I had intended to furnish you with this review of Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows a lot sooner than this … but I'm afraid the Christmas Silly Season is not a time that allows me much opportunity to sit down and write. But, even though I can firmly believe that many of you have already seen the film, it would be inconceivable for me to neglect Mr. Holmes' latest cinematic adventure until it arrived on Blu-ray. So, folks, without further ado … “The game's afoot!”
Bigger, Better and Funnier.
Well that's what the poster boisterously proclaims Empire magazine said about the lavishly mounted second entry in Guy Ritchie's action-packed take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's celebrated super-sleuth. However, I feel the truth, my dear Watson, is somewhat different.
“Come at once if convenient. If inconvenient, come all the same.”
That quote from the movie is taken directly from Doyle, and it may as well set the tone as the prime directive for what Ritchie has in mind for us, the audience, this time around. What he delivers here is hell-for-leather and come-what-may. What it lacks in subtlety, it attempts to make up for in sheer exuberance, an abundance of incendiaries and raining showers of slow-motion devastation. It is not all that successful in its endeavour.
I loved the first film and I still stand by it as being not only a terrific period thriller and a winning combination of on-screen performer chemistry and bravura set-piece mayhem, but also a superb Sherlock Holmes story in its own right. Ritchie, his gang of writers and star Robert Downy Jnr. took what Doyle and the numerous authors for book and television who received the baton from him did with the character and embraced all of his eccentricities, his incisive wit and ceaseless deductive abilities, and his quirky social detriments whilst adding a surprisingly faithful physicality – Holmes always could fight and would engage in it whenever the need arose – that brought the legendary detective into a vogue that could excite modern multiplex audiences as well as please as many Holmsian devotees, like myself, as possible. Thus, the first film told a great story of occult intrigue, political skulduggery, and a begrudged but believable bromance and thundered along with marvellously assured aplomb. It created a world of authentic Victoriana that was stuffed to the gills with credible denizens spouting all sorts of wacky period jargon, and dastardly, twisty-turny intentions coming at you by the carriage-load. And it showed Sherlock actually using his brain to unravel the intricate machinations of a dark and fiendish plot that, occult shenanigans aside, wasn't all that far-fetched.
I, for one, couldn't wait to see where they would take the characters of Sherlock Holmes and his stalwart yet sarcastic comrade-in-arms, Dr. John Watson, in the next instalment, especially after so teasingly introducing their main nemesis in Prof. Moriarty, seen now in the flesh (and played by Jared Harris), at the cunning finale of their last adventure.
Well, two years later I was able to find out.
We are on the cusp of the new century. Workmen are busy constructing what will become the London Underground. The odd automobile bumbles and bounces along the smoggy cobbles of the festering city's topside. Industry has kicked-in with an assembly-line zeal, aided by the darkened storm clouds that herald the threat of war in Europe. And, to this end, anarchist bombs rip through the fabric of society seemingly urging nations to take up arms and to blunder forth in the creation of greater conflict. But it would appear that someone, somewhere is pulling strings and manipulating governments to his own ends. Holmes believes he knows who this shadowy game-player might be and is applying the full force of his astonishing intellect to hunting him down and thwarting such grim Shadows from ensnaring the world.
And our two heroes operating out of 221b Baker Street have maintained the same relationship of unerring loyalty for, and eternal exasperation with one another … yet it is perfectly clear that neither would have it any other way. Jude Law's long-suffering Watson still intends to wed the luscious, but aggressively needle-lipped Kelly Reilly's even more long-suffering Mary. RDJ's magnificent maverick is in the midst of conducting room-filling botanical experiments and plotting the connective threads of his quarry's insanely convoluted Continent-wide exploits. Adopting the first of many disguises that we see in the film, Sherlock pursues his petulant part-time paramour, Irene Adler (once again played, although rather briefly this time, by Rachel McAdams) as she acts as a doomed courier for someone of distinct power and growing notoriety. Guess who? And, within only moments, Ritchie finds reason to remind us of just how adept Holmes is with regards to both flash-forward intuition and rapid-fire fisticuffs. There will be lots more of this now-patented slow-mo, step-by-step precognitive combat to be savoured, though none of it, I fear, reaching the same level of excitement and clinically hypnotic dexterity and grey-matter fuelled pugilism as witnessed in the previous yarn.
