Mission: Impossible – Ultimate Missions Collection Review (Blu-ray)

The arrival of Paramount’s Mission: Impossible ” Ultimate Missions Collection Blu-ray and HD DVD Special Collector’s Edition box sets ushers in several milestones for the combative formats. First, it marks the first time a complete series of films has been packaged together and sold as a set. Second, the first two Mission: Impossible films are available exclusively in this set and not as standalone releases. And third, the M:i:III film in this set is the first multi-disc release by any studio on either format. That’s a lot of “firsts” for what is sure to become a big seller amongst eager early high definition adopters and soon-to-be Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 HD DVD add-on drive owners.

Having not seen M:i:III in theaters, I dove into the latest Impossbile Missions Forces flick then quickly backtracked to revisit the first and second. In hindsight I should have started with Mission: Impossible and progressed through the series naturally as it would have lessened the visually stinging impact of jumping from a newer flawless film print to average and aged neglected film prints. I’m sure I won’t be the only owner of these discs to give into number three first, so my critique of each will begin there and then reset to the original.

J.J. Abrams of Lost and Alias fame was personally recruited by Tom Cruise to lend his eye for action and suspense to the third and final Mission: Impossible film to star Cruise. After lukewarm fan reactions to John Woo’s over-the-top stylistic treatment of M:i-2, it was important for the series to return to its espionage roots filled with tension and suspense, not slow motion camera movies and Bruce Lee-inspired fight choreography. Abrams definitely accomplished this before the opening credits had a chance to roll, showing a battered Ethan Hunt unable to talk his way out of saving an unknown character’s life. The scene is incredibly tense, precisely acted and a fantastic jolt to kick the series back on track with goose bumps-a-plenty.

Experiencing the remainder of the story after the opening is akin to descending a mountain having already reached its pinnacle. Cruise and the writers Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci and Abrams chose to abandon the 007-ish lifestyle for Ethan Hunt and introduce a family life that takes away more from the character than it adds. The transformation of Ethan into a caring family man reminded me of how Martin Riggs turned from a psychotic “Lethal Weapon” in the first film into a smiley happy “Why Can’t We Be Friends” chap by the fourth film. Time wasted depicting Cruise and his fiancée (Michelle Monaghan) throwing a party could have been better spent sprucing up the impossible missions to include more gadgetry and ingenuity rather than run-of-the-mill breach and assault Rainbow Six-tactics and a Florida Keys bridge strike more than reminiscent of a Harrier jet destroying the same bridge in True Lies. The action is definitely exciting and different than the original film, but the suspense I long for was limited to that early hair-raising interrogation confrontation between Ethan and his arms dealer nemesis Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman). At one point watching Ethan and his fiancée cheer with men who less than a day before tried to kill them made me consider jumping back to the opening scene for a reprieve.

Paramount chose to use the video-phile community condemned MPEG-2 compression codec to faithfully reproduce a new and impeccable M:i:III film print to Blu-ray Disc. I personally don’t care which codec studios use as long as the result is a gorgeous high-def worthy picture. Whether by having an entire disc free of space other than an audio commentary track or having more experience with the codec, this transfer is up there with the best live action either format has seen to date ” and that’s saying a lot after Tears of the Sun and Eight Below. The colors, depth, and detail ” shadow or otherwise – are almost mesmerizing to behold, and dare I say make the film more enjoyable by simply making it look like exactly what it must have looked like in theaters. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, while not uncompressed audio Sony, Fox and Buena Vista Blu-ray titles offer, successfully compliments the stellar video with deep bass, crisp dialogue, and varying ranges of ambient noises throughout the surround field.

Jumping from M:i:III to the original Mission Impossible is like stepping into a time machine. Instead of a flawless film print, Paramount has chosen a print chock full of dirt, nicks and other relatively large eyesores that pop up on the screen throughout. During select scenes I felt as if I were sitting in a one dollar theater watching a second-run film that had already seen more than its share of recommended viewings. Film grain is prevalent throughout as well, but here I find it adds an aged quality that bridges the gap between the TV series and the film instead of jumping out as an annoyance.

Detail, color and clean Dolby Digital 5.1 audio help bring the high-def presentation of Mission: Impossible to life. Two scenes that best illustrate the improvement are when Ethan descends into the secure computer room at CIA headquarters and fights for his live atop a speeding train. The quiet yet powerful CIA scene in particular is a series defining IMF moment for me, and I was thrilled to find 1080p improved the clarity and contrast from what I remember on standard DVD. Watching the crystal clear sweat slowly trickle down Ethan’s glasses as he fights to keep his balance in a pressure sensitive room adds to the potency of the scene.

Even against flashier modern spy films, the maiden voyage of Ethan Hunt on the big screen still trumps many of them when it comes to putting audiences on the edge of their seat. It bests each sequel in pure espionage entertainment value, yet given its age, is the weakest high definition presentation of the trio but still passable as an improvement over the previous standard DVD presentation.

I’m surprised a third film made it past the script stage after the terrible decision to bring on John Woo to direct M:i-2. What should have been a triumphant return of Ethan and the IMF team turned into a giant stage for Woo to stamp the entire film with his trademark choreography and slow motion camera moves. I lost interest after Ethan accepted his mission atop a mountain somewhere in the southwest, and gained resentment with each passing over-stylized, or Woo-ized subsequent action sequence and blatant close-up of Ethan’s hair whipping about in the wind to a thumping soundtrack. In the extra features, Cruise explains the entire film is a “Woo-ism” and I couldn’t agree more, nor disagree more with his thinking this radical new direction helped the series. M:i-2 is a good John Woo attempt at creating over-the-top action with Bruce Lee-inspired fight choreography, but as a Mission: Impossible chapter, is fails on almost every conceivable level.

