MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (FILM COLLECTIONS) – Blu-ray review

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, both John and Dean provide their opinions of the films, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

Paramount released all three of the first “M:I Mission Impossible” films on DVD and Blu-ray some time ago, but with the advent of “Mission: Impossible 4 – Ghost Protocol” they couldn’t resist providing yet another BD packaging of the initial trio. Basically, you get the same materials as before, except the first disc only of the previous two-disc “M:I-3” set. The main thing is that the folks at Paramount are offering the new set at what amounts to a bargain price. If you don’t already have the first three movies on Blu-ray and have ever considered owning them, the time seems right.

M:I MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE

The Film According to John:
I disliked the first, 1996 “Mission: Impossible” intensely, at least at first. I was a fan of the old TV series, and I resented the filmmakers killing off the IMF team in the first few minutes of the movie and even messing around with the sainted Mr. Phelps. It appeared to me nothing more than a crass attempt to cash in on the old show’s name and make the new film a stock action vehicle for star Tom Cruise. Fortunately, the years have mellowed my opinion, and I can see it today as a fairly decent, if overly exaggerated, action flick.

I’d quite forgotten that Brian De Palma (“Carrie,” “Scarface,” “The Untouchables”) directed “M:I,” not that it matters. There are only a couple of scenes where he gets to demonstrate his penchant for creating suspense. Most of the time the script just has people hanging in the air (from the ceiling or from the back of a moving train). It was nice hearing Lalo Schifrin’s familiar “Mission Impossible” theme, of course, although I’m not sure the additional music by Danny Elfman helped much. And I liked the atmospheric settings, mostly shot in England and the Czech Republic, helping create a proper cloak-and-dagger mood, with plenty of dark alleys and rain-swept streets.

This time out there’s a mole in the IMF forces, and after a covert operation goes terribly awry, the head people in Washington blame Ethan Hunt (Cruise) for it. The plot concerns Hunt’s attempts to prove his innocence by figuring out who’s trying to frame him.

A few good actors come to the aid of the improbable, far-fetched story line: Jon Voight as Mr. Phelps; Vanessa Redgrave as an enemy spy; Ving Rhames and Jean Reno as a pair of discredited former IMF agents; and Emmanuelle Beart and Kristin Scott-Thomas providing some attractive female distractions.

The biggest problem for me was not the preposterous action sequences or the ridiculous use of masks but the fact that what used to be an IMF team effort turned into just another star vehicle for Tom Cruise, whose character despite having help from a couple of other characters pretty much goes it alone in the heroics department. If you like Cruise, it’s his movie.

John’s film rating for “M:I”: 6/10

The Film According to Dean:
The first film in the series, “Mission: Impossible” is easily the superior of all three films. It sets the tone for the over-the-top stunts and insane situations that Ethan Hunt quickly becomes accustomed too as the franchise steams along. The first story finds Ethan Hunt on the run and he is kept in a situation where he has very few people to trust and the enemy of both his own IMF compatriots and those that the IMF is working to bring to justice. In the first film, the stunts are far more grounded than those of the following two films. Aside from the action sequence where Ethan Hunt is hanging on the side of a high speed train and must try to bring down a helicopter that is pursuing him as they go through a railway tunnel is definitely an over-the-top sequence that defies rule of physics and probability, but it is quite fun to watch unfold. There are a lot of explosions and lots of cool and nifty gadgets and weapons – I want some of that two-colored chewing gum. This is the most intelligent and ‘spy-like’ film of the series. The scene where Ethan Hunt must pull files from a computer locked deep in Langley and do so while being held by a fellow agent from the ceiling in a room where temperature, sound and touch will set off the alarm is the trademark and defining scene in the series.

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself and his team nearly eradicated during an operation in Prague. Team captain Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), Claire Phelps (Emmanuelle Beart), Jack Harmon (Emilio Estevez) and Sarah Davies (Kristin Scott Thomas) are killed when the operation goes bad and only Ethan survives. Impossible Mission Force (IMF) official Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) believes that Ethan is a mole that has been working for a mysterious arms dealer known only as Max. Hunt must work to clear his name and that of surviving teammate Claire by enrolling the help of disavowed agents Franz Kriger (Jean Reno) and Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) to find out who is the mole known as Job and bring him to justice as the one working with Max. Unfortunately, Ethan must steal what Job promised Max, a Noc List that is guarded deep within CIA headquarters at Langley and the identity of Job will completely change the way Ethan viewed the events that placed him as a prime target of the IMF.