Aided by his own (potentially smarter) older brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry in a role that he was surely born to play), but cutting almost entirely away from the colourfully bumbling Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) and Constable Clark (William Houston), who appear only fleetingly and sans anything worthwhile to do, Holmes' and Watson's intrepid escapade soon finds them on-the-hoof, literally during one protracted and ill-advised comedy stretch involving a mule and a mountain range, and indulging in a travelogue of bomb-blasts, diabolical marksmanship, Tarot Cards, eerie bodysuits and makeup, dangerous train-rides, opera and chess. Ritchie's cocksure approach is devoted to keeping up a frightful pace that stops-off only for occasional dabbings on the open wound of the plot, a tone-altering wedding, an out-of-character smattering of torture, and the chance of dance.
Now we have Noomi Rapace, with a little more comely meat on her bones than when we saw her last with piercings and a Dragon Tattoo, as the gypsy spy, Madame Simza Heron, to add some exotic spice to the pot. I had feared that she would be used merely as a hot new name with which to attract more cosmopolitan fans, and an advance review that I read seemed to indicate that this was, in fact, something of the case. That she was criminally underused. Well, I've seen the film twice now, and the first time had me scoffing at this observation. The girl appears frequently and plays a prominent part during some of the better sequences. And then, when I revisited the movie, I discovered that actually she does very little other than “hang around” with our detective duo and form part of the disposable Romany entourage that escorts across them mountain borders and hence to, and from, various explosive encounters. In short, she is there merely as provocative set-dressing. At least Rachel McAdams had a fair bit more actual involvement with the telling of the tale and became a Catwoman-like entity in her own right. Rapace, I regret to say, is simply going along for the ride.
Where previously we were awarded a tour through a beautifully rendered bygone world and treated, most vigorously, to the raw delights of its seething underbelly, A Game Of Shadows seeks pastures new and takes us further afield for a jaunt through Europe, starting off in France and then winding its way, eventfully, towards a fateful climax at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. But even if the production-design is still etched indelibly with all the accoutrements of the era and of each passing locale, this never feels quite as well established, nor as rich as the grimy, gin-addled cesspit of England's teeming metropolis. The gypsy angle, which seems to have been brought in as an evolution sprung from the kaleidoscopic twangs and mischief conjured from Hans Zimmer's eclectic score for the first saga, is nicely evocative and darkly playful … and possibly even makes up for the rather surprising lack of tangible villainy that our irascible duo must go up against.
Other than a running chase-cum-skirmish between Holmes and a virtually indestructible and astoundingly acrobatic Cossack assassin, that is an early high-point, although it does perhaps go on for a bit too long, we have the lurking presence of Paul Anderson's deadly sniper, Colonel Sebastian Moran. These additions are much more contrived and far less likely than the shady ne'er-do-wells we met previously, although Anderson clearly has the seeds of something greater about his sadistic marksman than the script actually allows him to supply. Legions of goons are employed in various stages, yet they do not generate the same level of intimidation that only a handful of thugs could previously inspire in the back-alleys of London in the debut feature. Nor yet, the violently brilliant embodiment of pure malevolence that Robert (300, The Immortals) Maillet delivered as the electro-energised, but weirdly polite hench-brute, Dredger.
But the film's most extravagant passages, and its most visually decorative are the battle aboard a speeding locomotive and the epic flight through the forest so beloved by the film's trailer. Now, I have to admit that although I loved the set-piece aboard the train – Holmes' matronly disguise makes him look like Heath Ledger's Joker – I found it incredibly over-the-top and wilfully self-indulgent. We have a veritable platoon of scarlet-soldiery mounting all-out war on the newly married Watsons, but the initially canny defence that Sherlock adopts goes on to beggar belief in the amassed armada of hidden preparations that he has made in advance of the assault. Only someone of the calibre of Se7en's John Doe could use such a glorious amount of pre-emptive foresight. But, as an episode that elicits as many laughs as it does thrills, the sequence certainly charges along with appreciable gusto. The forest set-piece, which from the over-exposure it seemed to receive in trailers and advance imagery I thought would be an over-embellished longeur of meaningless directorial bravado, is actually thrillingly staged and hugely imaginative in its capture of swollen, shrapnel-spinning time, breathless slow-motion adrenaline and elaborate crystal-clear framing of ever-escalating weaponry and brutally ballistic threat. Returning DOP Philippe Rousselot's photography throughout the film, but especially during this madcap, pell-mell fighting retreat is utterly scintillating and so detailed that it takes another viewing just to fully appreciate the level of the chaos taking place in this coruscating fusillade of filmic excess.
“Brace yourself, Watson, we're about to be violated!”
