Adventures and Explanations

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December is the month when a slew of movies are released, from family films hoping to warm a few hearts, to independent films hoping for Oscar recognition, to franchise installments hoping to be "the Christmas blockbuster" this year. Ironically, December is also the month when we have the least amount of time for moviegoing. But not to worry! They will still be around in January. Here are two you may want to see.

Both are action thrillers that fit the last category above — new installments in the highly successful Sherlock Holmes and Mission Impossible franchises. Both feature handsome megastars (Robert Downey, Jr. and Tom Cruise), likable supporting characters, sardonic wit, and ample fight scenes with breathtaking risks. And both of this season’s offerings feature arms-dealing villains set on starting a war in order to make a buck.

One works brilliantly. The other falls a little flat.

To understand why one works and one doesn't, a little literary history is in order. When Edgar Allan Poe invented the deductive armchair detective, Auguste Dupin, in 1842, he wisely created a slightly dense sidekick to go along with him and narrate the story. Poe’s unnamed narrator needed to have everything explained to him. Obviously, this narrator represented the unseen audience. We readers were the ones who really needed the explanation, and Dupin kindly and patiently complied, providing a logical account of the proceedings to the narrator, who then provided it to us.

Forty years later, Arthur Conan Doyle patterned his soon-to-be-famous Sherlock Holmes on Poe's Dupin, right down to the deerstalker hat and the Meerschaum pipe. His narrator had a name, Dr. Watson, and Watson became our interpreter within the stories. Rex Stout followed the same pattern, providing Archie Goodwin as the narrator of the great detective Nero Wolfe’s affairs. And so the tradition continued.

Director Guy Ritchie's new interpretation of Holmes lifts him out of Basil Rathbone's meditative moods and puts him back in the field of action, where he started. Doyle's Holmes was a pugilist, sword fighter, magician, martial artist, drug addict, and master of disguise. Downey plays him with unbalanced spunk and daring. (See my review in Liberty, March 2010).

But alas! Ritchie has broken with tradition in an unfortunate way. He has decided in this new installment, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, to make Watson (Jude Law) more an unwilling partner than a narrator. Gone are the patient, patronizing explanations to the dunderheaded Watson of the Rathbone films. Watson now fights side by side with Holmes. As a result, the audience has trouble following the plot, which involves Holmes with a widening array of bad guys and gals. Suspense is suspended, because we can't understand the significance of the various discoveries or characters. A Game of Shadows is an apt subtitle. The story is murky and illegible.

The film sports many exciting fight scenes, but we never quite know why various people are chasing Holmes and Watson. As in the previous episode, Ritchie employs an effective technique of showing Holmes's deductive reasoning by using a dark filter for scenes that take place in Holmes's mind. But fight scenes and funny disguises are not enough to carry a film. I was sadly disappointed by this much-anticipated release.

By contrast, the writers of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol learned their lessons well from Messrs. Poe and Doyle. They employ not one but two likable dunderheads (Simon Pegg and Jeremy Renner), both of whom are analysts reluctantly pulled into performing as operatives in the field. Throughout the mission, Ethan (Tom Cruise) must explain to them who the next bad guy is and why they have to go after him. This keeps the audience in the know, and we are ready to continue into the next hair-raising stunt.

And they are hair-raising indeed. Ethan escapes prison, breaking arms and noses along the way. He climbs the outside of a structure over 100 stories high. He catapults into buildings and jumps from level to level in a parking garage. He outruns a dust storm. He never quits.

Then there are the trademark maneuvers we have come to expect in a Mission Impossible film: Jumping onto flying vehicles. Hanging spread-eagled inside a government building. Going rogue because the government has disavowed Ethan yet again. And, of course, Tom Cruise running like the wind through crowded streets, as he has done in nearly every film since The Firm in 1993. Add to this a wittier script than we got in previous MI episodes, and we have a close-to-perfect action thriller.

If you have time on your hands this season, you should see both these films. They’re both fun, despite the bad things I said about one of them. But if you're going to see only one, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is certainly the one to choose.

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