Christmas is almost here, which means it's time for mini-blockbuster season. With children off from school and parents desperate for excuses to get them out of the house, Hollywood is kind enough to provide a small blast of summertime popcorn entertainment. The Christmas blockbuster season only lasts a few weeks compared to the several months of explosion festivals we get in the summer, but there are always a handful of big time blockbusters to keep teenagers happy over the holidays.
This week we get a couple high profile sequels, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and the good news is that both action flicks are surprisingly good. As for Alvin And The Chipmunks 3: Chip-wrecked well, not so much. Still, two outta three ain’t bad for a cold December weekend at the movies.
The Good: Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows
In theory Guy Ritchie’s action flick remix of Arthur Conan Doyle’s great detective shouldn’t work. Sherlock Holmes never seemed lacking before despite the dearth of slow motion bare-knuckle boxing matches, Yet, something about the new series of Sherlock Holmes movies that re-imagines the eccentric character as the world's fastest fighter as well as the most adept detective works surprisingly well. They ain’t masterpieces, but they are damn good blockbusters. The new sequel, inexplicably subtitled A Game Of Shadows, proves to be about as good as the original. No major improvements, but no big fuck-ups either.
The story picks up shortly after the last adventure. Holmes’ literary nemesis Moriarty is now part of the universe and Jude Law’s Watson is about to finally be married. Of course, after Holmes supervises a drunken brawl-fueled bachelor party, the marriage thing quickly goes away. Moriarty sets out to kill Watson and his new bride and in response Holmes 'n' Watson set out to take down his convoluted world domination plot. His plan of terror initially has something to do with French anarchist bombings and then turns into a pre-WWI arms race conspiracy. It’s kind of hard to pin down exactly what he’s up to, but that’s not important. This isn’t a film about carefully plotted mystery, but action and comedic character work.
The real strength of this Sherlock Holmes series is in the casting of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes at Watson. They play the roles as a bickering married couple with Downey the eccentric man of mystery and Law his endlessly befuddled buddy. Both actors are perfectly cast and play off each other beautifully. Their chemistry is palpable and makes the series work no matter how insane it may get.
British character actor Jared Harris joins the team this time as Moriarty and admirably underplays the role with subtle evil. Given how over the top the movie can be, having Harris take that approach as the villain works far better than if, say, Anthony Hopkins had been brought in to ham it up. However, the best new addition to the team is Stephen Fry as Holmes’ brother. The British comic’s dry wit and hyper-educated British flair work perfectly in the universe and hopefully he’ll get an even bigger role in the next inevitable sequel.
Snatch director Guy Ritchie may not have seemed like the most obvious choice for Sherlock Holmes when he was initially hired, yet he’s proved to be an inspired helmer for the series. His aggressive music video style might be a little overwhelming at times, but his relentless sense of pacing and love of eccentric British character comedy ensure that not a moment of the movie passes without something to entertain. Sure, it’s all a bit daft and hardly art, but if you liked the last Sherlock Holmes outing, you’re sure to enjoy A Game Of Shadows. It’s about on par with last time minus the supernatural shenanigans. Hopefully the team can maintain the same level of B-movie bliss in the next chapter.
The Bad: Alvin And The Chipmunks 3: Chip-wrecked
Do you really need me to tell you that the third movie in the Alvin And The Chipmunks franchise is terrible? Surely by now you must have figured out that 90 minutes of high-pitched squeaking is enough to make anyone over the age of four go insane. I suppose the filmmakers deserve credit for ditching the backstage showbiz stories of the last two entries (yes, I’ve seen all of the Chipmunk movies and they are just as painful as you’d imagine) to try something new by stranding the rodent pop stars on a desert island. There they meet former SNL-er Jenny Slate for a slew of Castaway jokes.
David Cross pops up as the series villain again, this time humiliatingly forced to wear a bird costume for the entire film, a new cash grab low for the brilliant comedian. The new scenery doesn’t change the fact that the Chipmunks’ animation is terrible, their characters are somehow less developed than in the old Saturday morning cartoon show, and what passes for “jokes” in this series won’t even make forgiving audiences full of children laugh most of the time.
Chip-wrecked is a god-awful mess of a movie, but you already know that and it’s not going to stop the flick from making money. Parents need something to take their kids to over the holidays and this will make some big money as a result. However, if you have children, I beg you to please take them to see The Muppets, Arthur Christmas, or even Hugo instead of this swill. Don’t encourage people to make a fourth Alvin and The Chipmunks movie. The world will be so much better off without it.
The Impossible: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Tom Cruise returns to his ludicrously successful Mission: Impossible series for easily the best entry in the franchise since the original. None of the M:I flicks qualify as action masterpieces, but they are consistently damn entertaining. The main reason is that while the screenplays are always fairly generic, Cruise always hires an A-grade talent to take the director’s chair. Brian DePalma (Carrie, Scarface) handled the first movie, Hong Kong action legend John Woo (Hard Boiled, Face/Off) took over for part two, JJ Abrams (Lost, Super 8) directed part three, and for this new chapter Brad Bird has been brought on board.
An Oscar-winning animation genius behind The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, this is Bird's first live-action venture, so he went into the project with something to prove. To say he delivered is an understatement. The film zips along at a breakneck pace with some astounding action. In particular, one sequence involving Tom Cruise dangling off of the world’s tallest building in Dubai is one of the most nerve-wracking and vertigo-inducing sequences I can remember (particularly if you see the movie in IMAX, which you should as the key sequences were shot in that format like The Dark Knight). Bird shouldn’t have much trouble convincing people he can handle live action filmmaking next time and hopefully it won’t be long before his next movie.
I’ve only really mentioned the action in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol so far and there’s a reason for that. To be honest, the rest of the movie is kind of bland. The plot is ridiculous hokum that doesn’t deserve much thought. Sure, Simon Pegg (Shaun Of The Dead) is hilarious in a supporting role as Cruise’s go-to computer geek, but other than that the characters are all simply mouthpieces for plot exposition and pawns for action scenes. Even Cruise’s Ethan Hunt is one of the blandest franchise protagonists around, completely lacking in any sort of backstory or personality beyond Cruise’s onscreen charisma and brooding gazes. The thing is, that doesn’t really matter. Story and character are irrelevant in a movie like this and all you need to know is that the script is efficient enough to entertain and at least none of the actors embarrass themselves.
Ghost Protocol is a movie to be savored for its incredible action sequences and particularly when viewed in the film’s natural habitat on a massive IMAX screen, they really deliver the popcorn-munching goods. If you want a spy movie that requires mental effort, go see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If you want to see expensive things go boom, Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the movie for you.