The cast assembled for the first film was very good. Jon Voight is a great actor who always makes his presence known. Any inclusion of the veteran actor instantly adds credibility to a film, though “Anaconda” may be a valid exception to that rule. French sweetheart Emmanuelle Beart has only made two American films and “Mission: Impossible” benefits from this film being one of the two projects she has done. Jen Reno, Ving Rhames, Kristin Scott Thomas, Vanessa Redgrave and Emilio Estevez are some of the familiar names and faces that help give “Mission: Impossible” an above average ensemble cast that has become another mainstay of the series. One of the ideas behind “Mission: Impossible: III” was to make the character of Ethan Hunt more three-dimensional than how Cruise portrayed the character in the first two films. The Ethan Hunt in the first “Mission: Impossible” film was the best time the actor portrayed the confident and capable spy.

The story line and action for “Mission: Impossible” are streamlined and minimalist when compared to the film’s two sequels. The first film found Ethan Hunt as a very capable spy. He had great gear and was physically capable of performing some amazing stunts. The film was more grounded than the two over-the-top follow-ups. Yes, the plot twist that occurs towards the first film’s explosive finale can cause some confusion and worked too hard to trick audiences and keep them on unsteady ground, but that is my only complaint with the film’s story. It was a heavy handed attempt at making the plot deeper than what it needed to be, but it wasn’t too crazy. “Mission: Impossible” was intended to be a big budget action film and not a movie that was trying to woo audiences with a clever story and engaging plot. It was intended to be crafty and fun and under the careful direction of Brian De Palma, the first “Mission: Impossible” film is easily the best of the three and watching Ethan Hunt succeed during the big Langley sequence is easily the best scene in the entire series.

Dean’s film rating for “M-I”: 8/10

M:I-2 MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2

The Film According to John:
It took me a while finally to get over my frustration with “M:I,” and when “M:I-2” came out in 2000 I was better able to accept it for what it was–yet another routine, formulaic action thriller designed to showcase the star appeal of Tom Cruise, albeit this time more stylishly supervised by Hong Kong martial-arts director John Woo. The film has virtually no plot of any significance and relies almost entirely on the interaction of its three principal players, its “look” or feel, and, of course, its action.

The story line for “MI-2” has something to do with a stolen killer virus and its antidote, with the good guys, the Impossible Missions Force, trying to get it from the bad guys who bungled the stealing of it in the first place. None of this is very clear, and by halfway through you don’t care, in any case. The first time we see IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Cruise), he’s doing reckless acrobatics off the side of a cliff about a million feet in the air, daredevil stunts done for no apparent reason except to show us what a fearless adventurer he is. Later, we learn that his rock-climbing expertise comes in handy, but the opening gambit is really just a chance, like everything else in the movie, to provide action even when it’s not going anywhere. Then he’s called into service to wrest the virus from a former IMF agent, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who has turned to the dark side and gone to ransoming a biotech company to get its product back. Hunt rounds up a team of agents that includes computer-expert Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and helicopter pilot Billy Baird (John Polson). More important, he recruits an unwilling thief named Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton). The problem here is that not only doesn’t Nyah want any part of the proceedings, she was once the villain Ambrose’s lover, something Hunt only finds out later when his boss, played by Anthony Hopkins, tells him it’s the main reason they needed Nyah in the first place. But by this time, you see, Hunt has fallen in love with Nyah, which complicates matters. So, we’ve got a three-way match going, present lovers, former lovers, nobody trusting anybody.

