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

After the year-end glut of prestige pictures and awards bait, it's kind of a relief to settle in for a pair of high-concept blockbusters that have no greater ambition beyond blowing stuff up real good. That's the mission statement behind Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, the second and fourth installments in their respective franchises. The former reunites director Guy Ritchie with Robert Downey Jr. as a strapping, ass-kicking Sherlock and Jude Law as his right hand man/pseudo boyfriend Dr. Watson. The latter matches Pixar wizard Brad Bird (making his live-action directorial debut) with Tom Cruise reprising his role as Ethan Hunt, the Impossible Missions Force's premiere covert agent. Both films emphasize spectacle over story (Ghost Protocol even more so, since several sequences were filmed using IMAX cameras), action over acting and explosions over erudition. But only one of them actually makes good on its promise of escapist entertainment.

Let's start with Ghost Protocol, which opens exclusively on IMAX screens today before making its way into "ordinary" theaters next week. (It's worth noting that a six-minute clip from The Dark Knight Rises will precede Ghost Protocol at select IMAX locations. Not since the first trailer for The Phantom Menace was slapped ahead of Meet Joe Black has a teaser so completely overshadowed the main feature.) One of the things I've enjoyed about the Mission: Impossible franchise up to this point is the way that each individual film functions as a standalone adventure, and that encapsulates the specific style and interests of the director behind the camera. Brian De Palma's savvy inaugural installment was a twisty, improbably-plotted conspiracy-minded thriller filled with double-crosses, surprise deaths and homage-filled setpieces. John Woo's problematic follow-up had all the flapping doves, slow motion shoot-outs and overripe male melodrama that marked his beloved Hong Kong films like The Killer and Hard Boiled, although it lacked the wit present in those pictures and Woo's best American movie, Face Off. And with its time-shifting narrative, strong team dynamics and scenery-chewing villain (a terrific Philip Seymour Hoffman), J.J. Abrams's underrated third adventure played like a big-screen version of his superb Alias pilot and I mean that in a good way. Like the old Bond movies, there was very little in the way of continuity between Hunt's missions, which gave each director an opportunity to shape the material to fit his specific vision without having to be beholden to a pre-existing mythology.

The most disappointing thing about Ghost Protocol then, is how impersonal it feels when placed alongside the previous three films. This is not to say that Bird botches his first big live-action directing gig. Far from it: from a purely technical standpoint, Ghost Protocol ranks toward the top of the list of the year's best studio-made blockbusters. The action sequences are cleanly choreographed coherently edited and mostly free of CGI-clutter, from the opening prison-break sequence -- scored to the tune of Dean Martin's "Ain't That a Kick In the Head" -- to the concluding battle royale inside a car park that houses one of those rotating vehicle elevators. And for the movie's centerpiece, Bird stages a franchise-best stunt that features Cruise scaling the side of Dubai's gargantuan Burj Khalifa tower. (This sequence was filmed in IMAX and it absolutely deserves to be seen in that format. I don't generally have a fear of heights, but several of the IMAX-sized shots of Cruise dangling above a 1,500-foot vertical drop had me sweating like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.)

So yes, Bird absolutely has what it takes to play with the big boys at the live action table. But while Ghost Protocol is an above-average piece of studio fare, I had hoped for something a little more distinctive from the maker of one of the finest superhero movies ever, The Incredibles. Apart from a few comic beats that are folded into the proceedings (the aforementioned use of the Dean Martin jingle and another scene where Cruise has to try and access a retinal scan on a moving train), Bird's personality -- including his love of '50s and '60s pop culture and that vaguely Ayn Randian strain of thought about the supremacy of being "special" that runs through The Incredibles and Ratatouille -- is largely absent from the screen. It doesn't help that the story is thin even by Mission: Impossible standards, with Hunt and his team chasing a super-generic Russian bad guy around the globe in order to retrieve a rogue nuclear device and clear their name after being framed for blowing up the Kremlin. And while Cruise commits to his outsized heroics with his usual intensity, the cast around him is completely unmemorable. As the designated hot girl, Paula Patton is so wooden, you could use her as a floatation device; comic relief Simon Pegg (the only holdover from the last movie) seems as if he'd rather be back aboard the starship Enterprise and new-guy-with-a-secret Jeremy Renner displays little of the dangerous charisma he had in The Hurt Locker. Now that Bird has proven he can shoot the hell out of an action sequence, here's hoping he brings the same care to the story and characters on his next assignment... should he choose to accept it.

Flawed as Ghost Protocol may be, it's like the second coming of Star Wars when placed alongside A Game of Shadows, one of the most obnoxious, sloppily-made "entertainments" I've suffered through all year. I wasn't a big fan of the first Sherlock Holmes either, but at least it offered a version of the titular British detective that departed from the classic Sherlock norm, but still bore some resemblance to the character Arthur Conan Doyle created one hundred-plus years ago. In Shadows, Ritchie and Downey have stopped pretending that the guy is anyone besides Tony Stark with a bad British accent and 19th century clothes. The movie doesn't even bother to give Sherlock a mystery to solve, instead dispatching him to various locations around Europe where he beats up some bad guys and periodically checks in with his monologuing nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, a great bit of casting that sadly doesn't pay off). As always, his faithful sidekick Watson tags along beside him and to ensure that this ambiguously gay duo stays ambiguously gay, they're given a new female companion, a Gypsy named Sim (Noomi Rapace), whom the press notes describe as "mysterious," probably because it's a mystery why she's in the movie at all given that she mostly stands around while Downey and Law mug shamelessly for the camera. Whatever charm the duo had in their previous adventure has long since worn off; indeed, they each seem as bored with the other one's shtick as we are.

I'd describe the plot in more detail, but why bother, since it doesn't make any sense anyway. The broad gist of it is that Moriarty has concocted a scheme to start World War I a few decades early and then profit from the carnage by selling weapons to both sides. Holmes stumbles back-asswards into this conspiracy and attempts to thwart his enemy by dressing up in various disguises, brawling in brothels and munitions factories and in general doing everything besides, you know, actual detective work. Behind the camera, Ritchie tries to hide the fact that he can't shoot an action sequence to save his life by drowning the set-pieces in post-production effects, like egregious uses of slow motion and rapid cutting that hides the general crappiness of the fight choreography. If Ghost Protocol's Burj sequence encapsulates everything that film does well, the scene in which Holmes, Watson and Sim run through the German forest while bullets whiz by them in Matrix-style bullet time sums up why Shadows is such an epic bust. It's a derivative, lazy piece of hackwork that's not even stylish enough to successfully qualify as style over substance.

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