The double threat of Austin Powers and Jason Bourne meant that the 40-year-old James Bond franchise needed a serious makeover if it was to survive into the 21st century, a herculean task given to two men: director Martin Campbell, who had helped revive 007 once before, with Goldeneye; and Daniel Craig, seemingly controversial casting for the suave secret agent, which proved to be a master stroke – though the contribution of Academy Award-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis should not be underestimated, for helping Bond regular Neal Purvis and Robert Wade expunge the memory of Peter Sellers, Woody Allen, David Niven et al. in Casino Royale’s 1967 namesake. A truly 21st century Bond called for a suitably forward-looking format, and high definition could hardly have come along at a better time: gritty it may have been, but Casino Royale’s 1080p full HD picture was as sharp as a Savile Row suit, giving Blu-ray its first must-own title. With the Blu-ray vs HD-DVD battle at its bloodiest, one might think the studio behind Blu-ray would use its biggest release as an excuse to showcase the format’s possibilities, especially on such a ground-breaking title. Instead, the content of the initial Blu-ray release – making of docus, newswraps, pop video, etc – was fairly standard fare for a Bond title, although most were presented in high-def. All that was solved by the appearance last year of the 2-disc Deluxe Edition, which polished the picture and sound to perfection, and boasted more additional features than Bond’s Aston Martin, including two Blu-ray exclusives: picture-in-picture commentary and an interactive quiz.
Jan De Bont’s kinetic action thriller not only perfected the Die Hard formula, it also showed off Blu-ray’s capacity to make older films look new again: thanks to its shiny HD makeover, even this extras-challenged edition made “The Bus That Couldn’t Slow Down” feel like a brand new film.
For those with the need for a different kind of speed, Tony Scott’s story of fighter jets fuelled by pure testosterone remains terminally trapped in the ‘80s, a decade of high gloss sadly under-represented by hi-def transfers like this one. The disc comes fully loaded, too, its best feature being a lengthy retrospective documentary.
The other great comic book movie of 2008, Jon Favreau’s Iron Man was more playful, but no less impressive in hi-def, a ray of light to the dark knight’s shade. Extras abound – including The Onion’s unforgettable news item “Wildly Popular Iron Man Trailer To Be Adapted Into Full Length Film.”
Shorn of its third dimension, this imaginative update of the gruesome legend of Beowulf and Grendel – starring Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins and Sean Bea– ahem, Ray Winstone – is a superb showcase for Robert Zemeckis’ favoured style of motion-capture CG animation, and comes with plenty of how-do-they-do-that extras.
Kill Bill 1 & 2
It’s over-priced and woefully light on extras, but the colourful characters and masterful fight choreography of Quentin Tarantino’s indulgent, opulent epic are superbly realized in high definition. From The Bride’s yellow suit to the snowbound battle between Uma Thurman and Lucy Liu, Blu-ray’s impressive colour palette is pushed to the limit.
Mission Impossible 3
Blu-ray gives the perfect excuse to revisit the third and best of Tom Cruise’s action-packed outings as impossible mission specialist Ethan Hunt, with typically impressive stunts and set pieces, a memorable turn by Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman, and J.J. Abrams at the helm. Packed with extras, too.
Equally worthy of a second look is this overlooked gem of an action thriller, starring John Travolta and X-Men alumni Hugh Jackman (sans claws) and Halle Barry (sans bikini top). With pin-sharp pictures and Paul Okenfold’s pounding score, Blu-ray gives the film a new lease of life – another of the format’s many gifts.
Even if it sometimes looks like a toy ad, few could deny the sheer entertainment value of Michael Bay’s shape-shifting robots, and Shia LaBoeuf neatly humanises the battle. But it’s the spectacular effects you’ll return to on Blu-ray – freeze frame any image, look closely, and you can see a million dollars’ worth of rendering time.
The Dark Knight
With a transfer to die for, six IMAX® scenes preserved in their initial ratio, and copious extras, the bestselling Blu-ray of Christopher Nolan’s dark-as-balls masterpiece defines Batman and the hi-def format, making Burton’s Batman – and even Nicholson’s once-unassailable Joker – look almost as old-fashioned as the camp crusader of the ‘60s.
A silly villain let down the (otherwise excellent) first film, the second part was the best… but Sam Raimi’s kid-friendly, go-for-broke threequel has the eye-grabbing special effects set pieces Blu-ray showcases are made of. It’s mastered to perfection – you can literally see every grain of Sandman – with spectacular sound, and packed with hi-def goodies.
Unjustly overlooked on the big screen, yet there’s much to like about Will Smith’s performance as the indestructible yet incorrigable stupor hero – and when it comes to flying sequences, Hancock could give Spidey a run for his money. The bonus material is exhaustive, and there’s a bonus standard-def digital copy thrown in.
Quantum of Solace
Jason Bourne’s influence on Bond was most obvious in Daniel Craig’s back-to-basics second outing as 007, less a stand-alone Bond film than a sequel to Casino Royale (not necessarily a bad thing). Although light on humour (again, not a bad thing), there’s no shortage of action, and the outstanding transfer is to die for.
This shamelessly entertaining comic book adaptation is unmistakably the work of Nightwatch director Timur Bekmambetov, and having Angelina Jolie, Morgan Freeman and James McEvoy for your first Hollywood film is no bad thing. Dazzling special effects, speaker-melting sound and plentiful extras – and a BD-Live feature where you can add your own commentary.
All three sequels have their strong points – and look terrific on Blu-ray – but for most, Bruce Willis’ first outing as wrong-guy-in-the-wrong-place John McClane will always be the favourite. Director John McTiernan’s commentary is fascinating, too – but it’s the HD transfer and DTS sound that will blow you away. Yippee-kay-ay!
Whether or not John Rambo’s first outing was ever meant to look this sharp – for some, the gritty and grainier, the better – may be a moot point: no one wants fuzzy action films, and Sylvester Stallone’s decade-defining action flick is also available on standard-def DVD. The best manhunt movie ever made?
‘Painstaking’ doesn’t begin to describe the restoration and remastering process the Bond films underwent for 2006’s Ultimate Editions, to say little of the abundance of extras on every release. Arguably the best of the older Bonds currently available on Blu-ray, Goldfinger’s pictures are so sharp you’d think the film was set in the ‘60s, rather than made in the ‘60s.
Peter Jackson’s epic monster movie remake could have been made to show off Blu-ray’s possibilities. A flawless transfer (check out Kong’s fur!), earthquake-inducing sound (the dinosaur stampede!), and the inclusion of both the theatrical and extended versions of the film (the latter with Jackson’s commentary) make this a must buy.
Hellboy II: The Golden Army
The first Hellboy was cleverly cast, competently made and well-intentioned, but it was with Guillermo del Toro’s ambitious sequel that the world’s weirdest comic book hero really came into his own. Unlike so many blockbusters, the superb special effects serve the story and characters, rather than the other way round, and there are extras galore.