood fantasy. It doesn't play quite the same way anymore, unfortunately. In any case, the villain of the piece is a rogue IMF agent (Dougray Scott) who harbors a grudge against former teammate Hunt and is now trying to get rich through a ploy involving an evil pharmaceutical company. As if we didn't already have enough reasons to be paranoid about corporate malfeasance, the firm has developed a supervirus for the sole purpose of selling its exclusive vaccine and watching its stock price soar. Once the terrorists get their hands on the bug, of course only our man Hunt can save the day with high-flying kung-fu acrobatics, guns loaded with unlimited ammo, and lots of stuff that goes boom.
Like I said, if you have any appreciation for John Woo's flamboyant theatrics, M:I-2 actually has its pleasures so long as you can divorce it from the Impossible franchise. It's one of the director's few American films to approach the operatic delirium of his Hong Kong pictures, complete with all the poetic slo-mo action and deliberate suspension of disbelief that are hallmarks of his style. By the time Ethan has to break into the heavily-guarded laboratory and then blast his way out again after facing off against hordes of armed enemies in a beautifully-staged ballet of bullets, explosions, and soaring emotions, you're reminded that John Woo simply makes this type of shit better than anybody else. The later motorcycle-a-motorcycle jousting duel between Hunt and his nemesis is entirely ridiculous, stupid really if you put any thought into it, but is perfectly in keeping with the heightened macho posturing that infuses all of Woo's films. Unfortunately, such fantasy excess just feels out of place under the Mission: Impossible banner. With a different title, Chow Yun-Fat in the lead, and Cantonese-language dialogue, this would probably seem a better movie.
So jump forward another six years and now we have Mission: Impossible III (even more ridiculously dubbed M:i:III), in which television auteur J.J. Abrams uses the franchise name and attending budget to essentially just make a $150 million episode of his own Alias TV series. Hey, at least we're back in the general vicinity of the espionage genre again, right? To that end, Abrams makes an effective debut as a feature film director, wrangling the logistics of a huge action movie without breaking a sweat. While he doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, he's given the film a decent script and some exciting (if derivative) action scenes. That's really all you can ask for in a movie of this type.
In the third one, we find agent Ethan Hunt in a state of semi-retirement, forsaking field work for duties as an instructor as he attempts to settle into domestic tranquility with his new, clueless fiancée (Michelle Monaghan). Those plans go awry when he learns that one of his recent graduates (Keri Russell from Abrams' Felicity) has been captured, prompting Hunt back into action on a rescue mission. From there he's led to evil arms merchant Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who has reportedly obtained a big bad secret weapon thingamajig Macguffin known only as the "Rabbit's Foot". Of course, capturing Davian becomes the next order of business, which really pisses the baddie off, and before you know it Hunt's girlfriend is kidnapped and our hero has to travel to Shanghai to save her.
As he did in the first couple seasons of Alias, Abrams tries to strike a balance between the action-adventure elements and a more emotionally-grounded relationship drama. He also makes it a point to bring back the teamwork element that was so lacking in the last film. Casting Maggie Q and Simon Pegg as part of the IMF crew were inspired choices. The director spends a lot of time setting up Hunt as vulnerable, but by its second half the movie is right back in superhero mode with Cruise machine gunning hordes of goons, swinging from skyscraper rooftops, and racing through the streets of exotic locales. The big action set-pieces are suitably impressive in detail and scope, but rarely feel fresh or groundbreaking. In fact, more than a couple of scenes in the movie feel like they were lifted out of James Cameron's True Lies, including the big car chase on a bridge and the bit where Cruise crashes through a high rise window and finds a janitor vacuuming there.
Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a menacing villain, and Abrams infuses the movie with a fair bit of wit and clever dialogue. More importantly, he proves himself a viable feature film director. If Mission: Impossible III's box office returns didn't quite live up to their preceding hype, I think everyone realizes that had more to do with the public's dissatisfaction with Tom Cruise as a couch-jumping publicity whore and Scientologist jackass than it had anything to do with the movie itself. M:i:III may not be a masterpiece of the genre, but it's a solid action movie with plenty of repeat viewing potential.
