Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol

              “Lights, Camera, Action … LOTS of Action!”

                               Review by Ken Burke
                                                    Sherlock Holmes 2
If the only way you can appreciate the concept of the great 19th century English detective is through 21st century non-stop action, then here it is; otherwise, don’t bother.

                                                                Mission: Impossible 4                 
However, if all you want is action without the cerebral intrusion of plot complexity then Cruise and company will leave you appropriately breathless so feel free to dive in.
            In our current economically-challenged society even the normally recession-proof movie industry has hit some hard times recently, so the arrival of the year-end holiday season and the concurrent box-office boost offered by a couple of noisy sequels has come as a welcome relief for studio executives and theatre owners.  I don’t think that either Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows or Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol are films that need that much reviewer energy (they provide their own internal combustion, to varying degrees of success and will survive on their own recognizance no matter what the critics say) but they are worth some commentary, just because of their subject matter, so here goes a combo commentary on both of them.

            The latest addition to the lengthy Sherlock Holmes canon should not be confused with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, despite the latter title’s apt description for what Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, and Noomi Rapace are doing to Holmes’ estimable legend.  Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud … also features a cast of well-known actors but put into the service of a very serious and seriously well-regarded drama about events pre- and post-9/11.  Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows shows respect for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s plot contrivances about the seeming death of the title character, but beyond that it appears that Ritchie wasn’t content to leave World War I to Steven Spielberg’s War Horse so he had to bring in an attempted early version of that insane war as well, whether it serves the Holmes legend or not.  Just as Extremely Loud … would actually be a slightly better comparison to the new Mission: Impossible because of the connections to international catastrophes and conspiracy theories, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn—Part 1 might be a better comparison, at least for me, to the Holmes film because both seem to have nothing but pandering to established audiences eager for more of their expected contents to justify their existence (although I’m sure that Bill Condon’s young lust love with vampires and werewolves story at least does more justice to Stephanie Meyer’s novel—but I’m not going to read it to find out—than Ritchie does to anything ever scribbled by Conan Doyle).

            It’s become a recurring pleasure to see Downey anchor both the Iron Man series (although that sequel—directed by Jon Favreau [2010] as one of the many preludes to Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, due in 2012—was also long on effects and short on substance) and the new Holmes series (oh yes, with this kind of return on investment we’re sure to see more of Sherlock and Watson; let’s just hope that the next one doesn’t do a Hound of the Baskervilles-like howl as loudly as this one does).  But, it does seem a waste of the Holmes persona to go so fully into the action-adventure mode in this movie rather than give us more of the mysterious mystery-solver that this character has personified for decades.  Similarly, the latest Mission: Impossible seems to be taking a hint from the recycled Sean Connery remake of Thunderball (Terence Young, 1965) into Never Say Never Again (Irvin Kershner, 1983) by evoking James Bond plot devices from Thunderball, Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971), and Moonraker (Lewis Gilbert, 1979)Sherlock Holmes 2 (for title expediency) also seems to be borrowing from Bond in upping the ante from merely a London locale to the level of international intrigue, diplomat assassination attempts, and an armaments monopoly maneuver that turns Dr. Moriarty into a 19th-century version of Ernst Blofeld or Auric Goldfinger.  Maybe everyone is just tired of waiting for Daniel Craig to get back from his sojourn in Sweden with that tattooed girl and return as the real Bond but we’ve certainly got plenty of opportunities to remember 007 in these current action attacks.

            “Attack” characterizes the plot of the Holmes film quite well because Sherlock is dodging fists, bullets, and bombs from all sides whether he’s in an alley, an exotic gentleman’s club, a train (with possible memories of Bond again, this time From Russia with Love [Terence Young, 1963]), the Paris opera house, a forest in Germany, or hovering over a dangerous waterfall at an 1891 peace summit.  Toward the end of all of these assaults Holmes even seems to sacrifice himself to avert war by plunging into the waterfall with Moriarty, just as they both were intended by Conan Doyle to die in “The Adventure of the Final Problem” short story, set in 1981, first published in 1893, with the same raging waterfall but a location in Switzerland rather than the film’s Germany.  But the author was persuaded by reader demand (and publisher payments) to bring the master sleuth back so in print we’re just told later by Watson that he didn’t die after all.  In this film’s ending we get a clearer explanation involving Mycroft Holmes’ (Sherlock’s brother) small oxygen mask for asthma (apparently as efficient a breathing device as those used by the Jedi knights on Naboo in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace [George Lucas, 1999]), but we also get an explicit appearance by Sherlock, brilliantly camouflaged in Watson’s furniture, assuring us that the game will soon be afoot again.  Hopefully, if Ritchie continues on as the director as he has been with the last two he’ll steer more toward a movie resembling the chess match between Holmes and Moriarty just before their “fatal” plunge rather than your great-grandfather’s adrenalin rush that we get here, where in addition to James Bond memories I also kept flashing on aspects of CSI, The Matrix, and Pulp Fiction as Holmes, Watson, and gypsy Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace) hurl toward their final destination.  However, I guess a change of direction is too much to expect from the guy who brought us such cerebral pleasures as RocknRolla (2008), Snatch (2000), and the pulse-pounding Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998).

