Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

(c) Warner Bros.

When Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. came together to create the first Sherlock Holmes

Now there’s a little bit of a misnomer now, isn’t there?  Holmes is such an icon that there may never be an end to the different ways talented artists might paint the character.  The 2009 film was the first of the Warner Bros franchise (that’s a little clearer).  Ritchie and Downey Jr.’s spin was a little dirtier, as in caked with dirt, not risque.  This Holmes is a man of much more uneven temperate, never at home with himself unless he’s up to his eyeballs in super sleuthing.  He’s fun to watch, and he’s never one to be out done.

Except this time.  Professor James Moriarty appears as Holmes’ equal, a mirror image of the plucky hero, the evil yang to Holmes’ noble yin.  Moriarty’s plot spans the continent of Europe.  He’s spent years laying the ground work, and as the curtain opens on A Game of Shadows, he’s ready to begin his final flourish.  Only Holmes can stop him, but there’s just one problem—not for Holmes, but for us:   The brilliance of the film’s characters outpaces that of the filmmakers’.

There’s plenty of creativity and ingenuity on hand to make a brisk little adventure film, but not enough to keep up with its creation.  This is a film that moves at a run.  It never slows down to walk, and takes some patience to enjoy.  That is to say it tries your patience more than it rewards.  You’d expect a movie like this one to unfold its surprises in a more fluid way, something that could keep up with the momentum instead of always trying to catch up.

Once again, this is not Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes, but more of a clever riff on the idea.  Downey Jr. brings his considerable talents to playing the scuzzy sleuth, endowing him with enough charm to make the more frustrating elements easier to ignore.  Noomi Repace is wasted here, her presence always hinting at more, but never delivering.  She’s just another player in this episode’s Scooby gang.  Jude Law inhabits the long-suffering Dr. Watson with aplomb to match Downey Jr. while Stephen Fry brings his slow-burn wit to bear on Holmes’ brother.  Everyone creates a pleasant enough atmosphere, you just wish there was a little more “there” there.

Not that there’s nothing to enjoy.  The movie has its character moments.  A minor subplot involving Dr. Watson and his new bride yields a pair of fun moments in the story’s opening acts.  Marriage means partnership, and Mrs. Watson can hold her own alongside her spouse.  It’s just unfortunate she isn’t given more to do.  Rather than develop her, the story  dismisses her, and then awkwardly tries to work her back in later.

Behind the camera, Guy Ritchie doesn’t resort to shaky-cam or any other lazy technique. He keeps his actions scenes moving along at a brisk clip and never lets you lose focus.  A spirited escape through hostile woods carries a visual flare that rivals any of the Matrix movies, but there’s not enough there to make it … matter.  Every scene is packed with humongous levels of detail from sets to costumes that the performers themselves get lost in the movie’s own production frivolity.  It never takes on the larger-than-life atmosphere of a Baz Luhrmann movie, but it’s just as jam packed.  There are times when you just don’t know where to look, and you want to look at it all.  But you have to be quick about it, because this story will be off and running before you’ve gotten your fill.

As a sequel, it plays on its predecessor’s strength in all the expected ways, even elaborating on a couple of them, especially as the film cranks into its climax where a few clever surprises await.  The visuals depicting Holmes’ methodical way of fighting are further developed in this chapter, almost a step too far.  Instead of a glimpse into a brilliant mind’s keen powers of insight, it starts to look a little like telepathy.  Holmes is not a superhero, he’s an exceptionally brilliant hero, and there is a difference.

Because of the film’s brisk pace (have I mentioned?), you’re forced to let it explain everything to you.  This is where Holmes is most helpful. Every time the story starts to get ahead of itself, the film finds a way to let him tell you what’s really going on.  Usually, it’s a chance to illustrate just how clever Holmes really is, as if we didn’t already know.  We’re never allowed even the briefest of hints that might allow us to catch on and figure things out for ourselves (or, at the very least, offer some kind of educated guess) before peeling back the curtain for the reveal of another trick.  That is, until the film starts to reveal it’s very last surprise.  By then, it’s too late.  You’ve been pulled along all this time only now to be invited in the cab to enjoy the ride, just before the credits roll.

That’s not really befitting of an adventure movie, especially one bearing the name of Holmes.

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