Where will Mission: Impossible take us next? Now that Cruise and Paramount have severed all ties, I expect that the studio will want to revive the series under a new star. Considering the precedent, the next movie could go just about anywhere. Brad Pitt in a science fiction film? Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson in a romantic comedy? Keanu Reeves in a Western? None would really be that far removed from the franchise disconnect already established. The possibilities are endless.
The HD DVDs:
The Mission: Impossible - Ultimate Missions Collection debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. A simultaneous Blu-ray edition is also available. Both releases mark the first multi-title box set for either High-Def format. The first two movies are currently only available in these box sets, but Mission: Impossible III can be purchased separately on either HD DVD or Blu-ray.
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
All three Mission: Impossible movies are encoded on HD DVD in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movies are presented in their theatrical aspect ratios of approximately 2.35:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frames.
Brian DePalma's first Mission: Impossible has certainly the most elegant widescreen framing of the trio. The director's sense of composition is just superb. Sourced from the same master used for the recent "Special Collector's Edition" DVD released earlier this year, the High-Def transfer is satisfyingly sharp and detailed, though the photography does occasionally look a little gauzy for effect. Colors are great and black levels are solid, however certain scenes seem overly dark and have weak shadow detail. The picture is a bit grainy and has some minor age-related dirt and specks, and additionally the end credits are strangely quite soft, but overall the image has a pleasing film-like texture. This is a very nice-looking disc.
Ironically, Mission: Impossible II has the oldest transfer of the three films, recycled from the master originally used for the DVD released back in 2000. The movie looks by far the worst of the three. The picture is very noisy in a great number of scenes, and it certainly isn't all film grain. Cruise's introductory rock climbing sequence opens with a sweeping aerial shot buzzing with noise that clears up as the shot tracks in closer to the actor, a behavior actual film grain shouldn't exhibit. Edge enhancement problems also infect the image throughout the movie. Colors and flesh tones look oversaturated, and dark scenes have poor shadow detail. To my eye, the framing seems overly tight on all four sides of the screen, though that may just be John Woo's discomfort with the 2.35:1 format. On the plus side, the picture is quite sharp and usually detailed, especially in close-ups (fine object details in wide shots often have a dupey texture from the artificial sharpening). It's not terrible, but in comparison to the other two excellent transfers, M:I-2 is just mediocre.
For a full breakdown of the Mission: Impossible III transfer, I'll refer you to my separate HD DVD review of that film. Long story short, M:i:III looks amazing, and will no doubt become the new default show-off demo in many home theaters. Its sharpness, detail, and eye-popping colors are just stunning. Every pore on an actor's skin is visible in stark clarity. Black levels are inky with excellent shadow detail, and contrasts are rich across the entire range, lending the image a great sense of depth. Some fleeting encoding flaws (such as jitteriness in the first shot of Chapter 8) occasionally distract, but not enough to detract from how great the disc looks for the majority of its running.
The Mission: Impossible - Ultimate Missions Collection HD DVDs are not flagged with Image Constraint Tokens and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
Each movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 format.
Danny Elfman's score for Mission: Impossible stands out as especially expansive and impressive, filling the front soundstage with directional instrument cues, warmth, and fidelity. The first movie has a terrific sound design that takes advantage of the entire dynamic range from deep explosions to nail-biting silence. The climactic train sequence is quite a doozy, aurally overwhelming the room with sounds from every direction. It's a great sound mix, and the disc delivers it well.
M:I-2 has more of a standard action movie mix. It's very bassy, with extremely loud music and effects, as well as aggressive directionality in the action scenes. It's quite solid work for what it's meant to be, just not particularly clever or inventive like the first film. Fidelity also seems a little dull, but if you crank it up loud enough it gets the job done just fine.
M:i:III is also, as you'd expect, an aggressive track with lots of bass and directional surround effects. Dialogue is well integrated and remains clear during even the loudest action scenes. Overall fidelity is pretty good, but I might have appreciated a losslessly-encoded track. Though most sound effects are crisp, gunshots don't always have the crack I was anticipating and others are sometimes duller than expected. In all, this is another solid effort and I don't have any serious complaints.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles - English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
All three movie discs automatically open with a lengthy HD DVD promo that can fortunately be skipped but is a nuisance. Mission: Impossible and Mission: Impossible II are both single-disc editions, while Mission: Impossible III is a 2-disc Special Edition.