Ms. Newton is beautiful and daring and smart, and I can’t think of a better combination for an action-movie heroine. She even speaks beautifully. Cruise is equally beautiful and daring and smart, but a main protagonist’s personality should go further than that; it should light up the screen. Cruise doesn’t. We learn nothing more about him than that he’s half crazy, chasing after Nyah in a sports car when he first meets her, following her in a foolhardy pursuit around winding mountain roads, he in a Porsche Boxster, she in an Audi TT, as they sideswipe one another, destroy both cars, and endanger the lives of everyone in their path. Finally, she winds up dangling over a precipice, and he comes to her rescue; he looks into her eyes, and they decide they’re in love. I guess they see in one another kindred spirits–they’re both heedless loonies. That’s about the level of sophistication the movie assumes. The more interesting character is Ambrose. Dougray Scott has a far more commanding screen presence than Cruise. Unfortunately, he’s not the star, even though I found myself rooting for him.

John’s film rating for “M:I-2”: 5/10

The Film According to Dean:
“Mission: Impossible 2” is the second film in the Tom Cruise series and the low point of the three film trilogy. Directed by John Woo, the direction of “M:I-2” moved solely towards action and tried to push the action barometer far higher than what was achieved in the first film. From the opening sequence where Ethan Hunt is rock climbing and jumping from rock face to rock face without an ounce of climbing gear, the film just screamed “I have more action and stunts than the first film.” An over-the-top car chase between Ethan Hunt and Nyah Nordiff-Hall that finds Ethan saving Nyah from falling out of the car to the bottom of the cliff, to a motorcycle battle that is trademark John Woo, “Mission: Impossible: II” is louder and more over-the-top than the first film. There is a greater amount of convenience in the film and an ability to fully suspend disbelief is a prerequisite to fully enjoy the story line. Where the first movie was an spy-thriller that had some nice stunts and action scenes, “Mission: Impossible: II” is an action film that dabbles in espionage.

When his vacation free-climbing dangerous peaks in New Mexico is cancelled by the IMF, Ethan Hunt finds himself involved in a mission where he must track down a genetically modified disease known as Chimera. Chimera has been taken by a rogue IMF agent, Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott) that knows how Ethan and the IMF operates and has found a way to become hidden. Hunt is told to build a team, but must include Ambrose’s girlfriend Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton) to find the location of Ambrose and infiltrate his operation. Hunt finds assistance from Billy Baird (John Polson) and his old friend Luther Stickell. Ambrose is aided by the vicious and untrusting Hugh Stamp (Richard Roxburgh). Ethan makes a tremendous mistake when he becomes emotionally involved with Nyah and she is placed in grave danger in the operation to located and gain possession of the deadly Chimera virus.

Tom Cruise strived to build the character of Ethan Hunt into a more rounded individual and into a deeper and more evolved character. The only true evolution undertaken by Ethan Hunt between the first film and the second film is that Hunt is almost superhuman in capabilities. Instead of being a super agent, Ethan Hunt is now a super hero. Cruise slips into the super hero skin of his character and excels as an action star. Regardless of how many action filled couch jumping stunts the actor has performed, Cruise is a bankable star that is one of the better actors in Hollywood when it comes to delivering thrills. Cruise is not the tallest man in Hollywood, but he is one of the more believable heroes. Serving as a Producer for the film, Cruise has tailor made the role of Ethan Hunt for his own strengths and there is no doubt that the character suits him well. I preferred the Ethan Hunt of the first film, but this supposedly deeper follow-up still works for Tom Cruise.

Ving Rhames is underused in the second film and Tom Cruise strives to make Ethan Hunt more of a superhero than a super spy. Watching Rhames run a camera to Hunt during a horse race and then quickly return was a great scene, but one of the few with the entertaining character. Thandie Newton had worked with Tom Cruise in “Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles,” but was a relative unknown when her big break came in this second film. She is a very lovely lady and it is sad that this is the high point of her career. The ensemble cast contains Dougray Scott, who is effective in his role as a fallen from grace IMF agent. Brendan Gleeson, Richard Roxburgh and a cameo by Anthony Hopkins provide other familiar faces, but “Mission: Impossible: II” did not contain the powerful casting of the first and third films in the series. Other than Rhames, Hopkins and Scott, there were not many familiar faces in this film in supporting roles.

