Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ahhh, escapism. Nothing takes the bad taste of grumpy holiday shoppers, vacation traffic, or family kurfuffles away like bomb blasts, a high speed chase, or a good bludgeoning in slomo. With that in mind, the makers of sequels for both “Sherlock Holmes” and “Mission Impossible” offer their bits of distraction just in time. Next time someone cuts us off, or a family member gets passive aggressive, we can imagine ourselves throwing poison darts, escaping on the roof of a high-speed train or climbing up the tallest building in the world.

There is plenty to enjoy in both films. They are indeed essentially pure, unapologetic escapism. There’s little deeper message, nothing we walk away contemplating, no moral conundrum to discuss. Which of these two movies, if pressed, should you choose? They are both such fun distraction, the siren would say make room to see both.

“Mission Impossible” is a movie that is better crafted and more engaging all the way around, but Downey Jr. and Law make such a rare pair they make “Sherlock” an entertaining diversion.

“Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”
There’s a lot to be said for believing Tom Cruise, an actor who has suffered repeated bad press of late, a 15 year-old franchise, and a director known for Pixar animation greats “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” who has never helmed a live-action movie is a recipe for disaster.
And yet, they come together, along with Simon Pegg (back from MI3), and franchise newcomers Jeremy Renner and Paula Patton, to make one of the most exciting action flicks in recent memory… I knew when they repeatedly moved up the opening date, it was a sign we were in for something really great.

Things go wrong from the very start. A member of the IMF is assassinated during an Eastern European mission, dying in the arms of a distraught teammate. Cut to Russia, where Ethan Hunt, in prison, is being rescued by agents Benji Dunn (Pegg, now the computer genius, is a new field agent) and Jane Carter (Patton, she of the aforementioned Eastern European mission). He discovers there’s dastardly doings in the Kremlin, which they infiltrate only to get implicated in a bomb attack that destroys it. They are all disavowed, dropped like Russian potato vodka, and go rogue to clear their names. As the poster tag line says, “No plan, no back up.”

Enter Bond-villainesque super baddie (and, one assumes, evil genius) Hendricks, who is attempting to instigate a humanity reboot, nuclear apocalypse style. An enigmatic analyst, played by the always wonderful Renner (Oscar nominated for “Hurt Locker”) gets caught in the crossfire, literally, and is thrust into the action and onto the team. There are launch codes, diamonds, and lots of high-tech gadgetry involved, with no central support, leaving them to depend on wit, grit, and each other’s support to essentially save the world.

They’re like the little covert team that could. Simon Pegg’s Benji is the comic relief, although he is as fully committed and aware of the stakes he can’t help but be pithy or point out the absurdity of their circumstances. As Ethan is begrudgingly about to climb the outside of Dubhai’s Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building) he explains the color coding on the special gloves, which turn out to be less dependable then one over 100 stories up would want, “Remember, blue=glue. Red….dead.”

And that’s another thing we can connect to as an audience. Not all the super gadgets and computer doodads work like they should. A pesky sandstorm throws everything out of whack. They almost get discovered through a slow computer download. A computer crash almost results in the end of the world. I hate when that happens.

Tom Cruise plays Ethan like he’s game for anything, tired of it all, but always just turning towards the way to make things work. He’s solving the problem, and making things right, damn it, and no one’s going to stop him. He’s got no time to be wound tightly, he’s too busy just trying not to get killed and stop the next oncoming disaster. The mounting number of bruises and internal injuries don’t stop him, but he’s no Terminator. He just has a job to do. We may not be super spies, but we can relate to his “Really? What next? Go outside and scale the world’s tallest building? OK, If I have to.”

The siren is no big fan of Mr. Cruise, but respect has to be paid to him here, especially since he did much of his own stunt work. Good on you, Tom.

Brad Bird’s direction is sharp and targeted as one might expect from one of Pixar’s secret weapons, who clearly showed his love and appreciation for spies and intrigue with “The Incredibles.” His experience is with directing animated movies that connect viewers to characters brought to life inside a computer, and without concern for physical limitations. I’d imagine no script would seem too outrageous, no action scene too extreme to attempt, and that “sky’s the limit” attitude shows up early in the physics-defying business of the prison breakout and in all in the best action sequences.

