May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
December 18, 2011
There are a number of different directions one can go when reviewing Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. We could protest (again) that Robert Downey, Junior is no Sherlock Holmes. He does not look like Holmes or act like Holmes. On the other hand, neither does any other portrayer of Sherlock Holmes, for in a sense it must be admitted that there is no Sherlock Holmes. Or, rather, there are multiple “Sherlock Holmeses” and they are mutually dependant. I cannot read the stories without picturing Holmes looking something like the original Sidney Paget illustrations; I cannot hear his voice without it being a mixture between John Gielgud and Jeremy Brett.
What consistency there is between the portrayals is this: that Holmes is invariably a collected, rational man who need not indulge in fisticuffs. Surely that’s where the Ritchie movies offend. Except that that’s not true, either; Holmes has been a mess since Nicholas Meyer wrote The Seven Per Cent Solution. It would be interesting to trace portrayals of Holmes since Gillett married him off (and gave him a Calabash); one suspects that portrayals have gradually grown more dysfunctional. Holmes is now nearly always portrayed as cocaine-addicted (he used the drug in the original stories, but his addiction is debatable), perhaps with unresolved Oedipal issues.
And it’s not like he’s never been an action hero. Beyond his in-canon fights, Holmes has engaged in fisticuffs since the Rathbone years, and carried a sword-cane in A Study in Terror. Murder by Decree—arguably the best big-screen Holmes adventure—climaxes with a brutal fight, and so does the Cushing Hound of the Baskervilles and (again) The Seven Per Cent Solution.
Alternatively, we could criticize the film-making style. The slow-motion stuff, the ramping and so on, is more prevalent—and more annoying—than in its predecessor. These stylistic tics are a far greater liability than Downey’s unshaven Holmes. Toward the middle of the film there is a chase through a forest; if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen the chase, but it goes on for several times as long and badly damages the pace of the movie.
The other major weakness of the movie is its odd lack of heart for anyone who isn’t Holmes or Watson. Early in the movie, Irene Adler makes an appearance and it is to Rachel McAdam’s credit that she manages to create more chemistry in the one scene she shares with Holmes than she had in the entire previous movie. And then Adler is gone, and the movie (beyond a brief moment between Holmes and Watson) promptly forgets her. So, too, Noomi Rapace’s character is given a brother, but nothing really comes of her attachment to him.
Perhaps it’s not a lack of heart, but a fear of commitment. Having established a light, fun, and engaging base in banter and companionship between Holmes and Watson, the screenwriters seem to be nervous about lingering too long on Holmes’ conflicted feelings about Watson’s marriage or about Irene Adler. And at the end, after a certain inevitable event occurs, the screenwriters are unable to leave well enough alone; ending the movie thirty seconds earlier, even, would make the movie far better than it winds up being. Perhaps I seem to overstate, but it really does rob the movie of what little emotional investment it’s earned. This cowardice is unfortunate; if it is compared to other comedy-adventures that have succeeded in raising the dramatic stakes without sacrificing either the comedy or the adventure (Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest springs to mind), A Game of Shadows is a pale thing indeed.
One marked improvement of A Game of Shadows over its predecessor is the plot. Not that there’s much of one, but what there is has scale—and, more importantly, it feels like it matters. Lord Blackwood’s plan in the first movie was a joke; it never seemed like a real threat to Holmes or Watson—or even to Britain. But Moriarty’s plan here (for all its Bond-movie blandness) feels real because it taps in to a reality that we all recognize even if we do not acknowledge it. A Game of Shadows gives us Holmes-as-detective investigating his society (which is the job of every detective in the end) and coming up against the fact that war and violence are not strangers to the human condition; they are coiled at its heart, and Moriarty, for all his scheming, is simply allowing those forces full reign.
One could argue—and rightly—that the movie doesn’t do anything with this observation. Again, it is half-hearted, always undercutting the potential for real development with a joke or cartoony stunt. This back-and-forth leaves us with a movie that is at once exhilarating and maddening, since it comes so close to being really good, but draws back at the last minute.
But all that’s to the side. If you liked Sherlock Holmes (even with its Frankenstein monster of a plot and inconsistent tone) you’ll probably enjoy A Game of Shadows; if you didn’t, then nothing here will change your mind about Ritchie’s newest effort. For myself, I enjoyed it—even with the not-inconsiderable flaws pointed out above. The heart of every Sherlock Holmes incarnation is not Holmes himself—though he is essential—but the Holmes-Watson relationship. It is easy enough to overcome a non-Canon casting decision (think Nigel Bruce as Watson) if the chemistry between the two men is strong enough. And in the case of the Ritchie movies, it undeniably is: Jude Law gives us the most virile, charming Watson we’ve ever seen, and his aggravation with Holmes is as true to life (if not to the stories) as one could wish.
A Game of Shadows is about this relationship—even more so than its predecessor. Holmes is involved in the titular game, not simply because he desires to best Moriarty, but because he has reason to believe that Watson and the newly-minted Mrs. Watson are in danger. This sequel isn’t content with repeating old jokes; it uses those jokes to reaffirm the affection between the two men, to give the movie an existential edge and make Holmes’ investigations seem like they matter.
A Game of Shadows is a superior movie to Sherlock Holmes. The first movie had charm enough, but its rickety plot (cobbled together, it seems, from Young Sherlock Holmes and Murder by Decree) never really delivered and its villain was bland and unthreatening. A Game of Shadows gives us Moriarty—and if his plot is Bond-villain bland, keep in mind that no Bond villain in recent memory has been nearly as interesting as Moriarty is here. The final confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty is surprisingly low-key, with none of the high-octane menace of the previous movie’s overblown conclusion. Also helping is the fact that Holmes has a reason to care here—in Sherlock Holmes he was in it for the game, and we never felt that Holmes himself had a need to solve the mystery. In Game of Shadows he is fighting to protect people he cares about, and this “personal” element lifts the movie above its predecessor. A Game of Shadows will never find itself on any self-respecting list of “top ten best Holmes flicks,” but it is a satisfying popcorn entertainment with just enough brains to justify its use of the title character.