Regardless of one's personal feelings of Tom Cruise, there can be little doubt that when it comes to the Mission Impossible series of films, Cruise tries to put as much adrenaline-charged action into each installment as possible, and is willing to do whatever possible to one-up the previous film in terms of jaw-dropping, "Why the hell would anyone do that?" stunt sequences. As the reason of the fourth film draws near, we have seen glimpses of Cruise atop the mega-skyscraper Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the three prior films have been released once again to Blu-ray buyers, so let's take a stroll back in time, shall we?
The long-awaited adaptation of the film based on the television show of the '60s and '70s was written by David Koepp (Angels & Demons) and Robert Towne (Without Limits), with Brian De Palma (Scarface) directing. Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, leader of a team of intelligence agents for the fictitious (or is it???) Impossible Missions Force, a group working under the U.S. Covert Intelligence umbrella. Ethan works for Jim Phelps (Jon Voight, National Treasure: Book of Secrets), the closest thing to a bureaucratic liaison and team leader he has. On an assignment in Prague, the team members save Ethan are murdered in an ambush, and the IMF Director not only tells Ethan that the mission was a mole hunt for a double agent, but he fingers Ethan as the mole. Ethan undertakes efforts to prove his innocence and find the real mole, the least of which includes disavowed agents Luther (Ving Rhames, Piranha) and Krieger (Jean Reno, Couples Retreat) to assistant him and Jim's wife Claire (Emmanuelle Beart) to break into the CIA to acquire a highly classified piece of information.
The story gets you involved with Ethan's quest almost immediately, and with the members of his team there is not only a solid degree of believability, but you are surprised that such familiar faces are offed within the first half hour (or so) of the film. Cruise does a solid job of carrying the story along through its twists, turns and swerves, while De Palma slowly brings the story to a tension-filled climax on a high-speed train. Despite the dated nature of the technology (remember when talking about computers with 686 processors was awesome and geeky? Just me? OK), of the three films this remains the best of them, relying more on performances than the other films do. With the complementary casting of Voight, Henry Czerny (as the IMF Director) and a surprise appearance from Vanessa Redgrave (Julia) as one of the antagonists, the focus of the first film makes it still worth viewing after 15 years. 3.5 out of 5.
Mission: Impossible II
The sequel, written by Towne and directed by John Woo (Hard Boiled), finds Ethan as more of a peripheral agent, doing an occasional mission and recruiting a team at his personal convenience. Circumstances expedite this when a former IMF agent named Sean Ambrose (Ripley's Game) hijacks and eventually crashes a passenger jet filled with passengers, among them a Russian scientist who has developed a powerful biological weapon, a virus eerily labeled "Chimera." Ethan brings Luther back into the fold to help neutralize Ambrose, but in place of Kreiger is an Australian named Billy (John Polson, Hide and Seek) and in place of Claire is Nyah (Thandie Newton, RocknRolla), a relatively small stakes thief who has ties to Ambrose that could be valuable to apprehending him. So again, Hunt has to multitask, not only to capture Ambrose but to recover and destroy any possible forms of the virus before it's too late.
I enjoyed watching the film when it was first released and in the several times I have seen it since. Strangely enough, I thought it felt more like a John Woo movie than any of Woo's previous North American films had to that point. It had drum-filled musical cues, it had tight shots of the actors, and hell, there were a fair share of doves thrown into the third act for good measure. But compared to the first film, the roots were already established and the film could be more stunts based. And it fills that bill and then some, and in some cases (notably a car chase with Nyah and Ethan), almost does so while winking at the camera, as if to say, "yeah, it's incredulous, but did you come here for credible shots?" However, it's that reliance which bleeds over into other aspects of the film, in particular the performances, where the actors trade smiles, coy glances and sneers, sometimes all at the same time. Combine that with a story that is held up by the weight of its grandiosity, Mission: Impossible II is fun in one way, but as time as gone on, proved to be annoying in a couple of others. God help me, it does make for guilt-free enjoyment from time to time. 3 out of 5.
Mission: Impossible III
The third film finds Ethan more on the outside of IMF than before, actually training agents, but now settling down to more of a domesticated life with his fiancée Julia (Michelle Monaghan, Due Date). Ethan is called back into action because a protégé of his named Lindsey (Keri Russell, Running Wilde) was captured in Berlin while spying on a black market dealer named Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jack Goes Boating). In a story written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers) and directed by J.J. Abrams (Super 8), Ethan finds himself in a bit of a Michael Corleone predicament. He wants to remain on the outside of things, but Lindsey's situation and the IMF's urging (mainly from Billy Crudup, Almost Famous) put a monkey wrench in those plans, so he sets out to find Davian and capture him, only to find out he's more than just a small potatoes crook.
The story of Cruise giving the reins of the third film to Abrams may be common by now, but if not, after seeing Abrams' work with Alias combined with an early look at his next project, a then-sleepy and mysterious science fiction show he executive produced titled Lost, made him the go-to for Cruise. And the film does what it can to help make this both a sensible restarting of the franchise but also satiate the appetite of fans of the film's action sequences. But it's easy to find one 's self jaded when you get to the point of the third film, especially because no matter how clever a turn Abrams tries to make, Hunt still has a mission to accept and a device that will self-destruct in five seconds. Cruise will still do a stunt or two that will absolutely blow your mind, and he will also hit an inanimate object in frustration because there are no perceived options to him in a particular scenario. The third film hits these marks, but save for Hoffman's performance and a couple of swerves in the story, feels quite ordinary, particularly the further out from its initial release that we all are. And as one who liked it a couple of years ago, I'm not in love with it as much now, and might give it a 3 out of 5.
