Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

In 2009 Guy Ritchie defied the odds with his reboot of Sherlock Holmes and managed to readjust perspective about the legendary sleuth to a kick-ass, crime solving hero. Now he returns again with a sequel that furthers the story of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr. John Watson in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Like its predecessor, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is fun, easily-digestible entertainment, but the sequel simplifies the mystery and misses a major opportunity to highlight one of literature’s great villains.

While Holmes’ nemesis, Professor James Moriarty, swirled around the first movie in the shadows, and now he has emerged (played by Jared Harris) to move towards a mysterious endgame. The device Moriarty stole at the end of the first movie has nothing to do with the new story, but grand plans still abound and Holmes has gone even more manic at the possibility of facing off against his equal. He must also deal with the annoyance that Watson (Jude Law) will be leaving for a peaceful married life with Mary (Kelly Reilly). His annoyance turns to serious concern with Moriarty threatens to harm Watson, Mary, and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) if Sherlock doesn’t back off. Naturally, the cocky detective does no such thing and ropes Watson into the hunt along with a Simza (Noomi Rapace), a gypsy who helps the investigation in order to find her missing brother. 

A Game of Shadows reduces the detective aspect of the first film and focuses on playing up the action and the comedy. Ritchie knows his approach worked the first time, and he’s all too eager to try to top his already over-stylized visuals. Downey once again plays the character with daffy abandon and his chemistry with Law remains strong. The homoerotic comedy fires on all cylinders and I imagine the third film will have Holmes and Watson making-out for at least 60% of the runtime. Fry gets to steal a little bit of the humor as well, but considering his comic abilities, he feels underutilized. But Fry is practically a lead when compared to Rapace. Rapace was supposed to be a big splash in the states after earning raves for her portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Dragon Tattoo movies, but her character inShadows is barely present. Simza is merely a plot point and it seems like the need to have a female co-star was more important than giving the female co-star a good character.
But the real crime is wasting Moriarty, because villains can help illuminate our heroes. Moriarty is Holmes without conscience. He’s the only person on the planet who can challenge the great detective and A Game of Shadows makes a poor play by shuffling him off to the side. The intent is to make the villain’s presence felt even when he’s not on screen, but we got that in the first movie. Whenever Moriarty is on screen, Jared Harris steals the spotlight, which is impressive considering he has to contend with Downey.

A Game of Shadows retains most of the best qualities of the first film: Downey’s charm; the witty banter and strong chemistry between Holmes and Watson; the slow-motion sequences that illustrate Holmes’ analytical powers at work; action sequences shot in Guy Ritchie’s signature hyper-kinetic style; and the Steampunk aesthetic that makes the 19th century setting feel fresh and interesting, without breaking too far from the realities of the period.

On top of keeping all those elements intact, the sequel adds a wonderful villain in the form of Moriarty, who is realized onscreen in the best possible way by Mad Men actor Jared Harris. Moriarty is a sociopath hiding in plain sight: whether he’s delivering a lecture at university, hatching a terrorist strike, or directly threatening Holmes, the mad genius never loses his staunch English formality and soft-spoken demeanor, making him all the more disturbing.

Ritchie handles the build-up to this crucial sequence brilliantly, skilfully increasing tension levels before achieving a famously intriguing payoff. If there is to be a third instalment to the Sherlock Holmes franchise (there should be if the final scene), the standard set by this cracking scene is what Ritchie and his team should be pushing themselves to match.


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