‘Covert Operations: Guns, Women, and Espionage’

Using movies in our home video library, we focus on a series of movies with a common theme.  To honor of the recent theatrical release of “Mission:  Impossible – Rogue Nation”, we bring you ‘Covert Operations: Guns, Women and Espionage’, a look back at some of our favorite spy movies.

Let’s flashback 19 years, when the “Impossible” happened….  

Just after the start of the Pierce Brosnan Bond series and before Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt graced 3,012 screens throughout the United States on Memorial Day weekend, 1996.  Armed with a $70 million budget on a script that, initially, no one liked, and on a project that Paramount could not previously get off the ground, Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner rolled out a fresh and exciting take on Bruce Geller’s TV series, “Mission: Impossible”.

Set in locations around the globe, including for the first time, modern day Prague, London and the Virginia hillside, director Brian De Palma skillfully translates Bruce Geller’s creation the big screen.

The IMF team, led by Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) as his point man, is assigned to infiltrate a reception in Prague to prevent a list of operatives from getting out into the open.  The mission goes wrong and the entire team is killed, including Phelps.  Hunt, the only survivor, is debriefed by IMF director Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny). Hunt is assumed to be a mole they were searching for.  After a spectacular escape Claire (Emmanuelle Beart) mysteriously appears at the safe house, offering to help Hunt figure out who set him up. He enlists the aid of two other disavowed agents, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Franz Krieger (Jean Reno) to recover the list from inside CIA headquarters.  The list in hand, Hunt meets Max (Vanessa Redgrave) on the London – Paris train.  In the ensuing action, Phelps reappears, his cover blown.

“Mission: Impossible” is undeniable fun.  The cast and crew had fun and it really showed on the screen.  De Palma really stamped his style on the story, which felt modern.  The pacing of the story never really lets up requiring you to be ‘in the moment’.  Danny Elfman would be the beginning note in a strong series of film music composers to recreate the famous Lalo Schiffrin TV theme, while bringing a modern score to the movie.  Set design was stellar and stunts, a signature part of the series, start off on a very high note.

The Paramount Blu – ray™ has a rich picture with nice black levels and decent colors.  Unfortunately, the image looked a little crushed.  The anamorphic 1080p video is encoded in MPEG-2 with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1).  The compressed Dolby Digital 5.1 track is dynamic and engaging, bringing Danny Elfman’s score and the on screen action to life.  Vocals are effectively rendered.  Special features on the disc include a retrospective look at the “Mission: Impossible” television series, several featurettes on spy craft and the technology, two award pieces celebrating Tom Cruise, several TV spots and the teaser and theatrical trailers.  The trailers are in 1080p.

The first impossible mission a success, Paramount doubled the budget and Cruise and Wagner got to work on a second impossible mission, “M:i – 2”. This time, with John Woo behind the camera and a fresh script from Brannon Braga and Ronald D. Moore (of ‘Star Trek’ fame), screenplay by the first Mission’s Robert Towne, a virus, Chimera and its antidote, Bellerorphon have been stolen and a 747 crashed in the Rocky Mountains.  Amongst the dead is Chimera’s creator, Dr. Nehkorvich (Rade Serbedzija).  Ethan Hunt and his IMF team of Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Billy Baird (John Polson) are tasked with finding rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who crashed the plane and stole the virus.  To woo Ambrose, Hunt is ordered by his commander, Swanbeck (played by Anthony Hopkins), to use Ambrose’s former flame and professional thief, Nyah Nordoff-Hall (Thandie Newton).

This second impossible mission has some solid elements, but is weighed down by Woo’s stylized action, weak characterizations and over-pumped sexual tensions.  While Cruise and Rhames are strong, and Newton makes for a good sexual foil for Hunt, the remaining characters disappear amongst the action bits, almost seeming second natured.  The fact that Ambrose was a double for Hunt on a former mission seemed far-fetched, almost like Hitchcock’s MacGuffin. The difference is that Hitchcock’s invention worked.  One of the better characters is Hopkins’ Swanbeck.  He’s on screen a very short while, but his presence is felt throughout the film.

A highlight of the film is Jeffrey Kimball’s cinematography taking advantage of key locations in Sydney and Seville.  Hans Zimmer handles Lalo Schiffrin’s theme quite adeptly and his score fits the mood of the film.  Perhaps it’s the laid back nature of the land from down under, but it seemed that the overuse of stylized action combined with a  lack of characterization and a weak villain make this film a lessor entry in the series.

Paramount’s DVD features an anamorphic 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  Picture quality looked quite good, but appeared dated.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound track made good use of surround channels and vocals appeared to be quite good.  Features include several making of featurettes and a music video.

The third mission, expected shortly after 2000, took six years to materialize.  Several directors and actors came and went.  Producer Cruise selected JJ Abrams to direct the next film.

In Abrams’ theatrical debut, we find Ethan Hunt retired from IMF and engaged to Julie Meade (Michelle Moynahan). Hunt is called back into service to retrieve a captured agent (Keri Russell), who dies en route home.  Despite the loss, they learn that their target, Owen Davian (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) will be at the Vatican in Rome. They are able to successfully capture him, but lose him once the team get him back to the US.  Hunt is captured by his own team, but is given coordinates for the Rabbit’s Foot, Davian’s target, in China.

