When the first Sherlock Holmes film hit I was pleasantly surprised by both its quality and its take on the character. While it wasn’t perfect and it hardly constituted a mystery I thought Downey was perfectly cast as a neurotic, selfish and brilliant Holmes and the film successfully reinvented the character. Guy Ritchie’s stylistic direction seemed to help the film more than hinder it and the repartee between Holmes and Watson was enough to keep anyone interested.
All in all the first film was a success in my book so I was looking forward to a second turn with this take on Holmes, especially with the addition of Professor Moriarty. Since almost all of the filmmakers (except screenwriters) were returning this time around I was expecting at least the same quality as the original. What I was not expecting was a movie that squandered everything great about its predecessor while emphasizing everything that was bad.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Director: Guy Ritchie
Release Date: December 16, 2011
I’m fine with the fact that this Sherlock Holmes isn’t so much a detective as he is an action hero in these films, but the original movie did a fantastic job integrating his insane knowledge and detective skills into the action. The break down of each fight before it occurs is a perfect example of this mixture executed well. A Game of Shadows completely abandons even the closest semblance of mystery for a plot and characters that are all out action and it is all the worse for it in almost every aspect.
We find Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his sidekick Watson (Jude Law) about where we left them at the end of the last film. Watson is about to get married while Holmes has locked himself away and gone slightly mad(der). The thing driving him crazy is Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), the literary Holme’s arch-nemesis (though he only appeared in two stories). We are quickly shoved into the middle of they mystery when Watson comes to pick Holmes up for his bachelor party. Holmes has already figured out the Moriarty is the man behind a series of bombings in England at this point and thus most of the mystery is already solved. The film then becomes more about Holmes chasing after Moriarty as Watson tags along. This continues until the conclusion of the film where the screenwriters finally get their head on straight and realize that Holmes and Moriarty should be matching wits not guns and fists.
If the Holmes/Moriarty clash was truly a great mind game playing out on the screen the film would have been fantastic. Instead, however, Moriarty is reduced to a Bond villain hiding in his secret layer until Holmes catches him. It’s not until the end of the film that the two get a true mental face off and by then the character is almost entirely squandered. In all fairness, the last showdown between the two is quite well done and great to watch, but its mental duel should have been the theme of the entire movie, not just the last sequence. Again, I’m fine with Holmes being an action star as long as they still treat him like Sherlock Holmes for most of the movie and not John McClane for half and Holmes for the conclusion.
It’s even worse because Harris’ Moriarty could have been truly amazing. In the scenes that the two do face off in — or when Moriarty is actually being interesting — there’s an icy creepiness to him that is perfect for the unhinged character. He’s so underutilized during the film thanks to action sequences and an almost needless story line involving gypsy Simza Heron (the gorgeous Noomi Rapace) that Harris never gets to fully realize the character. This overcrowded attitude also affects Downey’s Holmes as well. The subtle levels of narcosis and character are pretty much gone, and his detective side is almost totally obliterated this time around. Even when they attempt to introduce some deeper levels to the character they fall totally flat as horrible site gags start to occur. Downey’s well developed character is almost completely missing from this film.
What is really disappointing, though, is that the new team of screenwriters absolutely destroyed the brilliant interactions between Holmes and Watson. The first film’s glib conversations and downright hilarious remarks are instead replaced with punchlines with no punch and discussions that are clearly trying to be funny instead of actually being funny. In a movie where it’s so important that the characters work well together Holmes and Watson’s relationship doesn’t at all. Neither does the film’s costume design, which was splendidly fun in the first one, but has lost almost all of its charm this time around despite the fact that its the same costume designer.
I will say that the action still holds up and since that’s clearly what the movies is actually all about it’s a good thing too. The fights and chase sequences are well choreographed and Ritchie’s use of slow motion and overcranking once again fits well with the overall feel of the movie. One chase sequence through a wooded area with bullets flying everywhere is actually quite impressive and well put together. It literally stretches about a minute chase into a glorious slow motion cacophony of explosions and flying bullets. And, as I said before, when the final game is afoot it’s handled quite splendidly.
What Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is really missing, and what made the first one so great, is Sherlock Holmes. Instead we get what appears to be the shell of the character we saw developing in the original. The relationships are dull, the villain never really gets any time to grow into the character he should be and the action is the only reason to tune into the film.