I’ve always thought the second film was far too over the top. The motorcycle scene with the various special effects falls into levels of near absurdity. The recreational activity by Ethan Hunt in the opening moments would have been just as effective if Hunt had climbing gear and the whole intent of the scene was to just push the groundwork that had been laid by “Mission: Impossible” and move the series way too over-the-top and too far into the realm of absurdity. There were a few fun scenes during the film that didn’t completely attack the intelligence of the audience, but I believe there is a point in any filmmaking when those responsible can go too far and though I love John Woo as a director, I feel the direction he and Tom Cruise took for the sequel was a bit too much. Thandie is hot. Ving is a presence. The film is fun, but just too silly for me to completely appreciate.

Dean’s film rating for “M:I-2”: 6/10

M:I-3 MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 3

The Film According to John:
In an apparent attempt to help humanize Ethan Hunt, we see that he is about to get married at the beginning of 2006’s “M-I:3.” It doesn’t help much, as this is still a pure action-hero Hunt, whose heroic daring is far more important than any romantic entanglements. OK, the scriptwriters and director J.J. Abrams (making his big-screen debut) do involve Hunt and his love interest in a big plot contrivance, but it’s an obvious setup meant only to wring the last ounce of sentiment out of the story. No matter. By far, this third entry in the series is the best of the lot for its nonstop action and sometimes pulse-pounding excitement.

The narration gives us the story line in flashback, where things begin at Ethan’s engagement party. Naturally, nothing is simple for Ethan Hunt, so in the middle of festivities the IMF call him to duty. The baddies have captured one of Hunt’s protégés, and Hunt must get her back. This leads to a search for a valuable item known only as the “rabbit’s foot,” an obvious MacGuffin since we never really learn what it is or why anybody wants it so badly.

More stuff blows up in the first twenty minutes of this one than in the first two movies combined. It’s all pretty intense, actually, if pretty silly, too. Oh, and Cruise runs a lot. Quite a lot. Like in almost every scene.

Ving Rhames returns for a third go-round as part of Hunt’s team. Billy Crudup, Maggie Q, Simon Pegg, and Laurence Fishburne also show up to liven things further, with Michelle Monaghan as the love interest. Of greatest importance, though, is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the best, most-evil villain in the whole trilogy, a truly menacing character from an outstanding actor.

It’s too bad the business of the masks is back, though. This is an element in all the stories that for me got old really fast, that anyone could believe the look of these masks to be real. Yet in all three films Hunt puts on one or more rubber masks, and everybody thinks they’re looking at somebody else. Sure thing.

Anyway, I enjoyed “M:I-3” the best of the three movies because of its continuous, well-staged, well-edited action. There is no apologizing for this picture: It’s just a pure adrenaline rush from beginning to end, with director Abrams obviously preparing himself well for things like “Star Trek” and “Super 8” to come.

John’s film rating for “M:I-3”: 7/10

The Film According to Dean:
It had been six years, but Tom Cruise returned as Ethan Hunt in the third installment of the “Mission Impossible” series. Featuring all-new over-the-top stunts and impossible situations to escape from, the eagerly anticipated sequel grossed around $140 million at the box office. Featuring only Cruise and Ving Rhames in returning roles, “Mission Impossible III” introduces a plethora of all new characters and has a strong supporting cast with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the film’s primary bad guy, Billy Crudup (“Almost Famous”), Keri Russell (“Felicity”), Simon Pegg (“Shaun of the Dead”), Laurence Fishburne (“The Matrix”) and other familiar faces.

“Mission Impossible III” finds Ethan Hunt enjoying retirement from the Impossible Mission Force (IMF) and settling down to marry his girlfriend Julia (Michelle Monaghan). However, when one of the agents trained by Hunt, Lindsey Farris (Keri Russell), is captured, Hunt is asked to do one more mission for the IMF. His involvement in the mission to rescue Farris places his directly in the wrath of the villainous arms dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Davian strikes Hunt where it hurts the most – he captures Hunt’s wife and threatens to kill her if Hunt does not perform an impossible mission to retrieve a valuable weapon. Assisting Hunt on this impossible mission is his longtime friend Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Declan Gormley (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Zhen Lei (Maggie Q). While the IMF believes Hunt needs to be captured and arrested and the pursuit is led by high-ranking Theodore Brassel (Laurence Fishburne), he finds some help with agency lab tech Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg).

