A film review by Craig J. Koban December 28, 2011



2011, PG-13, 129 mins.


Sherlock Holmes: Robert Downey Jr. / Dr. John Watson: Jude Law / Simza Heron: Noomi Rapace / Irene Adler: Rachel McAdams / Professor Moriarty: Jared Harris / Mycroft Holmes: Stephen Fry / Col. Sebastian Moran: Paul Anderson / Mary Watson: Kelly Reilly / Inspector Lestrade: Eddie Marsan

Directed by Guy Ritchie / Written by Michele and Kieran Mulroney, based on characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS is paradoxically an accomplished and an unsatisfying sequel.  The film has a broader and more epic feel than its predecessor and has an even stronger set of production values (it takes great pains to recreate not only Victorian London, but also Paris and Switzerland).  It contains a villain that is far more diabolically ambitious than the antagonist in 2009’s SHERLOCK HOLMES.  Furthermore, the sequel has far more elaborate and exhilarating action set pieces.  In short, A GAME OF SHADOWS is every bit the proficiently helmed and produced holiday blockbuster that was its antecedent. 

Yet, SHERLOCK HOLMES 2 suffers when it comes to its willingness to make everything bigger, louder, and more bombastic, which has the negative side effect of making the resulting film that much more senselessly numbing.  Make no mistake about it, this is a Guy Ritchie film through and through, and his trademark visual flourishes – and self-indulgent excesses – are here in abundance as they were in the last film.  This time, though, he seems more keen on upping the ante on the explosions, the slow-mo fisticuffs and gun battles, and the sense of frenetic movement within the frame to the point where they come off as more distracting and exhausting.  Sometimes, more is not more.   

The pacing of this sequel is also kind of off, which is surprising considering that ferociously staccato video-game aesthetic that Ritchie paints on screen; for such a visually fast moving film, SHERLOCK HOLMES 2 is really sluggishly elephantine when it comes to narrative momentum.  It has an expository first act that takes forever to meaningfully develop and as an overly convoluted plot that mechanically goes from one confusing and unrelated point to the next.  All in all, I was left trying to piece the story all together to gain some semblance of a greater whole.  There is also an awful lack of nail-biting suspense or intrigue in the film and, more often than not, Ritchie tries to substitute in ample visual spectacle and mayhem when tension is lacking. 

Yet, SHERLOCK HOLMES 2 still does to get a few things right: It wisely continues on with the radical re-imagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 124-year-old sleuth as less of a tightly wound, proper, and quiet mannered detective and more as a hyper-intelligent, deeply neurotic, physically dexterous, and daringly throw-caution-to-the-wind 19th Century crime fighter.  We still have the charmingly unflappable Robert Downey Jr. as the title character, who remains so steadfastly dismissive in the face of just about any potentially fatal situation.  He is still teamed with Jude Law’s cool, debonair, and prudent minded Dr. Watson.  If anything, Downey and Law are almost able to salvage even the most pedestrian of scenes and inject some much-needed vivacity into them. 

Best of all, SHERLOCK HOLMES 2 introduces us to the greatest and most iconic of Holmes’ adversaries, Professor Moriarty, who is more than both a mental and physical match to the intrepid detective.  As pitch perfectly cast and played by MAD MEN’s Jared Harris, this dastardly villain hides in plain sight under the veneer of an Oxford scholar and published academic author, but beneath that seemingly kind and fatherly image lurks a madman anarchist that engages in an elaborate plot to enact a series of meticulously planned bombings and assassinations of key political figures to push Europe into World War I.  Why?  He looks to profit from it all with his investments in secret munitions factories that would implement the global war.  He may be a megalomaniacal monster, but he is one with cunning financial ambition.   



Of course, Moriarty’s plans have him hopelessly and inevitably on a collision course with Holmes, but things get even more deeply personal for Holmes when he learns of how Moriarty has dealt with one of his former colleagues (and on-again, off-again girlfriend) Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, in more of a glorified cameo here).  She failed on a mission of great importance for Moriarty, largely because of Holmes' interference, which later leaves Holmes guilt-ridden as to the devastating consequences for Irene.  Watson, meanwhile, is preparing to wed the love of his life, which leaves Holmes in charge of preparing the stag party that also involves the company of Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft (a nimble Stephen Fry).  Holmes has a secondary agenda, though, at the party, as he reaches out to a local gypsy, Simza (Noomi Rapace) who may know what Moriarty has planned. 

There are many bravura action scenes sprinkled judiciously through SHERLOCK HOLMES 2, one of which includes an introductory sequence between Holmes and four adversaries that continues the first film’s unique manner of getting us inside Holmes’ head as he relays and plots out precisely what every move he’s about to engage in before the brawl commences.  The most exciting instance of this occurs when Holmes physically faces off against Moriarty: Holmes’ advance mental choreography of his planned punches, kicks, and blocks is relayed, but Moriarty is also a crafty genius when it comes to fisticuffs and is shown mentally relaying what his countermoves will be to Holmes’s minutely planned attacks.  In this case, both of their planned moves, attacks, and defenses are shown before they occur.  It's a slyly exciting way to begin a fight scene.  

There are more action set pieces that I liked, especially the death-defying escape of Holmes, Watson, and company from Watson's own bachelor party, but there is an even more thunderous one that shows the heroes racing through a forest to escape a barrage of heavy artillery, all shown in a microcosm of near-pornographic slow-mo, bullet-cam detail.  Yet, the essence of what makes this sequel so exciting and immersive is, of course, the competitive interplay between Holmes and Moriarty, two geniuses that consider each other cerebral equals.  They occupy a great climax set atop of an unfathomably located castle placed smack-dab on a snowy Swiss mountain that begins with a literal chess game and then commences to a physical one.  Harris’s villain - cold, detached, unscrupulously focused, and ruthlessly determined - is a great counterpoint to Downey’s impetuous spontaneity as Holmes; the pair have an explosive intensity together of screen even when they are just verbally sparring with one another. 

Yet, I just wished that the film did more with some of the other characters, like the one played by Rapace, who was such a beguiling and haunting figure in THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO trilogy; here, she is not given much to play with as her forgettable, dime-a-dozen gypsy role.  That, and the film’s script – as stated – is a misguided, clumsily constructed, and perplexing mess.  It’s opening third takes too long to build up its main story, and even though the film builds to a great final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, it’s what transpires in-between that feels like the stuff of a first or second screenplay draft.  The film also could have achieved a real ballsy cliff-hanger conclusion that should have left audiences breathless in anticipation for the third film, but just when it looked like it was doing something daring, unexpected, and shocking with Holmes, it goes out of its way to calm the audiences’ edgy uncertainty.  The end of SHERLOCK HOLMES 2 is an annoying bit of bait and switch. 

Still, Downey, Law, and Harris are in marvelous form here and this sequel at least acknowledges that the best scenes to be had are the ones concerning one-upmanship between its main hero and villain.  Holmes, in Downey’s hands, remains a curiously infectious hodgepodge of analytical prowess, feverous verbosity, neurotic obsession, and fist pumping and drop kicking bravado.  SHERLOCK HOLMES 2 looks sensational and is a high caliber conglomeration of art direction, location shooting, and state-of-the-art special effects.  It’s a bigger sequel, but also a messier and more overblown one that celebrates its manic energy, bruised knuckled action artifice, and kinetic style a bit too much over story.   Even Holmes seems to comment on the film’s transgressions at one point by saying, “It’s so overt, it’s covert.”  

Well said, sir.

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