Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol
Opens in IMAX theaters today, everywhere else Dec. 21

The mission at the heart of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol could not be more trite: a race to stop a Russian megalomaniac from triggering nuclear war. However, I suspect the simplicity is by design, for it allows the audience to sit back, have fun and enjoy this action-packed ride.

The members of this Impossible Missions Force (IMF) lineup are cast from an archetypal mold. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) returns as the embattled leader; Will Brandt (Jeremy Renner) is the newcomer who may be hiding secrets; Jane Carter (Paula Patton) is the feisty but sultry female seeking revenge for a murdered partner; and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), the one other holdover from the last film’s team, is the tech-head whose loquacious comic relief is initially bothersome but quickly becomes a needed respite from the sensory cacophony.

This fourth installment in the M:I franchise is directed by animation ace Brad Bird, whose work making The Incredibles showed his firm grasp of action thriller tropes. Moreover, from Michael Giacchino’s heavy use of Lalo Schifrin’s theme song—which all but disappeared during the previous two sequels—to the intricate, cloak-and-dagger undercover operations, Bird reclaims the familiar formula that made the original television series so popular.

That said, what makes Ghost Protocol the best episode yet is the dazzling, breathtaking and, yes, clever action that hits you seconds into the movie and never lets up (the opening sequence plus roughly 30 minutes of runtime were shot using IMAX cameras). Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) and his team don’t just break into a building—they infiltrate the Kremlin. Ethan doesn’t just climb a skyscraper—he scales the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai, the tallest building in the world. There’s not just a car chase—there’s a high-speed pursuit through the middle of a sandstorm. Accompanying all of it are enough sleek cars and goofy gadgets to make James Bond jealous.

None of this is meant to imply that Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol is an action movie classic. The plot is too slight and the characters too one-note, plus there’s the noticeable absence of a charismatic villain, that most essentially of actioner elements. At the same time, Bird breaks from familiarity just enough to keep the audience guessing. Things don’t always go smoothly for this IMF team—equipment breaks down and precision planning sometimes goes awry, prompting some white-knuckle improvisation. Moreover, this is a straightforward celebration of action, not the twisty thriller some may expect. As the Dean Martin standard asks, during a Russian prison break early in the film, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head?” —Neil Morris

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows
Opens today

Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows is a cute comedic mystery hidden inside a bustling, overproduced blockbuster. Watson (Jude Law) is getting married but he gets swept up in Holmes’ new case, they need to track down a gypsy for some reason, Moriarty is linked to terrorist bombings, the ramifications of which keeping getting bigger and more international, and Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has a fat brother who spends his days in the buff.

It goes on and on, full of not only tons of action sequences but slow-mo versions of action sequences played out before they are repeated in real time. Is there some taboo in Hollywood about getting a big budget thriller in under 100 minutes? The movie gets so far out of its own range that it might be funny for its grotesquerie if it weren’t so clinical. It feels like the highest priced shoot-your-own-movie booth in history, every scene seeming to take place entirely in front of a green screen, every prop and speck of dust dropped in after the actors have been shot hamming to each other in a vacuum.

Director Guy Ritchie seems tickled by the occasionally charming and undeniably smug repartee between Law and Downey, but you can hardly make out any lingering traces of wit behind all the bombast. —Nathan Gelgud