Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I saw the new Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes movie on the same night I saw the new Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible movie. The former sags in the middle, but has a satisfying conclusion. The latter has a tremendous second act (more on that below) but fell flat for me at the end.

Here’s what Holmes II gets wrong: Noomi Rapace’s character seems like she’s going to be interesting, and isn’t. Many of the action scenes in the film lack clear stakes and a sense of purpose. They also defy physics or Holmes relies on luck rather than clever deduction. We care little about the characters who die, so their deaths are dramatically meaningless.

Here’s what the movie gets right: a lot of the action that seemed inexplicable ends up having a great explanation. Like The Sixth Sense, the entire film (nearly) gets reinterpreted in flashbacks, and we are given the iconic moment of Holmes and his nemesis Moriarty (Jared Harris) going over Richenbacher Falls in a deathgrip.

So while fans of the traditional Holmes stories may prefer the excellent BBC series Sherlock as more in the Conan Doyle tradition of mystery-solving rather than action-heroism, I’m willing to accept the Guy Ritchie-directed franchise for what it is. It still treats the audience as intelligent observers who are one step behind a crime-solving genius who has little regard for social norms. Downey, Jr. and Jude Law (as Watson) have great snappy banter and this movie adds in the droll Stephen Fry as a bonus Holmes, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.

Mission: Impossible: Ghost Protocol

I’m not the only one who found Ghost Protocol just okay. I’ve seen every film in the series, and I remember liking the last one, co-written and directed by J.J. Abrams, a little better. This one is a fitting sequel, and I like the idea of playing with the expectations the audience has about the backstory of Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), even I didn’t go for the payoff.

The action scenes are all aces. First, we have Sawyer from LOST (John Holloway) playing an Ethan-Hunt-like agent stealing some state secret. Next, a comical escape from a Russian prison. Then, there’s the breaking into the Kremlin. But the best is when the characters move to Dubai, for an extended sequence that involves scaling the tallest building in the world with special gloves, a sting operation and a foot-and-car chase inside a sandstorm.

I think director Brad Bird can add “accomplished action director” to “accomplished animation director” on his resume. My issues are with the some elements of the story, credited to Josh Appelbaum and André Nemec (t.v. showrunners of October Road and Happytown). Jeremy Renner’s character’s behavior makes little sense once you know his secret and the big action scene at the end can’t even come close to topping the Dubai sequence. The villain is under-developed and the coda at the end felt un-earned.

This could, of course, be because parts of the script were cut by Bird and the producers. In any case, the box office numbers and Rotten Tomatoes score for the film would seem to validate the filmmakers’ instincts. They have certainly succeeded in delivering a Mission Impossible franchise film — I’m not disputing that. I was just hoping they might elevate it above the other films in the series.

For all its dull middle and story issues, I still preferred Game of Shadows to Ghost Protocol because it had a satisfying ending. My own personal preference, but there it is.