Friday, April 20, 2012

Blu-Ray Review: "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" is one of the best hi-def releases of all time

The Best Buy exclusive version of
"Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol" on Blu-Ray

Brad Bird’s “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” – one of the most effectively entertaining films in recent memory – has finally arrived on Blu-Ray.  Does the high-definition presentation hold up to the theatrical experience?  Does the Burj Khalifa scene still induce vertigo on a TV screen?  Are the extras everything we could hope for?  Why is Best Buy selling a different version of the Blu-Ray than other stores?  Will Tom Cruise ever stop running?  Learn the answers to these questions and more in my review of “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol,” after the jump…

The Film:

Brad Bird was born to direct a Mission: Impossible movie. 

That fact becomes readily apparent five minutes into “Ghost Protocol,” as soon as one realizes that Bird has, indeed, committed to scoring a violent prison break sequence to the sounds of Dean Martin.  No other director could infuse such brutal fight choreography with such a passionate sense of fun.  Or consider the bombastically jubilant opening title sequence, or the hilarious bit of future-tech Simon Pegg’s character uses to sneak into the Kremlin, or a brilliant suspense set-piece that finds Cruise climbing the tallest building in the world, or a chase where, I kid you not, Tom Cruise outruns a friggin’ sandstorm!!!!  No director working today is crazy enough to think these sorts of things up, let alone execute them all so flawlessly.  Brad Bird’s voice is heard loud and clear in every frame of “Ghost Protocol,” and perhaps unsurprisingly, his voice is the first to wring out all the latent potential of the Mission: Impossible franchise.  Bird’s incredible sense of spatial relations in set pieces gives this film the strongest team dynamic in the series, and his sense of freewheeling fun allows the story to go big without seeming implausible or desperate.  Indeed, it’s the tone Bird so completely nails here, making this the most endlessly entertaining mission yet. 

The heightened importance of team dynamics is made clear right away, as the film opens with a small IMF team breaking Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out of prison.  I dare not spoil why he’s there, but once reunited with old teammate Benji (Simon Pegg) and newcomer Jane (Paula Patton), Hunt and company accept a mission to acquire intel about ‘Cobalt,’ a mysterious villain, by breaking into the Kremlin.  Before they can complete the mission, however, Cobalt himself breaks in and steals the codes to Russian nuclear warheads.  To erase his trail, he bombs the Kremlin, framing Hunt and his team for the crime.  Russia sees this as an act of war, and the President of the United States is forced to initiate Ghost Protocol, dissolving the IMF and disavowing all of its agents.  With no back-up and few resources, Hunt and his team must find Cobalt and retrieve the nuclear codes before Cobalt uses them to initiate a global nuclear war. 

Despite the severity of the threat, “Ghost Protocol” feels like the most basic, no-frills ‘mission’ in the entire series.  And that’s a very good thing.  The world is in trouble, an IMF team is given their mission, and they come up with an elaborate, dangerous plan to save the day, repeating that last step if their first plan doesn’t work out.  Bird and company effectively up the tension to cinematic levels by making the threat particularly treacherous and stripping our heroes of back-up, but the film’s skeleton is still formed by the basics of a simple M:I TV episode.

Therefore, this is the first entry in the series that can truly be described as an ensemble piece.  Tom Cruise is the star, but this time, he’s not the only one getting suspended above the floor, coming to blows with bad guys, or firing weapons.  The only action he lays exclusive claim to is running real fast, because, let’s face it, nobody runs as exhilaratingly as Tom Cruise.  Otherwise, the awesomeness is spread around the whole team, and this is undoubtedly the finest crew assembled for a M:I film.  Simon Pegg’s Benji is promoted to main character, providing both comic relief and all the requisite tech/hacker skills; Paula Patton’s Jane is the smart, kick-ass female carrying baggage from her last mission; and most exciting of all is Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”) as Brandt, an analyst whose skills mysteriously rival Ethan’s.  Cruise, the best guy in the business if you want a great ‘movie star’ performance, leads and holds the team together, but it’s the interpersonal dynamics that really sell this installment, and these four actors have tremendous chemistry together.

