Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
dir. Guy Ritchie
Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Jared Harris
3-1/2 out of 5 Stars
After a fantastic outing in the original Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey Jr. (Holmes) is back with his mostly-unwilling sidekick Dr. Watson (Law) in the sequel to the mostly strong first chapter (mostly, because, well… Mark Strong? Really? There’s a pun to be noted there, but surely it has been noted before). This time, Holmes has met his match in the form of the genius criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty (Harris)… or so the promotional materials would have you believe. Ultimately the studio attempts to sell the film to the audience this way, so that when one sees it, one has this idea at the forefront of the mind, so as not to question it. Sadly, after the credits roll, one walks out of the theater feeling that the film was in some way lacking, inadequate, missing that one piece of the puzzle that might have turned good into great. This, then, is the lesson of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows- a good movie, yes, but just a few steps short of great.
Where the film’s strength lies, however, is in its lead actor, and Downey Jr. is even better as Holmes in the second outing. He speaks, moves, and acts precisely as one is led to believe Holmes’ mind works- and does so even more effectively than in the previous film, where he was also outstanding. He has become far more comfortable in the role, to the point where one could watch Downey Jr’s Holmes sit in a room for two hours and he’d find some way to make it entertaining. His performance alone sets the film higher than anyone else in the role likely could. Similarly, Law’s Watson has an even better camaraderie with Holmes than he did in the first film, and the two play off one another so well that one never for a second questions this relationship. It is living, breathing, constantly evolving, and constantly moving. Holmes is at his best when he is on-screen with Watson, and vice-versa, and luckily the two share a great deal of screentime as they did in the previous film.
On another note, we get introduced to Holmes’ brother Mycroft, played here deliciously by Stephen Fry (in all his glory). The character was probably the best new addition to the cast, though outside of being Holmes’ brother, he isn’t doing much. Still he was a great deal of fun to watch, even if his character didn’t necessarily make any sense (he largely serves as a human deus ex machina). Rachel McAdams briefly returns here as Adler, and her return is all too short, since she was delightful to watch in the first film. Like Watson, both Adler and Mycroft have a fantastic rapport with Holmes, and the scenes they share together are among the best in the film.
The rest of the cast is somewhat uneven. Noomi Rapace’s Madam Heron is less a living, breathing character as she is a walking plot device, and this makes her quite underwhelming (despite her relative importance to the overall plot of the film, she never feels like she means anything to said plot, because ultimately she really doesn’t). Jared Harris brings an uneasiness and a cold, calculating demeanor to Moriarty, even if his performance seems a little stiff at times, something that must have been a conscious choice. This serves as a stark contrast to the garish and somewhat unpredictable Holmes and works very well. Still there is ultimately something missing from Moriarty, and this goes back to the idea that he is supposed to be a criminal mastermind who is, in every way, Holmes’ equal. The film desperately wants the audience to believe this, but a relative failure to really explore the character (not so much in terms of backstory as in terms of further screentime) coupled with a lack of rich dramatic tension leaves much to be desired. Telling an audience that the man is an evil genius and the equal of Sherlock Holmes doesn’t mean anything if the evidence doesn’t play out on-screen, and make no mistake, it never does (showing a collection of notes and newspaper clippings linking Moriarty to various foul deeds does not make him menacing). For as wonderful as Downey Jr. is as Holmes, as richly as he has captured the capricious nature of his character, Harris simply doesn’t bring it in the contrast. Moriarty never seems quite dark enough, never seems quite calculating enough. One never feels that Moriarty has a chance at actually one-upping Sherlock Holmes.
More to the point, the film relies too heavily on action to show the back-and-forth struggle between Holmes and Moriarty in what should be a highly intellectual struggle between two men equally matched on that field of battle. Moriarty falls into the category with too many other villains of all media- for being such a genius, he surrounds himself with monumentally incompetent people. His plans fall apart not necessarily because of a failure in his design, but in a failure in those beneath him executing them. Mind you, his right-hand mercenary-for-hire (Paul Anderson’s Colonel Moran) is more than competent, but is ultimately meaningless, especially since he is given no tangible connection to Moriarty outside of being a gun for hire. True that at the end, once Holmes has succeeded in thwarting Moriarty’s plan, we do get the intellectual back-and-forth that is so long promised, but at this point the film is deep in the last reel and it is too little, too late.
A major issue that the film has- and what really knocks this film from ‘great’ to ‘good,’ is the fact that slow-motion is over-used to the point that it drains all the life out of the film. Particularly in what is probably the film’s biggest action set piece, Holmes and company are making their escape from Moriarty’s clutches and are being fired at by artillery and mortars. This is absurdly out of place in the film, both because 1.) this isn’t a war movie, and 2.) the entire sequence at normal speed would take about 10 seconds, but this scene alone is stretched out to span minutes. Minutes, as in the slow-mo is so slow that the shots are almost completely frozen. Moreover, the scene completely removes the audience from the film and has no real narrative point. Yes, they’ve escaped, but no, they’re not out of the woods yet (literally), and the audience knows this. Slowing it down to the point that one is basically looking at moving stills for a good chunk of time. It’s as if Ritchie pulled out a gigantic hammer and keeps beating the audience in the head with it just so they know that they haven’t escaped yet. Mind you, there is a way to effectively use slow motion, but rest assured, it is not this. Even Zack Snyder would shake his head at this scene.
Still there is much to love about Ritchie’s second effort in the Holmes cinematic saga, and one imagines there will only be more (and hopes, even). The film is beautiful to watch, from the cinematography, the details in the sets and costumes, right down to the accents of the characters. The world that has been created here is breathtaking, and it never for a moment feels like it isn’t real, or that these characters are not living and breathing in each moment they’re on-screen. The cast was certainly up to the task, but can only work with what they’re given, and there are sadly too many obstacles to make it through to the end unscathed. Too much is alluded to, not mentioned, or not focused on, particularly in Moriarty’s case. The best thing to be said about the film is that one will leave the theater feeling indifferent. There is too much to love about the film to hate it, but there is simply not enough to love to truly love it. Three and a half out of five stars.
by Nicholas Haskins
Follow me on Twitter or book my face. You can also find this review and others over at Black Entertainment USA. Now, are we going to declare war on Spain, or are we not?