The two leads now wear their antiquated crusaders as snugly as gloves. RDJ does not quite address the vaguely concealed “addict” element of Holmes as much as he did before, but his impulsive, forever questioning and problem-solving nature is still supremely fixated upon. Law, who gets to heft a newfangled machine-gun like a tweed-clad Rambo and to tap into his own submerged detective skills, is having a ball once again. It is telling, perhaps, that Ritchie allows him to indulge in some Lock, Stock style fun and japery as Watson seeks to make the most of what has turned out to be a shanghaied stag party by simply gambling and boozing whilst his buddy battles for his life all over the show. Even Snatch is recalled with our heroes' hefty swallowing-up in the middle of a potentially menacing gypsy encampment. All this points to a director who feels completely comfortable with his own “snatching lock, stock” of two of literature's most enduring icons. He wastes no time in marshalling audacious chapters of impressively large-scale destruction, even if the sense of split-second derring-do is thrown more casually to the winds of scenery-shredding heavy artillery.
But as entertaining as the film is, it falls down on several counts that I feel I must address.
My first, and most enveloping concern is the singular lack of bonafide deductive work taking place. Where Holmes' sifting through crowded scenes of laboriously set-designed minutia led to stunningly crafted eureka instances of clue-gathering last time around, similar evidence collecting in A Game Of Shadows is achieved via preposterous leaps of logic and tenuous links that seem to reveal a rather cavalier attitude to the business of sleuthing on behalf of the writers. A time-honoured delight in any Holmesian adventure is the connecting-up of various disparate facts and the feeling of being pulled, staccato-fashion, in carefully revealed directions towards a greater truth that will only become clear come the conclusion. Here, the clues are altogether more random and fashioned in such a way as to propel us, once Holmes has bitten down on them, towards the next set-piece. We don't have that aura of wheels-within-wheels turning in ever more devious circles that a typical Holmesian mystery has in spades. Thus, I deduce that Ritchie and his writers had their minds set more on the “end Game” than they did on the individual components that are needed to tell a good and coherent story. They had their collective eye on the “bigger picture”, which, of course, tends to be the root cause of trouble with a great many sequels that just want to exploit the things that their makers believed audiences loved first time around, but at the expense of the underlying cleverness that acted as the subliminal glue making those things gel together in the first place.
Secondly, and no less damningly, is the treatment of our arch-fiend, Prof. James Moriarty.
Well, I have no problem with Jared Harris' portrayal of the nefarious hatcher of schemes most horrid. Indeed, he certainly looks, sounds and acts the part with considerable accomplishment. His devilish intellect is rarely in question, and his cold, yet urbane deportment is never lacking in period detail and prose-worthy candour. Suave and sinister, he could even make for a fitting Jack The Ripper with his top hat and tails, twirling whiskers and the cold gleam in his eye. Yet, the very plot that he so concerns himself with is woefully lacking in actual credence. It is almost abstract in its bizarre complexity – SF-tinged facial surgery and terrorist sleight-of-hand - and yet also far too generic in its desired ambition. Oh, is that it, Professor? How becoming of your vast intellect. Not. In short, it is not the sort of game that Holmes' evil alter-ego would really be involved with. And, compounding this severe lack of genuine villainy, the sleuth's three encounters with his determined rival (I'm not counting the brief, shadow-draped carriage introduction at gunpoint from the first film) are unbelievably drab and lacklustre, despite what you may have heard to the contrary. The meeting of such great, though conflicted brains is the province for an arena of intellectual sparring that should have set sparks flying. Yet each encounter is desultory, ignorant of true spontaneity and certainly unsatisfying of the stature of the two separated-at-seedpod characters. I will concede that the final pay-off, which is literally a meeting of the minds in virtual combat, is quite inspired, but I don't feel that it is actually enough to conclude what should have been a real edge-of-the-seat confrontation.
A little bit of spoilerage – and a question – lie ahead in the next paragraph. Feel free to skip over it if you haven't yet seen the film and return to it at your convenience.
Can somebody please tell me why planting a bomb that kills a couple of dozen dignitaries is meant to disguise the specific assassination of just one man with a bullet through the skull? Erm … not to be pedantic, but precisely what difference would it make? The bomb would have killed him anyway and the results, plot-wise, would have been absolutely identical. For someone such as the brilliantly macabre Moriarty, this is utter twaddle of the lowest possible calculation. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would be spinning in his grave at such an inept slice of ham-fisted plotting. I can bet that husband-and-wife screenscribes Kieran and Michele Mulroney probably gave themselves high-fives for allowing Sherlock to fathom out the heinous misdirection at the heart of this atrocity … but it is stupidity of this sort that caused a fair bit of befuddled head-scratching and audible mockery from the audience both times I saw the film.