             Speaking of Rapace (and her Tattoo mate, Michael Nyqvist, whom we’ll get to presently in M:I 4—another necessary title abbreviation), she proves herself to be more conventionally (and alluringly) feminine looking in this film than in the Lisbeth Salander trilogy (not that there’s anything wrong with her being a justifiably withdrawn, yet self-sufficient cyberpunk, a role she totally owns) but she’s also pleasingly tougher than expected for the 1890s (just as Holmes and Watson have more of a “bromance” than we’d expect for those days, but these films aren’t made for an 1890s audience).  Rapace exudes both charm and self-defense successfully, further verifying that we should be seeing her on screen for quite some time in whatever language, maybe even as a future consort for Holmes now that the attractively devious Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) has been dispatched by the dastardly Moriarty.  That would be welcome, but preferably in more of a game of wits rather than the slam-bang fest of narrow escapes served up in this movie.  I may be embracing a long-lost fondness for a slower-paced, puzzle-driven mystery story that doesn’t play to contemporary video-game action mentalities, but I still prefer to encounter Holmes as a mastermind classical detective (he’s practically the archetype of this aspect of the clue-sniffer genre, except for the even earlier 19th century Edger Allen Poe mystery stories) rather than just another of the now more common “hardboiled” variety (first popularized by the novels of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Mickey Spillane, embodied in characters such as Sam Spade [The Maltese Falcon, John Huston, 1941], Philip Marlowe [The Big Sleep, Howard Hawks, 1946], and Mike Hammer [Kiss Me Deadly, Robert Aldrich, 1955]).  A lot of negative commentary similar to mine has been directed at this film, but reviewers’ criticisms pale in comparison to turnstile tickets so maybe if I want intellectual detectives I’d better watch Columbo TV reruns or a DVD of The Seven- Per-Cent Solution (Herbert Ross, 1976) and let Downey’s Sherlock continue to explore his wilder side for a younger crowd who can appreciate it more.

            On the other hand, when I see a Mission: Impossible film I expect non-stop action, seemingly implausible physical feats, and a plot that just propels me along rather than expecting me to catch its nuances.  In this sense the newest addition to Tom Cruise’s career life preserver is wonderfully fast, expensive, and almost out of control—all in a very good way.  It’s not that these movies are so effectively self-contained that they don’t still need strong direction (which they’ve had in abundance, with Brian De Palma guiding the first one in 1996, John Woo the second in 2000, J.J. Abrams in 2006, and now Pixar’s Brad Bird).  But with their successful heritage from the 1960s TV series, filled each week with fascinating plot contrivances, sophisticated spy technology, and ingenious disguises, the important directorial choice is simply not to make the situation complex in a traditional Sherlock Holmes manner where to truly appreciate the narrative you must eventually understand all of the twists and turns and see how the clues dangled before you come together at the end in a meaningful whole.  With the M:I films, just like the Bonds before and alongside them (sometimes a bit too much so as noted above for Ghost Protocol), what we expect is the effect of a bomb being rolled down a bowling alley lane so that either the pins are sent flying along with the rest of the building when all hell breaks loose or somehow those crafty agents are able to divert the rolling bomb just in time into a bucket of beers behind another lane to prevent the detonation.  Anything more complex than that, despite the requisite number of confusing characters and muddled motivations that don’t have to be understood anyway, would be an unwelcome reversal of formula, disappointing the intended M:I audience—which would now include me—in the same way that A Game of Shadows ultimately disappoints those of us who want to slow down and think a bit with Holmes, just as we do with his far-distant TV cousin in House.  Brad Bird certainly doesn’t disappoint those Impossible expectations and neither does his well-chosen cast, despite the almost unstoppable events that they face this time around.

