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 movies as a character named Ethan Hunt, the character himself seems to be a totally different person from movie to movie. Brian DePalma's 1996 Mission: Impossible at least made a token effort at referencing the 1960s TV show with a couple of character names 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. The 2000 sequel Mission: Impossible - 2 (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 idealistic yet inexperienced secret agent into an invincible superhero trapped in an indulgent John Woo action melodrama. 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.
All three of the movies do carry over certain predefined 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. 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 this one, we find Impossible Missions Force 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. Fans of that series will also recognize the story structure of the movie (starting out confusingly in media res and then flashing back to fill in the details) as one he used in a great many of the show's important episodes. Abrams certainly has a talent for getting character nuances right, but the integration here isn't entirely smooth. From the moment we meet her, we know that the sole purpose of Monaghan's character is to inevitably get captured so that Hunt can rescue her. The girlfriend-in-jeopardy plot is too predictable and quite disappointing. The movie would be better served building up the Keri Russell storyline instead; the actress proves a revelation in her first action role but her time in the story is way too short.
Abrams 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 also 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 star spends so much time running in the movie you expect him to sign a sneaker endorsement deal before the end credits). 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. You'll note that Second Unit Director Vic Armstrong is a veteran of similar duties on recent entries in the James Bond franchise, which ironically brings Mission: Impossible back to its old TV roots as a Bond knock-off.
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.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Blu-ray discs are only playable in a compatible Blu-ray player. They will not function in a standard DVD player or in an HD DVD player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
I watched both the Blu-ray and the HD DVD editions and compared them extensively. Since they look more similar than not, I'll start by reiterating my HD DVD review comments and then move into Blu-ray specifics at the end.
This disc looks amazing, and will no doubt become the new default show-off demo in many home theaters. The movie was shot with a mix of 35mm film and High-Def video, and its sharpness, detail, and eye-popping colors are just stunning, on a level that seems to go beyond even previous "reference" discs. Every pore on an actor's skin is visible in stark clarity, to the point where you might cringe away from getting scraped by Laurence Fishburne's sandpaper complexion. Black levels are inky with excellent shadow detail, and contrasts are rich across the entire range, lending the image a great sense of depth. The movie's photography is very stylized, with heightened contrasts and pumped up colors, and the disc reproduces every bit of it with exacting precision. I can't say it strongly enough, the video transfer is fantastic.
What it is not, however, is flawless. The issues I found are very minor, fortunately. The movie's style incorporates some deliberate graininess, which looks fine and well-compressed for the most part but in some sequences (most likely those shot on HD video) comes across as video noise with a distinctly un-filmlike texture. I don't really know whether I can count this as a video transfer flaw or just an artifact of the original photography, and truthfully it isn't too distracting. In some scenes there's also a noticeable loss of resolution whenever the shot is in motion (more so than typical with 35mm film), which again may or may not be a limitation of the cameras used. What I did find disturbing in a few scenes were what appeared to be strange noise reduction artifacts such as grain in the background of shots that would pulse in and out of visibility. This is rare and probably won't be noticeable to the majority of viewers, but nit-pickers like myself may pick up on it. On-screen text (especially the location ID of the German factory at the beginning) is sometimes a little jagged and the end credits look pretty jittery.
The biggest problem I ran into was the first shot of Chapter 8. The staircase in the background is a jittery mess until the shot changes. I'll note that at the time of this writing Blu-ray player video decoders are limited to 1080i output which must then be deinterlaced by a separate chip either in the player or externally. This artifact may have something to do with the way the player interlaces the original 1080p data and then deinterlaces it afterwards, but this is the first time I've seen such a problem on any Blu-ray. I tried every deinterlacing option on my (normally excellent) video scaler, and while some reduced the artifact none eliminated it. When future players capable of raw 1080p24 output are available, I'll have to revisit the scene.
In comparing the MPEG2 compressed Blu-ray to the VC-1 compressed HD DVD, differences were subtle but observable. On my screen, the Blu-ray looks slightly softer throughout, with just a bit less vibrancy and "pop". I'll concede that at the present time I don't know whether this is attributable to the first-generation hardware currently available or a distinction between MPEG2 and VC-1. Where I do think the compression codec comes into play is that the Blu-ray is noisier in many scenes. For example, the green wall in the background of the shot at the 13:35 mark is grainy on both discs but less so and more stable on the HD DVD. Neither disc looks poor by any means. Both look excellent, and the difference between them are so minor that I'm rating both equally until I can definitively rule out a hardware problem causing them.
The Mission: Impossible III Blu-ray disc is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over a Blu-ray player's analog Component Video outputs.
Subs & Dubs:
All but one of the supplements from the 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD have carried over. The commentary is obviously found on Disc 1 with the movie, while everything else is on Disc 2.
If not quite the revelation it was hyped up to be, Mission: Impossible III is a pretty good action movie that goes a long way toward redeeming the franchise from the ridiculous excess of John Woo's second installment. The High-Def video quality is fantastic and demonstration-worthy. Paramount has also taken a big step in providing most of the bonus features in HD resolution, even if none of them are particularly innovative otherwise.
The Blu-ray has a slightly softer picture than the competing HD DVD and lacks the Enhanced Commentary feature, but has included three extra (frankly worthless) easter eggs. Either version is excellent, and the disc comes recommended on whichever format you prefer.