A film review by Craig J. Koban December 28, 2011
A GAME OF SHADOWS ½
2011, PG-13, 129 mins.
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
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A
GAME OF SHADOWS is paradoxically an accomplished and an unsatisfying
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
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
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,
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
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.