Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol have a lot in common right on the surface. They're both big-budget PG-13 Hollywood action movies. They're both sequels. They're both star vehicles built around a popular lead actor playing a variation on his own well-known "stock persona" (Robert Downey Jr. as a snarky hard-living wiseass and Tom Cruise as Special Agent Handsome Q. Intensity.) They're both adaptations - of 19th Century literature and 1970s television, respectively - that have increasingly less and less to do with their source material. And they're both being released to U.S. theaters this weekend (Mission is bowing early in IMAX theaters only, while Sherlock is playing wide.)
But having seen the two of them, I was struck by how much else they had in common. Not just superficial circumstances of production, but eerily similar stories, irritatingly similar characters and depressingly similar reasons why they're both not very good. Let's have a look (obviously, this will include various spoilers) at which movie did the same basic thing better.
Mission Impossible: A brilliant professor has gone mad (or maybe was all along), and schemes to stage a series of terrorist bombings in order to trick the United States and Russia into a nuclear war. His endgame? He has calculated that worldwide cataclysm will happen anyway, and wants to direct the outbreak in a way that is beneficial to his own radical theories of societal evolution. A team of heroes, including two tough men with a shared past, must travel to exotic international locations in order to stop the plan.
Sherlock Holmes: A brilliant professor has gone mad (or maybe was all along) and schemes to stage a series of terrorist bombings in order to trick England, France and Germany into a World War. His endgame? He has calculated that the World War will happen anyway (the film is set a few decades before WWI breaks out for real) and wants to direct the outbreak in a way that is beneficial to his business interests (he owns a lot of artillery and medical supply companies.) A team of heroes, including two tough men with secret pasts, must travel to exotic international locations in order to stop the plan.
Winner: Neither. Holmes wastes the key villain of its franchise, Professor Moriarty, with a disappointingly dry turn by Jared Harris. The idea is that he's supposed to be the "ice" to the film's livewire version of Holmes, but the end result is that Robert Downey Jr. gobbles up all the energy leaving nothing for the villain to work with. Meanwhile, Mission is a film wholly concerned with setpiece demonstrations of made-up spy gadgetry and endless scenes of Tom Cruise running that can't be bothered to invest its evil mastermind with even a hint of personality.
More problematically, both stories are shamefully well-worn: Holmes' "let's start WWI early!" steampunk-superweapon romp feels lifted wholesale from the movie version of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, while the Mission team could have saved themselves from detective work by popping in a DVD of The Sum of All Fears, where a similarly generic villain was working almost an identical ploy.
Mission Impossible: "The Stuff Doesn't Work."
MI:4 has a conceit to its movie spycraft that must've sounded very clever on paper: The gadgetry keeps malfunctioning. Framed as rogue operatives and cut off from their official support network, what gear the IMF team has to work with just keeps spazzing out at the least opportune moments - like when Tom Cruise tries to scale the world's tallest skyscraper with a pair of magnetic gloves that keeping losing their grip.
Sherlock Holmes: "Thinking It Out."
Remember that one pretty cool fight in the first movie where Holmes looks at his opponent, visualizes the precise combination of strikes and moves needed to beat him in analytical slow-motion, then snaps back to reality and does it for real? Not a bad bit, actually, serving the dual purpose of demonstrating the hero's key attribute and explaining to skeptics and/or Sherlockian purists why a kung fu fighting Holmes made a certain amount of sense. In any case, hope you enjoyed it, because Part 2 does it again. And again. And again.