If we can stop [Moriarty], we shall prevent the collapse of Western civilization… No pressure.
War, war, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing — unless you’re in the arms business, of course. Or an anarchist hoping to sit back and watch the Old World Order bleed. Both Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and MI:4—Ghost Protocol revolve around plots to set the world on fire by turning would-be allies into adversaries. Wackiness, of course, ensues.
This time out our old friend Sherlock (Robert Downey Jr.), a master of disguise and the martial arts, is out to discover who’s really behind the recent terror attacks in London town. Anarchists! it is said. Yes, but we know who the true mastermind is, who it always is—the blasted Moriarty! With the help of his recently married partner, the good doctor Watson (Jude Law), and a gypsy companion (played by the original Dragon Tattoo‘s Noomi Rapace) whose brother has become a pawn in Moriarty’s sinister game, not to mention Holmes’s older brother Mycroft (the indefatigable Stephen Fry), Sherlock must get to the evil doctor, the father of the military-industrial complex, it seems, before a highly anticipated international peace conference in Switzerland becomes a tinderbox that ignites world war.
The first half of Sherlock Holmes II is a rather raucous mishmash, and no one will ever confuse this screenplay with a carefully crafted film narrative. But the film’s second hour makes for some rather brilliant entertainment. Guy Ritchie has evolved into a quite deft and imaginative action director, and the set design is spectacularly involving and beautiful in its own right. 1891 London and a Europe that in a generation will be scarred forever by the trench warfare of WWI has never looked so rich and inviting … and menacing and daunting.
This is a film that in the hands of any other moviemakers could have taken itself and its antiwar message way too seriously, to the point of ponderous speechifying. But Guy Ritchie and his band of merry men are way too busy having fun to let a little thing like the fate of the West weigh them down. Downey is all wrong for the part of Sherlock Holmes, always was, and yet once again he charms and chatters his way through the kinds of beatings and bloodlettings that only a two-dimensional projected image could endure. His preternatural ability to anticipate how some very painful encounters will play themselves out, a kind of sixth sense that’s supposed to explain in some way his powers of deduction (but don’t really), is, again, an extremely effective update to the iconic character. Which is to say, he’s a blast.
There’s a very British cross-dressing bromance that may more than hint at the prescient detective’s more than platonic affection for a befuddled and infuriated Watson, whose new bride Holmes has defenstrated from a moving train. But with Downey’s marred makeup making him resemble Heath Ledger’s Joker, I wouldn’t take it, or anything else about this raucous romp, too seriously.
Except, of course, the boom-boom, bang-bang stuff, because that, as we know, would prove only too too real.
As for MI:4—Ghost Protocol, the plot reads like something that was kicking around for a Bond flick in the 1980s: a group of recycled Eurotrash needs “the codes” to launch a nuclear strike that will pit Russia against the U.S. and set the whole world on fire. Shades of SPECTRE!
The flick starts off promisingly enough, with Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) virtually dancing his way through an IMF-engineered prison break, Dean Martin’s “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” playing in the background. (Almost anything can be made better with Dino playing on the soundtrack, I have learned.)
Once freed, Hunt pulls together his crew of uber-spies to hunt down the aforementioned bad guys, led by a mega-genius named Hendricks (played by Dragon Tattoo‘s original good-guy journalist Michael Nyqvist), excommunicated from the scientific fraternity for also being a maniac without written permission from the King of Denmark or something. Things go badly when the Kremlin is blown up. Things go very very badly when the IMF is blamed and the White House calls for a ghost protocol—a disavowal not just of an IMF mission or a particular agent but of the entire agency.
As the Russians think some rogue Americans are blowing up the joint, setting the entire geopolitical chessboard on “check,” Hunt & Co. must not only prove their innocence but also stop the disappointingly one-dimensional and extremely dull archfiend Hendricks from initiating a nuclear holocaust.
Again, no pressure.
The much ballyhooed scaling of the world’s tallest building in Dubai proves rather predictable and flat, and less interesting visually than Ethan’s mountain mounting in director John Woo’s MI:2. Throw in a ludicrous car chase through a—wait for it—sandstorm, in which the relative positions of the cars is determined by a—wait for it again—Droid GPS, and you have an example of way overthinking an action sequence in the pursuit of being “original.”
But again, as in Holmes, it’s the second half of the film that saves this picture, when the race to the nuclear button kicks into hyperdrive, and a clever turn on the original MI‘s dangling-Ethan sequence is re-enacted—without the wires. Director Brad Bird (Iron Giant, The Incredibles) no doubt has a hit on his hands, and so has now entered the ranks of go-to action helmsmen, his ability to render wide vistas balanced nicely with little touches like sly asides and giveaway gestures, necessary to make vaguely credible some of the plot twists.
Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker) is a nice addition to the IMF crew and a fit counterpart to Cruise’s Hunt, as is Paula Patton, another kick-ass gal who’s having trouble keeping the murder of her lover, another agent, from affecting her judgment. Simon Pegg is the A-lister’s sidekick of choice, a rich man’s Rob Schneider. The “doubling” gimmick—when IMF agents don masks that enable them to assume the identities of their nemeses—is finally dropped in this iteration, thank goodness. The doubling redoubled sequences in that Woo MI:2 multiplied ridiculously until you couldn’t help but feel you could show up onscreen at any moment.
As with Holmes, I wish the script had been run through the laptop for one more draft: a little less running around, a little more attention to narrative cohesiveness and character development. As is, it’s just enough of a joy ride, with an unexpected and touching kicker, to make it worth taking the trip.
CODA: Both these films suffer from the industry’s over-reliance on computers. Yeah, yeah, they’re supposed to be awesome and mind-blowing and eye-popping. But with the aid of CGI, anything can be slapped up on the screen. And when anything can happen, nothing really happens, which is to say, the characters become just another special effect and may as well be duking it out on Pluto or in John Malkovich’s head. And great characters—whether Sherlock Holmes or Connery’s Bond—begin to fade into memory with every stroke of the keyboard. (Ethan Hunt never reached iconic status, I don’t think.)
With that said, I still look forward to a Sherlock Holmes III, assuming everyone involved can keep up the energy and joi de vivre, and hopefully with Stephen Fry on board once again (fully clothed, though, please). But despite a couple of nicely turned set pieces, I fear the MI series is played out, regardless of the glowing reviews of the mainstream media. But money talks, and all I ask is that if there must be a Part V, please, pretty please, bring back Ving Rhames. I mean, for real. And maybe Quentin Tarantino as director. Or Woody Allen. I’d pay to see Woody Allen’s MI:5, with a cold open of Hunt on a psychiatrist’s couch having imagined the first four films as an escape from his mind-numbing job in the social security claims office…