When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary consulting detective was dusted off and re-interpreted for the big screen by Guy Ritchie in 2009, the result was a light and breezy but intriguing and re-invigorating take on one of the most adapted characters of all time. It proved that there was still life left in Holmes, as well as a place for him in the 21st century. It was no surprise that a sequel was quickly put into production — too quickly apparently, as Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows suffers from a distinct case of sequelitis: the same thing as before, only more of it.
The murky plot involves Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) attempting to disrupt the nefarious plans Professor James Moriarity (well-played by character actor Jared Harris), a distinguished Oxford mathematics professor who is secretly a “Napoleon of Crime”, pulling the strings on a number of plots designed to bring about war on a global scale.
To thwart him, Holmes badgers his right-hand man Dr. Watson (Jude Law) into assisting him on the eve of the latter’s impending marriage; alo joining them is a gypsy named Simsa (Swedish actress Noomi Rapace, the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), whose anarchist brother is somehow involved in the plot, and Holmes’ brother Mycroft (the always superb Stephen Fry).
It’s pretty straightforward fare, well-suited for Ritchie’s take on Holmes and the pseudo-steampunk aesthetic he opts for, but it’s undone by a murky narrative that opts for confusing over complex while rushing from one stylishly shot but poorly edited action setpiece to the next. The movie spins its wheels for much of the first two acts: Holmes is still miffed about losing Watson to marriage (been there, done that, got the souvenir t-shirt, and there’s no need to go back again), Downey indulges in a number of fanciful disguises, Rapace and Fry are given little to do, and Downey and Law are stil a good duo, even though their shtick feels labored this time around.
Oddly, it glosses over what should have been the meat of the story, the cat-and-mouse game between Holmes and his nemesis. Their limited encounters don’t heat up until the climax, which includes a cleverly revised take on their fateful battle at Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. It’s not until that point that Game of Shadows comes alive; unfortunately, it’s too late to make us care.
Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, on the other hand, is surprisingly more effective as a sequel. The first three films in the series all felt like the noodlings of talented but seemingly bored directors: Brian De Palma’s rambling, impenetrable narrative, John Woo’s operatic action punctuated by more doves and religioous iconography than an ’80s-era Madonna video, and virgin director J.J. Abrams laying it on thick with a technique that played like Michael Bay Lite. This time around, Brad Bird (who won Oscars for directing Ratatouille and The Incredibles) makes his live action debut with an entry that’s just as silly as the others, but a lot more fun.
The movie opens with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) being busted out of a Russian prison by his IMF teammates Benji (the always enjoyable Simon Pegg, who returns from M:I3) and Jane (Paula Patton) and quickly put on the trail of a rogue scientist (Michael Nyqvist, Noomi Rapace’s Dragon Tattoo co-star) hell-bent on initiating a nuclear war. Ethan and his colleagues are framed for a devastating attack on the Kremlin, and they are forced to go underground along with intelligence analyst Brandt (Jeremy Renner) in order to stop the impeding armageddon.
It’s fairly simple stuff, but most of this kind of spy-fi is. Ghost Protocol makes it work by borrowing the basic formula of the ’60s-era Bond franchise: a fast-paced story that globetrots from one exotic locale to the next, each populated with eccentric villains, beautiful women, and nifty gadgets. (Though the IMF’s supply of the latter makes 007’s friends at Q Branch look like Radio Shack rejects.) The required action sequences include the aforementioned scenes in Russia, a trip to the Burj Khalifa in Dhubai (the world’s tallest building, which Cruise gamely scales the side of without use of a stunt double), and a manic conclusion in a automated parking garage in Mumbai.
Yes, it’s goofy — but it’s an incredibly fun goofy. Those opining the turn towards the srious taken by the Bond franchise will find what they’re jonesing for here. Bird turns out to be an inspired choice of director, putting the emphasis on excitement and adventure, and proving himself capable of navigating the narrative twists that both the TV and film series were known for while keeping the story easy to follow and the pace so brisk that you don’t feel it’s hefty 132 minutes.