There are a number of impressive stunt sequences and high tech gadgetry to rival the previous two films. The third film in the series finds Ethan Hunt involved in an insane helicopter chase where the choppers fly between the large blades of wind generators. The character must build a fulcrum and swing onto a heavily sloped building roof and then base-jump from a dangerously low altitude to escape his would be captors. These are just as “over-the-top” and unbelievable as any stunts from the previous films, but nicely fits into the thoroughbred of the franchise. The number of gadgets and weapons are used effectively throughout the film. Hunt finds magnetic mines, missiles, high powered guns, computer technology and other tools and weapons that assist him and his team on their “Mission Impossible.” The good guys still have an incredible ability to avoid getting hit by gunfire and the amount of time it takes for the film’s big action sequence to unfold goes against the grain of time and space, but “Mission Impossible” is about entertainment and the film does succeed in that regard.

Where the film falls short, aside from the believability of the impossible missions, is that any sense of danger or tension is lost as you watch “Mission Impossible III.” Ethan Hunt has only a set amount of time to complete an impossible task to save his wife. However, it is expected that at the last possible moment, he will complete the task. It is an expected outcome and more time is spent trying to figure out how much time it took Ving to get down the stairs or the elevator of the skyscraper and not much time is spent worrying whether or not the task can be completed. The big scene in Shanghai, where Hunt and company devise the grand scheme removes much of the intrigue and suspense of how the action will unfold. You know Tom Cruise is going to swing from one building to the other, land on the roof, get the object and then base-jump to the sidewalk below. Exposition is given to explain how the impossible mission will be handled, and though it does not go exactly to plan, the curiosity of how everything will unfold is lost, unlike the big scene of the first film where Ethan Hunt broke into CIA headquarters at Langley.

Directed and co-written by J.J. Abrams, “Mission Impossible III” is not a bad chapter in the Ethan Hunt universe. The film transcends the level of action and technology found in the James Bond series and where the latest film in that long-running franchise is trying to ground itself more in reality, the “Mission Impossible” series gets louder and more aggressive in its action with each film. There is not a lot of breathing room and “Mission Impossible III” does not feature many scenes where the audience is given a moment to catch their breath. Unfortunately, the film starts to become repetitious in its plot devices and you almost start to get a sense of “been there, done that” as the film races ahead. You see an IMF agent die when a small bomb goes off in their head and you see that an electrical jolt can save the day. When Ethan Hunt is placed in a situation to revisit this plot device, you already can figure out the outcome. There is no guessing or sense of thrill in the moment.

The cast does a pretty good job of trying to make “Mission Impossible III” seem plausible. Ving Rhames is simply a great screen presence and has been a great asset to the franchise. There is no questioning why Ving has been in all three films. He really deserves a “Mission Impossible” film all his own. Tom Cruise has Ethan Hunt down to a science and is on Cruise control (sorry for the pun) for the entire film and easily believable as the main character. Philip Seymour Hoffman does not look like a horrendous and dangerous villain, but his attitude and persona as Owen Davian works nicely and you can certainly look to the character as being a super villain of sorts. I loved seeing Simon Pegg in the film and the rest of the cast used in the film were effective in their roles.

“Mission Impossible III” is a fun film. In the end, it does feel a little disappointing because it does not seem to push any new boundaries. Ethan Hunt manages to infiltrate a building and grab an impossible to obtain item, but you don’t see the actual snagging of said item. Where the previous films showed the gadgetry and trickery needed to perform the impossible missions, the third film races forward to throw more action and stunt sequences at the audience. “Mission Impossible III” lacks the soul and intelligence of the first film. The espionage and inventiveness of the first film are long since gone and the third film simply feels like a loud continuation of the series. The first sequence where Hunt and Stickell and the others rush to rescue Lindsey Farris is the best sequence in the film, but it ends quickly and the only time spent where technology is pivotal to the mission is when Simon Pegg’s character leads Ethan Hunt through the streets based upon a cell phone locator. If you liked the first two films, then “Mission Impossible III” will be more than enjoyable to you.