Looking at the films within one group, there are some bigger things that could be rad into Ethan's character development, such as the evolution from the post-Cold War era environment and trying to seek out and apprehend the next big warning to democracy, be it a weapon or some slightly vague yet more ominous threat. And while the first film sets up the framework for the subsequent ones, those films have anchored themselves more on the action part of the film than telling a remotely believable story. The Bourne films have leapt past these when it comes to both style and substance, and in Mission: Impossible, the "wow" factor of seeing Tom Cruise jump off (or over) a large structure hundreds of feet in the air just doesn't do it for me. It's like the commercial for something I see on TV frequently; Mission: Impossible certainly does have wings, but its 2:30 feeling is one helluva come down.
The Blu-ray Discs:
All three films are presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and in high-definition using the MPEG-2 codec, consistent with their prior Blu-ray releases. For obvious reasons the discs decline in quality the further back each release goes, with the first serving as an average jumping off point, sporting loads of image softness and inconsistent black levels. The second film finds itself in much better shape than the first, in part because of the several years' difference between the two releases. Image detail is much easier to discern and the image juggles lots of action in the picture without little to speak of in terms of pixilation or noise issues. Skin tones are more accurate in this one and black levels are much deeper and consistent throughout viewing. The third film juggles what it a brighter color palette and the usual Abrams penchant for lens flare flirtation pretty well. Despite whites tending to be a little bit warm there isn't anything too distracting, and colors look vivid without visible oversaturation. Breaking down the presentations of each disc, I'd score the first as a 3, the second at a 3.5 and the third at a 4 (out of 5).
Dolby Digital 5.1 surround for all three films, again consistent with the prior Blu-ray releases, and the quality of each improves over the course of the films. The thing I forgot after seeing the first film again for the first time in a while, was how quiet the film is. Save for the initial first act bombs and bullets and the finale, not a lot occurs, and thus you are forced to crank up the dialogue to keep pace with things. The explosions and bullet hits are clear, though there isn't much of a low-end presence on the first film as I remembered. In the second film, there are more of each, and some more directional effects are introduced both in the opening sequence on the plane and at the horse race for example. Dialogue sounds a bit stronger and consistent throughout, and there is a more active subwoofer to bump up the soundstage. As a fan of the third film's sound, this one seems to have the biggest soundstage, with abundant subwoofer activity and channel panning, particularly during the bridge sequence as a drone flies overhead and is shooting missiles. In the quieter sequences it handles more subtle sounds well also and sports the most immersive soundtrack of the three. I will say that the continued lack of a lossless track still gets me salty, but I recognize that it will likely go unchanged. When scoring the soundtracks of the films, I give the first a 3, the second a 3.5 and the third a 4.5 of 5.
Almost everything from all three movies has been ported over to this boxed set, dubbed an "Extreme Blu-ray Trilogy." The big problem is that for whatever reason, the second disc of the third edition has been dropped from this set, and to rub salt in the wounds, Paramount hasn't changed the disc art, still labeling the third movie's first disc as "Disc 1." It's sad, because Disc 2 had some decent extras on it compared to the rather vanilla nature of the others. Maybe the "extreme" nature of the set is how boring it is now, but if I wanted a more complete set, I would seek out the Ultimate Missions Collection boxed set. Sure, it may be out of print, but at least you'll get more for your money that what is presented here.
What IS presented here is, for lack of a better word, satisfactory. The first film includes "Mission: Remarkable," a ten-minute piece covering the decades-long franchise, and several smaller featurettes on the stunts in the film and on spies in general. Two other featurettes ("Excellence in Film: Cruise" and "Generation: Cruise") not only are retrospectives and appreciations of Cruise's work, but are repeated on disc for the second film for whatever reason. On said second disc, Woo provides a commentary which actually isn't bad, as he talks about the shoot and any production hurdles encountered on a particular sequence. The obligatory featurettes on the stunts in the film are included as well. The third film includes the Cruise and Abrams commentary (though lacks the Picture-in-Picture version that the HD-DVD provided) and it still remains an energetic and somewhat enjoyable track, as the pair joke around and provide their insight as to a particular shot or aspect of the production. It's a saccharine track with loads of mutual admiration and relatively little substance, but the fact that a big star still participates in these counts for something, right?
I'm a bit torn by this latest release of the triad of Mission: Impossible films. On one hand, for those of you that haven't picked up the films yet, this may be your best chance out there to do so. At the very least it's the most affordable and the presentation of each of the films is okay, particularly on the sound side. However, the fact that a) a better set exists out there and b) the impending theatrical release of the fourth film all but guarantees there will be a repackaged "quadrilogy" set out around summertime. Either way, my conscience tells me you should hold off on buying, unless you really want this set for Christmas.