The bonus features on these HD DVDs are mostly recycled from the comparable DVD editions. On the first two movies, all supplements except the theatrical trailers are presented in Standard Definition video using MPEG2 compression (the trailers are High-Def VC-1). On M:i:III, the majority of features are presented in High Definition VC-1 with a small remainder in the usual Standard-Def MPEG2.
Most of the supplements from the Special Collector's Edition DVD have carried over.
Missing from the DVD are Cruise's acceptance speeches from the BAFTA and MTV Movie Awards. Neither sounds like a big loss.
- Mission: Remarkable - 40 Years of Creating the Impossible (11 min.) - This piece starts as a tribute to the old TV series but transitions into a shameless plug for all three Tom Cruise movies.
- Mission: Explosive Exploits (5 min.) - A behind-the-scenes look at the aquarium explosion and CIA break-in sequences.
- Mission: Spies Among Us (9 min.) - Technical advisors and various other supposed experts on the espionage trade attempt to justify the movie's silliness as if it had some vague basis in reality. Sorry folks, nobody's buying it.
- Mission: Catching the Train (3 min.) - Analysis of the visual effects in the movie's climax.
- Mission: International Spy Museum (7 min.) - The proprietor of the title location takes us on a tour and showcases historical "tradecraft" gadgets that spies purportedly used over the years.
- Mission: Agent Dossiers - Character bios in text format.
- Excellence in Film (9 min.) - A tribute to Tom Cruise from the 2005 BAFTA Awards featuring a montage of clips from his movies.
- Generation: Cruise (4 min.) - A similar tribute montage from the MTV Movie Awards.
- Mission: Marketing (7 min.) - Two theatrical trailers in High Definition and four TV spots in Standard-Def.
- Photo Gallery
Mission: Impossible II
Most of the supplements from the DVD have carried over.
Excellence in Film and Generation: Cruise are also duplicated on this disc for no apparent reason (neither were on the DVD edition).
- Audio Commentary by John Woo - The director may or may not have some interesting things to say. His accent was impenetrable, so I had to give up after a few minutes.
- Behind the Mission (14 min.) - A typical EPK making-of puff piece comprised of interviews with Cruise, Woo, producer Paula Wagner, and screenwriter Robert Towne (from Chinatown to this, what a fall from grace).
- Mission: Incredible (5 min.) - A pretty shameless promotional plug for the movie's action and stunts.
- Impossible Shots (34 min.) - A much better behind-the-scenes analysis of 11 specific action sequences, hosted by the movie's Stunt Coordinator. This is the most interesting and informative feature on the disc.
- Metallica Music Video - I Disappear (5 min.) - For a movie tie-in video, at least this one keeps the use of clips from the film to a minimum. Mostly, the band members pretend to re-enact stunts from a bunch of movies that have nothing to do with Mission: Impossible. A barrage of silly visual effects are expended in the process.
- Alternate Title Sequence (30 sec.) - This is really no better or worse than the final version used in the film.
Missing from the DVD are some production notes found on the DVD-Rom section of the disc, which I'm sure nobody will miss. More importantly, the hilarious Mission: Improbable MTV parody starring Ben Stiller is gone, and that's a huge loss because it was the best part of the DVD. Why would they drop this? If it was a rights issue, we wouldn't be getting the MTV Movie Awards montage. This is a really disappointing omission.
Mission: Impossible III
All but one of the supplements from the 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD have carried over. The commentaries are obviously found on Disc 1 with the movie, while everything else is on Disc 2.
Missing from the DVD is the Generation: Cruise montage, which is obviously enough found with both the other movies anyway.
- Audio Commentary - Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams sit down for a chatty discussion about how much fun it was to work together. The two talk consistently throughout the whole movie with few gaps, but oddly have absolutely nothing substantial to say. I honestly don't think I heard a single useful piece of information in the entire track. The HD DVD also offers an Enhanced Commentary feature (discussed below) not found on the DVD or Blu-ray.
- Making the Mission (HD, 28 min.) - A typical making-of piece focusing on production logistics, stunts, action, explosions, and visual effects. Abrams and Cruise indulge in quite a bit of mutual appreciation fawning that gets old quickly.