Dean’s film rating for “M:I-3”: 8/10

Video:
Paramount first produced and released these discs at the beginning of the Blu-ray era, before the studio realized the advantages of high bit rate, dual-layer transfers and lossless audio; higher bit rates and lossless sound not only improve the viewing experience visually and sonically but help the studio from a simple marketing standpoint. People expect these things nowadays; it’s what “high definition” is all about. Nevertheless, both the picture and the sound on these early Blu-ray discs are still fine and should raise few complaints.

Each of the films looks slightly different from the others. The video engineers use a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-2 codec to reproduce the 2.35:1 ratio pictures for all three films. With “M:I” the image quality is a tad soft and occasionally blurred or smeared, with skin tones sometimes a bit too dark and reddish. Colors are generally rich and deep, though, with solid black levels and gleaming whites. Still, the PQ shows us that Blu-ray discs have been getting continuously better over time.

With “M:I-2” the picture quality looks slightly sharper than in the first movie, although it occasionally displays some evidence of moiré effects, shimmering lines. Colors are better, too, with more-natural skin tones.

With “M:I-3” we get colors that are again a little too dark for absolute realism, with facial tones a tad dusky; yet they’re not bad in a bright, glossy kind of way. Definition is ordinary for an HD movie, again not bad but not extraordinary, either. For reasons known only to the codec engineers, there are again instances of moiré effects visible, this time in things like stairs.

Audio:
As I said earlier, there is no lossless sound on any of the three discs, just lossy Dolby Digital 5.1. Oh, well. On “M:I” the surround activity is fairly plentiful; bass could be deeper and tauter; and the overall impression is that of loud, occasionally harsh sonics. Some good dynamics, though, and, to be fair, things improve as the film goes on.

With “M:I-2” the surrounds sound fuller, more loaded with sundry noises, and the sonics appear a bit smoother than in the previous film. And with “M:I-3” we get the best sound yet, possibly because there is more of it, the third film being almost nonstop action. A helicopter chase early on sets the tone for flyovers and such.

Extras:
Each film comes with its own set of extras, more or less. “M:I” has “Mission: Remarkable–40 Years of Creating the Impossible,” eleven minutes; “Explosive Exploits,” five minutes; “Spies Among Us,” nine minutes; “Catching the Train,” two minutes; “International Spy Museum,” the best bit, six minutes; “Agent Dossiers,” info on the characters; “Excellence in Film” and “Generation Cruise,” tribute reels to the actor; and a ton of photos, theatrical trailers, and teaser trailers, some in HD.

With “M:I-2” we get an audio commentary by director John Woo. After that, there’s a fourteen-minute, making-of featurette, “Behind the Mission,” that plays out mostly as hype. To hear Cruise and the others talk, you’d think they had just made “Gone With the Wind.” Next, there’s a five-minute featurette, “Mission Incredible,” that again refers to the movie’s stunts; then a series of segments “Impossible Shots” showing how the crew accomplished some of the amazing stuff they pulled off. There’s an index to that one that includes eleven separate “How’d they do that?” scenes totaling about thirty-four minutes. Finally, there are repeats of the two tribute reels to Cruise we saw on the first disc–“Excellence in Film” and “Generation Cruise”; plus a music video, “I Disappear,” by Metallica; and an alternate title sequence.

With “M:I-3” we get just the first disc in what was originally a two-disc set. Therefore, the only extra is an audio commentary by Cruise and director J.J. Abrams discussing their experience filming the movie.

All of the films come with English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles; English captions for the hearing impaired; and thirteen, seventeen, and nineteen scene selections respectively. Each of the films comes housed in its own full-sized but flimsy BD Eco-case, the three cases further enclosed in an embossed, stiff-cardboard box.

Parting Thoughts:
Although Dean liked all three films marginally better than I did, we both agree on their relative importance, with “M:I-2” being the weakest of the three. Still, if you enjoy over-the-top action and derring-do, the “M:I” series is a good ticket, a sure bet. The film rating below is an average of all three films from both reviewers.

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