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Non-Review Review: Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows

The first Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes was a pulpy pleasure, an enjoyable steampunk occult mystery with a casual sense of fun and two solid central performances with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson respectively. Unfortunately, the sequel, A Game of Shadows, doesn’t seem to be quite as much fun. It seems to lack the pulpy edge of its predecessor, perhaps taking itself a bit too seriously at times. The are moments when Ritchie seems to get into the swing of things, and Downey Jr. and Law work as well together as ever, but A Game of Shadowsdoesn’t quite feel like the ideal spectator sport.

He bought, hook, line and sinker!

Everything is bigger this time around. The first adventure featured a sinister occult murderer who had somehow risen from the grave and whose endgame was to kill the Parliament of Great Britain. The sequel, on the other hand, sets its goals considerably higher. Suddenly Holmes and Watson find themselves pieces on a board that spans the entire continent of Europe, with the sinister James Moriarty conspiring to spark a war between France and Germany for his own sinister industrial ends. On might imagine that the sight of Holmes and Watson adventuring around the continent would keep things fresh, but it seems like so much energy is sent on creating a sense of movement that nothing here has too much depth.

Part of the problem is that there’s no real detective work here. By the time we join Holmes again, he has already figured out Moriarty is the sinister mastermind behind a spate of murders. He just doesn’t have enough proof to charge him. There is some ambiguity as to why Moriarty is randomly killing people, but the mystery is solved fairly early on, and there’s really nothing to exotic about it. Instead, Holmes and Watson are led on a merry chase from plot point A to plot point B to plot point C to set piece A and so on.

The Prof is in the pudding…

Of course, Sherlock Holmes was hardly a fair play mystery, or a triumph of the genre, but there was at least the sense that Holmes’ super-human intelligence was piecing together information that was there, but our brains weren’t able to process. Here, the few times Holmes does employ his detective wit, it doesn’t seem super-human so much as supernatural. From a stain here or there, Holmes’ subconscious is suddenly able to reimagine the complete history of the building housing him, from the first mortar laid to the celebratory drinks. He’s like a one-man CSI travelling roadshow.

I think that the sequel also suffers a bit from the fact that there’s really a minimum amount of room for atmosphere. The first Sherlock Holmes felt like a rather wonderful mishmash of the famous detective with an up-scaled Hammer Horror production. Dead bodies arose from their graves, sinister mystical experiments were conducted, people were dying in creepy ways. It wasn’t necessarily the most coherent or classic of stories, but it did have a rich atmosphere. On the other hand, A Game of Shadows rarely settles down enough to foster an atmosphere.

A night at L’Opera…

I suspect that Moriarty himself is part of the problem. Jared Harris is charming enough in the role, but Moriarty never seems as big and ominous a threat as he should be. He spends most of the movie right in front of Holmes and Watson, and they’re powerless the stop him. At one point, he brutally tortures Holmes, only to meet the pair later at a diplomatic meeting. Watson laments that they can’t touch him, but surely Holmes could accuse him of torture and attempted murder? He never seems as nebulous or as sinister as he really should. He feels almost like one of the lazier Bond villains.

That said, there are a few small scenes where Moriarty works quite well as a character, in a way that isn’t just a generic villain. A scene where Holmes and Moriarty play “blitz chess” together is the best scene in the movie – with both men trying to best one another to the point where they are rattling off moves without even looking at the board. There’s also the revelation that Moriarty himself has something akin to “Holmes-vision”, his slow motion run-through of a fight before it happens. These moments are, sadly, few and far between, although Harris relishes them.

Holmes-ing in on the problem…

For his part, Ritchie seems almost passive for most of the film. His wonderful way of representing Holmes’ train of thought in the original Sherlock Holmes is never quite matched here. There are a few smart gags subverting the way that we’ve seen it work before. (For example, when an unforeseen intervention ends a conflict a lot sooner than Holmes anticipated.) However, the movie only really comes to life in two sequences. The first is an artillery attack on a forest, shot in slow motion that actually enhances the scene – splintering wood, rendered explosions, that sort of thing. The second is the aforementioned “blitz chess” sequence.
Aside from those sequences, A Game of Shadows seems quite sedated.

On the other hand, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law still share the wonderful chemistry they had in the first film, and both do an excellent job selling the film in its weaker moments. Although none of the surroundings look quite as nice as nineteenth-century London, Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography continues to impress. And Hans Zimmer’s score gives everything just that little bit of extra weight.

Small Fry…

The sequel replaces Rachel McAdams with Noomi Rapace. I’m not quite sure what motivated the switch – but it feels more than a little awkward. McAdams actually worked relatively well with Downey, but the script isn’t quite sure how to handle Rapace’s role. It often feels like the gypsy fortune teller was only incorporated into the story so that the film could feature a major female character. Certainly the only plot function she provides (sneaking across borders) is something that Holmes and Watson should be able to do themselves.

The character doesn’t seem to do that much of anything over the course of the film, and Rapace is completely wasted in the role. There’s no banter between her character and Holmes or Watson, and – once the climax of the story is reached – it seems like she’s forgotten as easily as she had been added to the cast. It’s a bit of a mess, and it feels like a massive waste of an emerging actress. Thankfully, Prometheus would make much better use of the actress.

A merry dance…

A Game of Shadows feels like a fairly pedestrian effort, despite the skill of its two leads. It’s a shame, because there was a giddy pulpy charm to Sherlock Holmes that feels largely absent here.

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2 Responses

  1. I liked this movie fine, though it didn’t overwhelm me. It’s like a TV show that you watch because you enjoy the characters, even if not every episode is up to par with the rest. This could have been a great movie given the global consequence and the inclusion of Moriarty, and I enjoyed Holmes’s globetrotting. However, as you pointed out, Jared Harris was mostly just there. Compared to the depiction of the classic arch nemesis in the TV series “Sherlock,” the big-screen version is a non-entity. I didn’t really quite understand the reasoning behind what happened to Irene Adler, or for the ending with Holmes. These bookends just seemed like events in the plot, and not major turning points in the lives of these characters, giving the audience no reason to care one way or another why these things happened or that they happened at all. I’m curious to see what will happen with the third film, and if they’ll make a strong film or continue the downward trend.

    • It’s strange, because Mark Strong actually seemed to enjoy his “game” with Holmes more in the first film than Harris did here. Moriarty was, as you said, just sorta there – there was no real battle of wits between the pair until that wonderful final scene. It was just like Moriarty was doing his thing, and Holmes was getting in his face a bit, which would prompt Moriarty to swat him away a bit and return to whatever it was he was doing. Given Holmes and Moriarty are, I’d argue, one of the most iconic foils and archfoes in pop culture, it seemed a little disappointing. It never seemed like Moriarty, despite his threatening of Watson, was too bothered with Holmes – let alone that he considered him an equal or enjoyed their sparring on an intellectual letter. Mark Strong’s character in the first film seemed to relish the confrontations more, despite also having his own clear objective aside from screwing with Holmes. Given moriarty is Holmes’ arch-nemesis, I just expected a stronger link.

      But yes, I am very curious to see what comes next.

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