Also, he made us love a rat in “Ratatouille,” so he can certainly make us feel for obsessive super spies like Ethan Hunt and his crew. There’s a heart in this MI missing in the Brian De Palma, John Woo, and JJ Abrams installments. By the end, we care about the characters and their personalities enough that we start anticipating MI5, but only with him in charge.

“Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows”
“Sherlock Holmes” is a visual delight full of noisy fun, worthy of repeated viewing, but doesn’t keep us as glued to the screen as MI4 does.

This sequel, directed as was the first, by Guy Ritchie (of “Snatch,” and soon to be working on “Man from U.N.C.L.E.”) will be hated with the same vigor by the group of cynical literary purists who hated the first Sherlock for adding ju jitsu, barefisted brawling and a fearless disregard for life and limb to his personal attributes. Those who welcomed the cinematic re-interpretation of the famed Baker Street detective are rewarded with a fun and exciting period action-er where the plot speeds like a runaway freight train, the bromantic quip-filled interaction between the leads satisfies and entertains, and the fight sequences are an impressively orchestrated symphony of fists.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are back as Sherlock and Watson, in the second story featuring this amped up, perpetually black-eyed version of the duo. It is their movie, of course, together. The way they banter, bicker, and partner through the danger and mystery is largely the reason to go see it. It is impressive that Downey Jr, who is in two of the largest franchises currently being produced (Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man), can so clearly separate the characters as to define them and delight his audience with two such abrasive fellows who are so hard to like.

With both it is their genius we appreciate. We remain loyal to the sociopathic narcissistic Sherlock even after he disrupts Watson’s honeymoon, he says (and believes), “Be honest, isn’t this more fun than your honeymoon in Brighton would have been?”

As Watson and his romantic match are preparing to wed and honeymoon, Holmes is obsessing over his intellectual match, the diabolical yet staid Professor Moriarty. Holmes suspects he is the puppetmaster pulling the behind the scenes strings that could lead to an early world war 1, thusly making him king of world industry. Moriarty kills by proxy through various henchmen, such a gentleman is he. The movie is littered with the carcasses of those who have displeased him, gotten in his way, or cease to be of use to him. Sherlock has wind of his machinations, but Moriarty is constantly one step ahead of him.

The thin easy to follow plot has our detective team chasing down Moriarty and his henchmen while attempting to stop the start of war, with the help of gypsy Madam Simza Heron, (played by the underutilized Noomi Rapace), who is searching for the brother that has gone missing and is suspected to be involved in Moriarty’s plot. Stephen Fry, who is always a pleasure to see featured onscreen, plays Sherlock’s equally quirky brother Mycroft. Rachel McAdams reprises her role as Irene for a brief time, and Kelly Reilly is a feisty & strong as character Mary Watson, the new and endlessly patient bride to the Doctor.

The movie isn’t perfect. Someone needs to outlaw the leeching of color in film. We know it’s the dirty old late 1880’s, we won’t forget it. Now use a wider palate. The script feels a bit like action sequences strung together. However, the brash charisma of Downy Jr. as Holmes and the subdued grace of Law’s Watson keeps us connected to their journey, and keeps us rooting for them to prevail.

No question in this bombastic sequel there’s a lot of noise. The theatre-shaking explosions come often and can be jarring. There’s also much slow motion fighting. In these sequences we see Holmes’s brain working and experience the speed of his deductive reasoning, which, of course, is his superpower. These slow motion run throughs as he is imagining how the course of a brawl might go, and the subsequent real time sequences, offer a unique, updated way of showing his intellect manifesting physically. This Holmes is so great in part because he can use the same genius he uses to solve crimes to throw punches.

The last part of the film is by far the best, in which the showdown between Holmes and Moriarty takes place. They are so very polite and articulate as they discuss killing each other. It is a match of wits that culminates in an exciting visual climax and gasp worthy plot twist.

Overall, this sequel, that has zero self importance, delivers dynamic performances, a great score by Hans Zimmer, and globetrotting on an epic scale, is a great way to distract and immerse yourself into detective fantasy.

So. It’s the holidays. There are more movies coming: Spielberg’s twofer “The Adventures of Tintin” and “War Horse,” Cameron Crowe’s “We Bought A Zoo” and David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.” There are some great movies already out, like “Hugo” and “Arthur Christmas.” But if you want pure escapism this weekend before you venture out again for shopping or driving, you won’t do better than Sherlock and Mission…

And if you feel stressed, Cinema Siren wants you to escape. Why don’t you run away to the movies?