This mediocre sequel has been given a slightly above average high definition presentation that falls in-between its predecessor and sequel. Damage to the print plaguing the first film is absent, yet the heavy film grain returns ” especially during long-lens outdoor establishing shots. The 1080p transfer does handle Woo’s countless slow motion sequences with relative ease and effectiveness. Thanks to scores of explosions, a host of diverse sets and some extreme close-ups, there are ample opportunities for sharp colors and detail to shine. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix is fitting of the action on-screen, though I would still prefer Paramount to take a leap of faith into uncompressed audio and put these antiquated compressed formats to bed.

There’s enough Mission: Impossible additional features fodder strewn across these three discs (four if you count two for M:i:III) to keep any closet Tom Cruise or IMF fan busy for hours. The first two films carry over identical extras as found on the standard DVD releases of each with a couple notable exceptions, the first found on Mission: Impossible as the first menu selection. Mission: Remarkable is a filmmakers retrospective of making not only the first, but all three M:i films. By itself it’s a neat history refresher on both the television series and films, but seems odd tossed onto the first movie and not the third as a wrap-up piece. Other extras found on the Mission: Impossible disc include Mission: Explosive Exploits, a recap of the film’s stunts put together with a marketer’s eye; Mission: Spies Among Us, an intriguing look at the real-life CIA and how probable an IMF would be in today’s world; Mission: Catching the Train, which fails to definitively give away how Tom Cruise flew threw the air from an exploding helicopter onto the hood of a speeding train; Mission: International Spy Museum, my favorite extra in which the museum’s director, Peter Earnest, walks through some spy gadgetry relevant to props from the film; Mission: Agent Dossiers, a text-based multi-page peek into fictional dossiers of fictional characters; Mission: Marketing, including high definition teaser and theatrical trailers, along with a bevy of TV spots; and Excellence in Film and Generation: Cruise, a pair of Tom Cruise tributes that unfortunately migrated onto the two sequel film discs. I would have liked to see Cruise go back in the studio and record a new commentary for my favorite Mission film, but given his recent departing from the studio, that will now never happen.

Director John Woo did provide an Audio Commentary for M:i:-2, a did a pretty good job considering his English can be hard to follow at times. My only gripe with his effort would be he tends to talk in quick bursts, then goes silent as if to catch his breath, then returns once more with additional rapid-fire bursts. The rest of the extra features on M:i:-2 are far less intellectual than those found on Mission: Impossible, which is fitting given the film’s style-over-substance approach. They include Behind the Mission, a mere shadow of Mission: Remarkable found on Mission Impossible relying on self-gratifying interview snippets more than beefy behind-the-scenes material; Mission: Incredible, a rah-rah look at the action sequences; Impossible Shots, the gem of the collection that breaks down eleven effects sequences with introductions by John Woo; I Disappear Metallica Video, not ironically the only music video on any of the three films” discs; Alternate Title Sequence, as the name implies is a slightly modified version of how the film’s graphics begin; and the Tom Cruise Tributes make an unwelcome return.

Whereas the first two films utilize standard DVD 480i resolution for their extras, Paramount has gone the extra mile and included “mostly” 1080p high definition extra features in the two-disc M:i:III set. An Audio Commentary with Tom Cruise and director J.J. Abrams is available on disc one in addition to the feature film. Both of these guys are enjoyable to listen to for both their experiences making the film, casual banter and genuine enthusiasm for the film they’ve created ” even though I don’t necessarily agree with all of their creative choices made. I do appreciate them pointing out script and scene changes in correlation to what’s happening on-screen.

Disc two is home to the meat of the M:i:III extra features and starts with a bang. The Making of the Mission (HD) is a well-crated 30-minute collage of footage shot during filming. It includes work on the set, on location, special effects secrets, and even some laughable bloopers such as Maggie Q getting her stiletto heel stuck in a Lamborghini’s gas pedal and subsequently running the ungodly expensive car into the rear of another car. Other extras includes Inside the IMF (480i non-anamorphic), a moron’s guide to the characters already introduced in the film; Mission Action: Inside the Action Unit (HD), a look at the film’s stunts ” mainly Mr. Cruise ” and unfortunately jumps to 480i footage at times; Visualizing the Mission (HD), pre-visualization footage; Scoring the Mission (HD), a trip into the recording studio where Cruise shows up to lend his support and additional pressure to the musicians to nail the pieces; Mission: Metamorphosis (HD), the special effects behind the gadget that creates the iconic IMF face masks; Moviefone: Unscripted, a casual interview between Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams and a feature that is showing up with more regularity on Paramount releases; Launching the Mission, a trip to the film’s premieres in New York, Rome, Paris, London and Japan; Deleted Scenes (HD), a quintet of not missed axed scenes that were not cleaned up and nowhere near as crisp as the final film; and the Tom Cruise Excellence in Film tribute shows up for the third time. Oddly, and thankfully, the Generation Cruise MTV piece was left on the cutting room floor.

The Mission: Impossible ” Ultimate Missions Collection box set is a no-brainer purchase for early high-def adopters and soon-to-be-adopters. The relatively affordable package includes a classic in Mission: Impossible and one of the best high definition presentations yet in M:i:III. Those two alone are worth the price of admission, making Woo’s brief foray into the series icing on the cake. Now let’s hope this set sells strongly so other informally announced sets like Paramount’s Ultimate Star Trek Film Collection, Warner’s Matrix Trilogy and New Line’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy arrive sooner than later, and at a price point that won’t require a home equity loan to afford.

– Dan Bradley

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