- Inside the IMF (SD, 21 min.) - A puff piece about the casting and the characters. Plot spoilers are divulged, so be sure not to watch this before the movie.
- Mission Action: Inside the Action Unit (HD, 25 min.) - A more detailed look at the stunts, featuring some cool behind-the-scenes footage of the helicopter and car chases.
- Visualizing the Mission (HD, 10 min.) - A peek at the pre-viz animatics used to map out the major action set-pieces.
- Mission: Metamorphosis (HD, 8 min.) - Discussion of the franchise hallmark rubber masks and how they are actually made. Designer Syd Mead shows us the development of the fictional mask-making machine seen in the movie.
- Scoring the Mission (HD, 5 min.) - Obviously enough a piece about Michael Giacchino producing the musical score, and his integration of the original Lalo Schifrin theme.
- Moviefone Unscripted (SD, 8 min.) - A fluffy promotional interview with Cruise and Abrams.
- Launching the Mission (SD, 14 min.) - Footage of Cruise shilling the movie at the premieres in New York, Rome, Paris, London, and Japan.
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 5 min.) - Five brief scenes (mostly scene extensions, really), technically mastered in High Definition though appearing in rough workprint condition. None of these were needed, but there is a nice bit of Maggie Q action footage and an additional clip with Keri Russell.
- Theatrical Trailers (HD, 5 min.) - Four trailers.
- TV Spots (SD, 3 min.) - Three commercials.
- Excellence in Film (SD, 9 min.) - Yet another appearance of this Cruise tribute montage.
- Photo Gallery
Exclusive to the HD DVD release is:
- Enhanced Commentary - This option bears a resemblance to the "In Movie Experience" or "All Access" features found on selected Warner and Universal HD DVDs, but blends it with the traditional audio commentary. The bulk of the feature consists of video footage in the corner of the screen of Cruise and Abrams delivering their audio commentary (mentioned above). Then at certain points the participants will pause the movie and automatically branch off to new full-screen video "pods" where they can go into more detail on a given topic. For the most part, this is done strictly as a gimmick, as the men usually don't have anything substantial to add that they didn't already say in the commentary. At other points an IMF logo will appear on screen where the viewer can manually select ("Follow the White Rabbit" style) to jump to other video "pods" such as deleted scenes.
Both the HD DVD and Blu-ray releases of Mission: Impossible III are loaded with pointless and insubstantial easter egg video clips hidden throughout the interactive menus of Disc 2. For no apparent reason, the HD DVD seems to be missing three eggs found on the Blu-ray. What we do get are:
Missing are eggs 01 (Michelle Monaghan on a walking tour of Shanghai), 02 (J.J. Abrams taking a flying lesson), and 07 (the crew celebrating Abrams' Emmy nominations). The omissions are annoying, but none are significant losses.
- Classified Data 03 (1 min.) - Press Right from the TV spot titled "Madness" to see footage from the film crew's Halloween party.
- Classified Data 04 (1 min.) - Press Left from "Mission: Metamorphosis" to find actor Dermot Mulroney playing cello on the movie's musical score.
- Classified Data 05 (1 min.) - Press Right on the "Moviephone" option to watch Cruise and Fishburne rehearsing a scene.
- Classified Data 06 (1 min.) - Press Right on "Rome" in the "Launching the Mission" section for behind-the-scenes footage from the Vatican shoot, in which nuns smoke and priests goof around.
I looked around but didn't find any easter eggs on the discs for Mission: Impossible or Mission: Impossible II.
Even with their highs and lows, the Mission: Impossible movies make for fine summer blockbuster entertainment and great home video. The Ultimate Missions HD DVD box offers some nice High-Def eye candy on at least two of the movies and a decent batch of supplements. Highly Recommended.
Mission: Impossible (HD DVD)
Mission: Impossible II (HD DVD)
Mission: Impossible II (Blu-ray)
Mission: Impossible III (HD DVD)
Mission: Impossible III (Blu-ray)
The Last Samurai (HD DVD) - Tom Cruise
John Woo Collection (DVD)
Once a Thief (DVD) - John Woo
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