Monday, December 19, 2011

Review: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"

When I reviewed Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (2009), I made a remark that his set-up of the character followed a path eerily similar to that of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins (2005). Both films took a classic character and reinvented them, while squaring them off with a relatively mundane antagonist. Both films also concluded with a set-up for a sequel that would introduce the hero's most famous villain. For Batman, it was the Joker, as embodied by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008); for Holmes, it's Prof. Moriarty. Both characters represent the ultimate challenges for their respective protagonists. They are, essentially, their doubles; the corrupted versions of the heroes had they fallen into a path of darkness. The big difference, at least on screen, is that where Mr. Nolan's sequel was a grander, richer, darker film, Mr. Ritchie's follow-up gives us more of the Holmes that audiences loved two years ago, only with diminished results.

Opening some vague amount of time after the '09 film, A Game of Shadows quickly plunges us into a world uncomfortably close to war. A series of assassinations and bombings have put mainland Europe on edge. For Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), however, it can all be traced to Prof. Moriarty (Mad Men's Jared Harris), even though he doesn't have the concrete evidence to prove it. At the same time, Holmes must deal with the potential loss of his closest ally, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), who is about to get married. Things change, however, when Holmes and Moriarty start to clash, and the pair must find a way to prevent the Professor from setting the entire continent ablaze with war.

Yet whatever fun there was in Ritchie's take on the classic Conan Doyle character in the first go-round suddenly seems depleted here. The opening sequences, which reintroduce Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler, fail to stick, even though they directly involve Moriarty himself. Rather than advance the world he established last time, Ritchie appears to have become lazy here, and the flow of scenes often feels like it's missing a certain extra oomph. Even the fight scenes, which start off with Holmes playing through possible scenarios in his head before progressing to the real action, don't inspire the same level of fun they did just two years ago. While the portions that take place in Holmes' mind remain effective (and they lead to a fun twist on the concept at the conclusion), the actual fights feel sloppily staged and edited. When showing the nuts and bolts of how things work in drastic close-ups and slow motion, whether it's a fight scene or the firing of a machine gun, A Game of Shadows has some spark to it. But when it gets around to the more mundane parts of its action, the staging and choreography seem to vanish and become replaced with rapid-fire cuts.

This would be a smaller complaint were there not so many other unfortunate issues. The biggest problem the film has, a crucial flaw for an adventure of its nature, is the characters. At the outset, Holmes almost doesn't feel like himself; it's as if Downey Jr. decided to dispense with his previous interpretation and try his hand at a less wacky/drunk Jack Sparrow. The odd choice vanishes after the first 20 minutes or so, but it's puzzling nonetheless. Once it's gone, though, Downey Jr. becomes the Holmes that was so popular (and earned him a surprise victory at the Golden Globes) last time. Law's Watson remains the same, making a nice bro-mantic foil for Downey Jr., though never feeling quite as integral to the plot as he should. Noomi Rapace (the original Lisbeth Salander) is also here, but not given nearly enough to do, despite her connection to the story. Jared Harris, on the other hand, has enough to do, and makes for an effective Moriarty. The problem with the character, however, lies in the script. He and Holmes meet face-to-face as enemies quite early on. It's a technique that could have resulted in a devilishly clever battle of wits, but the film sidelines Harris too often. Worse, Moriarty's big scheme, evil though it may be, isn't executed on screen in a manner that makes it feel worthy of the character's reputation.

That's not to say that this is a completely joyless exercise, however. Though the humor doesn't work nearly as well as it did in the previous film, Downey Jr. and Law's chemistry remains firmly intact. And as over-stylized as some of the action sequences may be in their use of slow-motion, their slick assembly is a fun distraction from the otherwise middle of the road execution. A Game of Shadows does have a saving grace though, and it comes in where it counts: the ending. The film's entire last act, set in a Swiss castle perched on a waterfall, is an absolute blast, resulting in a face-off both physical and mental that is allowed to run its course, rather than be cut short for the sake of finding an ending. It's really a shame that everything that came before couldn't have been more effective, because by the time the film rolled around to its conclusion, I was ready to forgive it for its missteps. Unfortunately, as fun as the final act is, it can't undo the flaws that came before it, even though I'll bet that Mr. Ritchie really wishes that it could.

Grade: C+

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