Then there are the set pieces.  My God, the set pieces.  Each and every one runs many layers deep, with each member of the team working a different action beat, and each sequence spirals into increasingly ridiculous – and thrilling – territory as they go along.  What makes them work so well is Bird’s total directorial command.  No matter how busy a sequence gets, the placement of the teammates is always clear, the action well shot, and the editing easy to follow; it’s never a confusing mish-mash of sound and imagery, a la Michael Bay.  Every action everybody takes carries weight at all times, and no matter how big things get, the mission-based structure of each sequence always lies at the heart of things.  That clarity, combined with a lighthearted, inviting tone, allows Bird to go wherever he wants with these set pieces.  A blindingly brilliant half-hour adventure in Dubai combines a climb on the world tallest building, a conversation brimming with slow-burn tension, fistfights, car chases, foot chases, and a raging sandstorm all in one.  Under normal circumstances, that combination just shouldn’t work, but with Bird at the helm, it’s one of the most exciting and inventive sequences ever committed to film. 

The film’s only weak spot is its occasionally underdeveloped narrative, but when the entire film is so infectiously fun, that’s a flaw I’m willing to forgive.  “Ghost Protocol” is a modern action classic, a sterling example of the genre at its best.  Brad Bird’s exquisite efforts, along with those of Cruise, Renner, Patton and Pegg – and, of course, composer Michael Giacchino, providing a score perfectly in tune with the imagery and energy of the film – elevate “Ghost Protocol” to greatness.  It’s not just the best of the series, but one of the most enjoyable, awe-inspiring cinematic experiences of the past year.  It’s not Bird’s deepest or smartest film, but putting himself in the running for the title of “best contemporary live-action blockbuster director” his first time behind real cameras is one hell of an accomplishment.  Film Rating: A–

Video Quality:

NOTE: Not a screenshot
Wow.  It’s hard to imagine “Ghost Protocol” – or any movie, for that matter – looking better than it does here. Shot on IMAX 70mm and standard 35mm in a variety of locations, employing all sorts of lighting scenarios and even subtly changing color schemes, the film features a complex and demanding image that, in lesser hands, could have gone south rather quickly.  Instead, Paramount has blessed “Ghost Protocol” with a nigh flawless transfer, one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous images in the format’s history.  Every color, from the darkest to brightest scenes, vibrantly leaps off the screen, contrast is exquisite, and there is an impossibly rich wealth of detail to be found in every last frame.  The Burj Khalifa scene looses absolutely none of its awe-inspiring power in the move to home video – and is now my go-to demo scene for Blu-ray skeptics – and the sandstorm chase arguably looks clearer here than it did in theatres.  “Ghost Protocol” isn’t a grainy film, but the transfer still looks incredibly film-like; it’s warm, sharp, and deep in all the ways we expect from a non-digital production. 

Some fans will, however, be disappointed that the film is presented in the 2.40:1 aspect ratio, a departure from its original IMAX presentation.  The majority of the film, shot in 35mm, was always shown that way, but for the IMAX footage, the screen opened up to the large-format ratio of 1.44:1 (or, in digital theatres, 1.78:1).  Other films presented this way, like “The Dark Knight” and “Tron: Legacy,” were released on Blu-Ray with shifting aspect ratios to preserve the IMAX experience.  Here, though, all the IMAX footage is matted down to match the surrounding material, as per director Brad Bird’s wishes.  I can see why he made the decision: consistent framing is arguably preferable to spectacle on a TV screen, and the tighter ratio serves the IMAX footage just as well as the rest of the film.  Compositionally, the film looks absolutely perfect in 2.40:1; I have no complaints about Bird’s choice.  That being said, it would have been preferable to have both versions of the film presented here through seamless branching, especially considering that as it stands, one can still clearly tell when the image switches to IMAX photography due to differing grain structures and depth of detail.

But as I said, there’s nothing wrong with the current framing, and the transfer itself is among the very best Blu-Ray has to offer.  No reason to complain. Video Rating: 5/5

Audio Quality:

The Dolby TrueHD 7.1 audio track is just as impressive as the video, if not more so.  I can count on one hand the number of Blu-Ray discs that the recreate the theatrical sonic experience as well as “Ghost Protocol.”  Every line of dialogue, every note of music, every shot fired and every blow landed comes through crisp, crystal clear, and with living-room-shaking impact (seriously, LFE activity on this disc is through the roof).  The sound is absolutely enveloping from beginning to end, with the sandstorm chase being a particular highlight.  If you saw “Ghost Protocol” in theatres, you know it’s a sonically powerful film, and you can expect the Blu-Ray audio to hit just as hard. Audio Rating: 5/5

Extras and Presentation:

Oddly enough, “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” arrives on Blu-Ray in two separate configurations.  The general retail release is a two-disc set – one Blu-Ray and one DVD, each containing the film, along with a digital copy code – while a Best Buy exclusive version (with alternate packaging) adds an additional Blu-Ray disc filled with over two hours of truly fantastic bonus material in high-definition.  Why this full-fledged release isn’t available everywhere is beyond me, but if you love “Ghost Protocol,” you will absolutely want to purchase the film from Best Buy. 