This “Mission” seemed more improbable than impossible.  Davian is a more plausible villain than Ambrose on paper, but the character itself is more psychotic, which seemed out of sorts for this series of movies.  Perhaps that’s the “charm” of the character and the hook in the story, but it seemed overdone.   The supporting team in III is stronger than that of the prior movie, but neither is as strong as that of the first.  Cruise is joined by Jonathan Rhys Myers, who brings a cheeky dynamism and Maggie Q who is extremely sensual.  Billy Cudrup had a “blank” screen presence here, while Laurence Fishburne, freshly in the minds of “Matrix” fans makes an appearance as the director of the IMF.  Fishburne, though underutilized maintains a political balance that was sorely needed and is as effective as Hopkins was in “M:i – II”.

The story, written by Abrams, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, is overly weighed down by unnecessary emotion, although it allows for some lighter moments between Hunt and Stickell and Hunt and Simon Pegg’s Benji, a lab technician.  Michael Giacchino joins a well-established cotillion of musical artists to score Lalo Schiffrin’s theme and the music for this movie.  He brings his style to both.

One thing that Abrams does have is a vision – a vision for the big and the bold, and sometimes that overshadows the acting and the story.  “Mission:  Impossible III” would be the beginning of a pigeonhole for Abrams – that of ‘theatrical resurrector’.  Since this release, he has gone on to resurrect ‘Star Trek’ for Paramount and is on the cusp of releasing a new ‘Star Wars’ installment for Disney/Lucasfilm. His vision is compelling to watch, but isn’t for everyone.

The Paramount DVD exhibits the 2.35:1 anamorphic picture quite effectively.  It captures the essence of Dan Mindel’s fine cinematography and the signature sequences on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and in China are well rendered.  The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound mix makes effective use of all the channels, never being overbearing.  Special features include a behind-the-scenes making of featurette.

Paula Wagner ended her association with the franchise after “Mission: Impossible III” and JJ Abrams would take a behind the camera role.

Which leads us to the ghost in the franchise. . . . .

“Mission:  Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” the first movie to imply an episode name, is brought to us under the skillful eye of Brad Bird.  Building on some of the story pieces of “M:i – III”, a disavowed Hunt is in prison when he is broken out by Benji (Simon Pegg) and Jane (Paula Patton).  Jane’s recent mission to intercept a courier in Budapest went wrong and they lost Agent Hanaway, murdered by assassin Sabine Moreau (Lea Seydoux).    Hunt is recruited to lead Jane and Benjy into the Kremlin to find the files identifying a person of interest, code named “Cobalt”.  When things go wrong, Hunt is extracted by the Secretary (Tom Wilkinson) and Analyst William Brandt (Jeremy Renner).  Ghost Protocol is invoked and the IMF is disbanded.  The secretary’s car is ambushed.  He is killed, but Hunt and Brandt are able to escape to a safe house where they learn the true identity of Cobalt.

In a few words, “Ghost Protocol” was a fresh breath of air compared to the stuffy and overloaded entries from Abrams and Woo. It brought “Mission” back to not only its television roots, but its theatrical roots as well.

Brad Bird, who primarily made his mark on animated movies with Disney/Pixar, was able to migrate to physical movies quite well.  Josh Appelbaum and Andre Nemec’s story/screenplay was on point for an impossible mission.

While Rhames was limited to a cameo at the end of the movie, bringing Pegg in fully was a smart choice.  The addition of Jeremy Renner as William Brandt brought some needed tension and counterbalance to Hunt’s roguishness.  Patton was a solid part of the IMF team, but is another of the smaller, random characters.  Her character did have a better screen presence than Maggie Q from the prior movie.  In the tradition of IMF leadership roles, Tom Wilkinson’s cameo as the Secretary was also dynamic.

The signature piece of the film is featured at the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, UAE, in which Cruise, Seydoux and Patton all perform stunts from the upper floors of the world’s tallest building, without the use of doubles.

Robert Elswitt’s cinematography is simply stunning.  Between the 30 minutes of IMAX footage captured in Dubai, and the globe-trotting from Prague to Canada (most of the interior sequences were filmed in Vancouver) to Bangalore and Mumbai, India, the visual look of the film is inspired.  Bird’s insistence that they use IMAX cameras was an appropriate and exciting choice.  Michael Giacchino returns to give a fresh spin on Schiffrin’s theme and the score.

Paramount’s Blu-ray™ disc features a MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p picture.  The 2.39:1 framed picture brings Elswitt’s cinematography to the smaller screen with brilliance and depth.  It is a shame that Paramount chose not to include the IMAX shot footage, which would have improved the detail even more.  Audio is a 7.1 Dolby True HD mix.  The LFE and surround channels are all used extremely effectively.  Features on the disc include several behind-the-scenes featurettes and deleted scenes with optional commentary from Brad Bird.

“Ghost’s” ending implies that The Syndicate is at large and a “Rogue Nation” has formed.

With our first impossible mission, we learn how resourceful Hunt can be.  In our second mission, we learn that the cool, suave Hunt calculates his luck with precision.  In our third mission, we learn just how vulnerable Hunt can become.  In our fourth mission, Hunt learns the value of trust in his teammates, no matter what the stakes.  What our fifth mission will bring is anyone’s guess.  If you want to know, it is playing in theatres now.

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