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Jason Wallis The perfect gift for action fans — and a lump of coal

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, December 23, 2011 7:49 am

It’s been a very hectic holiday season for me, and I have not fulfilled my role as movie guru nearly as thoroughly as I should have. This has more or less been the case for the majority of the year, actually, and consequently I find that there are a bevy of promising 2011 releases that I simply never got around to seeing (in my defense, the closest most of them ever played was San Francisco).

As a result, I fear that my upcoming year-end top 10 list will not be as comprehensive or as meaningful as it usually is. Yet I am bound by tradition (and my own obsession with list-making) to submit something, so you can expect that in a couple weeks.

Meantime I’ll try to cram in as many films as I can — including David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” which I’ll review next week. For now, let’s have a look at two of the more popular action flicks in current release. (And by the way: Merry Christmas.)

After J.J. Abrams’ listless third entry in the “Mission: Impossible” franchise a few years ago, I wrote the series off as antiquated and unworthy of being salvaged. When I realized a few months back that a fourth installment was slated for release, I was completely disinterested — until I discovered that the film was to be the live-action debut of Brad Bird, the “Simpsons” alumnus who first made his mark in movies with 1999’s still-underrated “The Iron Giant,” and proceeded to gain fame as one of the chief creative forces behind Pixar (his directorial credits include “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille”). If you subscribe to the auteur theory, this qualifies as Big News.

And what a debut it is. Easily the best and most consistently engaging of the “Mission: Impossible” films, “Ghost Protocol” is a lean machine of an action movie in which Bird gets ample opportunity to demonstrate his impressive eye for choreography. With very little story to weigh things down (the IMF is disavowed by the U.S. government and must go rogue to recover stolen nuclear launch codes — voila, plot!), the film moves from one elaborate set piece to another, with very little regard for anything that doesn’t involve chases or explosions or the mechanics of executing impossible missions.

It’s an unapologetic, incredibly effective old-school thrill ride that puts lively twists on familiar genre conventions: the opening prison break, involving the constant opening and closing of doors and gates, is staged with the madcap comic rhythms of Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Chan; a second-act chase through the streets of Dubai turns into a game of cat and mouse as a sandstorm sweeps through the area; the climactic fight sequence satirizes the absurdity of climactic fight sequences, while at the same time indulging in that same ridiculousness to full, cheesy effect.

The film overall is far more playful than any of its predecessors, sometimes to a fault. Simon Pegg, as the “tech guy” of the IMF team, is so broadly comic that his scenes start to come across as cloying — a shame, considering Pegg’s natural gift for low-key comedy. Jeremy Renner, as a retired field agent forced back into action, also falls victim to the film’s overtly comic tone in the few awkward scenes in which he attempts to test his comedic chops. Better is Tom Cruise (admittedly one of my favorite A-listers, despite his psychological maladies), who, as always, strikes the perfect balance between lighted-hearted and intense, often in the course of the same scene. Of course, Bird’s indelible action sequences are the primary reason to see the film — but Cruise, and his admirable commitment to jaw-dropping stunt work, do their part to make “Ghost Protocol” the perfect holiday gift for discriminating action junkies.

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“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” has been hailed in some circles as a vast improvement over the first film in Guy Ritchie’s action-mystery franchise, but I don’t see the progress. Like its predecessor, “A Game of Shadows” feels like an incomplete film — more like a random assortment of dailies instead of a properly assembled narrative. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about these movies that bugs me so much, but there’s something about the combination of bizarre editing, needlessly confusing camera work, unnecessary slow motion and non-existent narrative momentum that creates this perfect storm of unpleasantness that leaves me wondering who exactly thought all this was a good idea in the first place.

For starters, it appears that director Ritchie (“Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch”) has lost his ability to choreograph a kinetically coherent shootout or action sequence, preferring instead to enroll in the always popular Tony Scott Film School for the Creatively Bankrupt, which teaches that action scenes should be filmed as dark and grainy as possible, shot and edited in as confusing a manner as possible, and shown as many times as possible to achieve maximum effect. Most of the action is therefore rendered pointless and mind-numbingly boring, save for the kinda-cool final showdown/chess match between swashbuckling detective/recreational drug addict Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty (a perfectly cast but under-utilized Jared Harris, son of the late Richard). Unfortunately, that’s just 15 worthwhile minutes in a two hour-plus film that feels about twice that length. Surely you have better things to do this Christmas.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. Reach him at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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