Tom Cruise actually did this. Damn.
All the extras are housed on the second Blu-Ray disc, split into four sections.  The first, Mission Accepted, is a 47-minute behind-the-scenes documentary split into three parts.  It’s comprised entirely of on-set footage, much of it pleasingly candid, accompanied by insightful voice-over interviews with the cast and crew, and follows the path of production from the first day of shooting to the last.  The first segment, Setting Up in Prague, details all the on-location shooting from that part of the world, including the material at the Kremlin and the botched mission that opens the film.  Next is Heating Up Dubai, my favorite bonus on the set, which gives us an in-depth look at the infamous Burj Khalifa sequence; turns out Tom Cruise really did do every part of the stunt, and it’s absolutely awe-inspiring to watch him run down the side of the world’s tallest building, stop, and casually ask if they need another take.  Say what you will about his personal life, but as an actor and producer, he is a dedicated man.  If you watch only one “Ghost Protocol” extra, make it this.  The documentary ends with Vancouver Fisticuffs, which details the soundstage portion of shooting, with special focus on the final battle in the parking structure. 

Mission Accepted is as slickly, smartly produced a behind-the-scenes feature as you’ll ever see, and luckily, there’s a lot more where that came from, because the second section, Impossible Missions, is identically produced and goes in-depth on everything the first documentary didn’t get around to.  Among other topics, we learn about the choreography of the prison fight, the logistics of shooting for IMAX, filming in a sandstorm, and composer Michael Giacchino’s process.  Fascinating, compelling material all around.  Impossible Missions runs a generous 51 minutes and includes eleven segments: The Russian Prison, Shooting in IMAX, Art Department, A Roll of Film, Life Masks, Stepping into the Storm, The Sandstorm, Dubai Car Crash, Lens on the Burj, Props, and Composer.    

Benji to the rescue
Next we have fifteen minutes of Deleted Scenes, all with optional commentary by director Brad Bird.  All of these scenes were rightfully cut, but watching them gives one tremendous insight into how Bird and company structured the finished film.  Bird’s commentary is wonderful; for instance, one of the scenes is presented just to show an alternate musical cue, and he gives a very thoughtful explanation for why he wanted us to hear the cue, why it was changed, and how he feels music impacts the film.  He’s a smart, smart guy, and if I have one complaint about this entire Blu-Ray set, it’s that it would have been fascinating to hear him give a full-length commentary on the film itself.  In any case, fans should watch these Deleted Scenes twice: once without commentary, and once with.  

Finally, the Trailers section offers two theatrical trailers for the movie, which are nice to have for archival purposes.  I really couldn’t be more impressed with this crop of Bonus Material; Blu-Ray has generally offered fewer and less interesting extras than DVD did back in its heyday, but Paramount has kept on producing quality features, and the second disc of “Ghost Protocol” is a master-class in producing excellent behind-the-scenes content.  The fact that it’s all presented in beautiful high-definition is just icing on the cake.  Just make sure you buy the Blu-Ray from Best Buy and you’ll be good to go. 

The package also includes a third disc with a DVD copy of the film, which I will likely never use, and a code for Ultraviolet and Downloadable Digital Copies.  Like many others, I’m not a big fan of Ultraviolet; the emphasis on streaming is great in theory but an abject failure in execution.  So also giving us the option for an iTunes download, which you can transfer to mobile devices, is a very nice solution.  It turns out that even on an iPad in standard definition, the Burj Khalifa scene still induces vertigo. Extras and Presentation Rating: 5/5

Final Thoughts:

When it comes to releasing new titles on Blu-Ray, Paramount has consistently been doing the best job among the major studios since the format’s inception.  “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol” is no exception.  With a flawless video presentation, theatre-quality surround sound, a comprehensive assortment of extras, and, of course, a fabulous film, this is easily one of the best Blu-Ray releases of all time.  Mission accomplished.   

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