            In the course of the film’s 133 min. running time we travel to Budapest (probably shot in Prague), Moscow, Dubai, Mumbai, San Francisco, and Seattle (Vancouver was in there somewhere, probably in disguise as the U. S. crown of the Northwest).  The most visually stunning images occur in two of these settings, the first being the bombing of the Kremlin, a terrorist act blamed on Ethan Hunt’s (Cruise) IMF team, leading to American disavowal of them and greatly compromising their needed resources to keep a madman from detonating a nuclear warhead, thereby touching off Armageddon just so humankind will have to evolve into a more robust species (see, I told you that you don’t need a lot of plot details: just crazy man, missile, and we gotta stop that!).  A related amazing sequence takes place in a Moscow prison where we begin the film with Hunt incarcerated, only to be sprung by Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton), whose skills with computer hacking and properly-supplied escape vehicles convince us that two people are a match for one of the world’s most heavily-fortified jails (the chaotic scene of prisoners running wild as their cell doors suddenly swing open is reminiscent of the jailbreak in Natural Born Killers [Oliver Stone, 1994], although here it’s bodies flying around the screen rather than blood).  Once Ethan’s on the loose (and, based on the images we see of him through the prison system’s video monitors, even he seems a bit surprised when the breakout begins, but not so much that he doesn’t insist on going a bit rogue to make sure that he also saves a needed informant—just wait until the third act, after you’ve completely forgotten about him, to see why this guy is needed), he says “Light the fuse,” which does have minor plot meaning as an eventual aspect of the escape distraction but for us it just leads into the perfunctory but extremely well-executed opening credits montage that’s impossibly active but almost worth the price of admission alone.

            The other stunning aspect of this movie is the exterior tower scrambling on the actual world’s tallest building high above the deserts of Dubai.  We’d never expect something so demanding and dangerous to go well—it doesn’t, until the last possible moment—but that’s all to our advantage as we climb, fall, and swirl along with Ethan high above the city, looking out over a landscape that could easily be from the Star Wars galaxy.  To top this off, we then go through a clever subterfuge in which two separate villains are seemingly bamboozled by the crackerjack IMF’ers, but no victory goes unchallenged here so one baddie finally takes the long-awaited fall from the upper stories of the skyscraper and the other engages Ethan in a wild car chase through a completely blinding sandstorm.  You might think this would already be enough stimulation for any three ordinary action-adventure films (a genre I still say is ill-suited to Sherlock Holmes, even if we do get to see slo-mo previews of how he’s going to outfight his foes), but in M:I 4 all this is just a prelude to the real crisis awaiting, requiring even more split-second timing and last second rescues.  We’d just better hope that the reauthorized IMF team is around on December 21, 2012 to prevent that Mayan end-of-the-world prophecy from being fulfilled (Cruise can finally put his Scientology training to good use instead of using it to form anti-anti-depressants diatribes on talk television). 

In the end, there’s nothing substantial about the narrative qualities of the Mission: Impossible films including Ghost Protocol, but, unlike the original Sherlock Holmes stories, they’re not pretending to be good literature, just a good holiday escape from the harsh realities of paying bills (ironically, including the constantly higher prices of movie tickets), a goal well reached by Brad Bird in his first foray into the world of live action films, in this case extremely “live” action.  We even get to see somber Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) from the Swedish dragon tattoo films transformed into Kurt Hendricks, a Swedish-born Russian more deadly than Lisbeth Salander, in M:I 4 where’s he’s now the mad bomber villain taking Darwinism to ridiculous extremes.  Likewise, Jeremy Renner gets to continue his move away from the serious worlds of The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009) and The Town (Ben Affleck, 2010) into the secret agent role of William Brandt, a capable, ultimately compatible partner for Ethan Hunt, so this team will likely endure into even more preposterous but spine-tingling adventures at least until Cruise takes his desire to do his own stunts off one too many a cliff.  Unlike with the Sherlock Holmes films, though, I hope the next one of the Impossibles doesn’t take the intellectual route because this series needs to keep its all-action all-the-time focus to keep from falling off its own cliff of plausible deniability. Accept this Mission but leave Holmes in the Shadows for now.

            If you’d like to explore Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in more depth here are some recommended links:

If you’d like to explore Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol in more depth here are some recommended links:

We encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  You’ll also see our general Spoiler Alert warning that reminds you we’ll be discussing whatever plot details are needed for our comments so please be aware of this when reading any of our reviews and be aware of our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our control.

Please note that to Post a Comment you need to either have a Google account (which you can easily get at https://accounts.google.com/NewAccount if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.


  1. I love your writing - so great how you can tie these two movies together so well. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks much! Now if we could just get some more readers we'd really be rolling. Onward to 2012!