An unbelievable disappointment is the recruiting of the great Stephen Fry, who, I should add is a massive hero of mine and a man whom I could never tire of listening to. And yet this is the problem with him here. He has nothing to say that is worth listening to. For pity's sake, why enlist the unparalleled talents of possibly the world's leading exponent of vernacular dexterity if you are not going to give him the opportunity to twist his tongue around some mesmerisingly mellifluous mini-monologues of Mycroftian muse? Every time he appeared on screen I sat in expectation of wonderfully witty wordplay and dialogue so decidedly delicious that it created its own set-pieces of spoken spectaculars. Alas, this never happened. And his nude scene just seems to be tacked-on for a twist on the infinitely better judged moment when a pillow hides a handcuffed Sherlock's modesty from a gobsmacked maid.
And nor, it must be said, is that essential chemistry that exists between our two leads quite as engaging as it once was. There can be no denying that the duo do work well together … and it is no surprise to learn that they have become firm friends off-camera too. A pair of pranksters, the two can now almost finish each other's sentences off, such is their fun-loving level of telepathy. But the screenplay for Shadows does not let their exchanges fizz with anywhere near the same effervescence that we delighted in back in 2009. There may be plenty to giggle at with Downy's clearly relished inhabitation of Holmes (note the little Chaplinesque moment that he employs after the Watsons' wedding), and Law is every bit as stiff-upper-lipped and hangdog-heroic as he was before, but their interplay lacks the glorious, self-reverential bedazzlement that it once cavorted with so unflappably. Indeed, there is a concerted attempt to make this story a little more serious than last time … though if this proves to be the reason why so many of their exchanges fall flatter than before, it certainly does not extend to the actual whipcrack-away style of the storytelling. It is just that their dialogue and their delivery of it is neither as funny, as frothy, nor as stimulating as their previous exercise in on-the-case bantering would lead you to expect. Somehow, it feels too neat and tidy, and less frivolous than we have become accustomed to from the constantly bickering boys.
I have already taken to task Hans Zimmer's score for this second Holmes in my review for the CD release. Whilst I concede that it works far better alongside the movie than it does as a standalone album, I must just put a line under this aspect as being another disappointment. He ups the gypsy quotient, which is understandable given the proliferation of travelling folks, but fails to ignite any memorable new themes for anybody – whimsy for Mycroft and, quelle surprise, deep, dark chords for Moriarty - and collapses the terrific former ones under a deluge of muddy percussion and so much remixed mulch. Like Ritchie, he seems to have gone for the easy option and neglected the care and attention that the story required in favour of unfulfilled and over-reaching indulgence. He made sure that we had fun the last time around. He supplies none of that here.
Now, in what may sound like something of a contradiction to all that I've said thus far, A Game Of Shadows actually is tremendous fun, to be sure. It moves like Stephenson's Rocket and tears a hyper-kinetic dash through an age not often regarded as the bastion of all things cinematically bombastic. But it has lost something indefinable and vital that catapulted the first film to such widely received success. In trying so hard to boost all the appropriate ingredients, Ritchie and Co have somehow diluted the magic and turned in what is, at best, a very serviceable period actioner, ripe with effects and pyrotechnics and, at worst, a really rather poor Sherlock Holmes story. Somehow, they managed to cram the two extremes into the same sumptuous box beforehand, and they fit very well together. After both viewings of this instalment, I raced home to watch the first film again … and found it superior on almost every level. I still admire the direction that Ritchie has taken this cherished character in, for without his dynamic efforts, we would not have seen such a glorious resurgence in Holmesian lore and mythology – such as the fantastic updating on TV from Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt and the new novels by the likes of Anthony Horowitz and Guy Adams. I wonder if he could do the same with the Belgian gnome, Poirot? Then again, maybe not. He'd be swinging that cane like a lightsaber and using his bowler hat like a pint sized Oddjob.
I want to make it clear that I still believe in this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes and would dearly love to regard it in the same manner of excited anticipation that I would a new Bond film, but after really looking forward to it, Shadows has failed to grip me in the way that I thought and hoped it would.
Where I would award the first film a 9 out of 10 for such a dazzlingly inspired and downright enjoyable re-invention, the sequel struggles to reach a charitable 7. I do like the movie, but I'm not going along with the general slathering consensus that it is superior to its predecessor at all. For me, it misses the target far too often and doesn't make good on the promise that Ritchie originally made. It is a Holmesian romp in name, but not in nature … leaving the character and his elementary deductions a long way behind.
Yet, still, I long for a third outing.
Make no mistake, Watson, there is fun to be had in Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, but in attempting to “embiggen” his raucous and barnstorming first adaptation of Conan Doyle's titan of twisted tale untying, Guy Ritchie neglects the all-important alchemy that bonds character to story in a meaningful and respectful way. With a plot that is heavier on explosions and hit-and-miss camp interludes than it is on nuance and bonafide storytelling, he rampages along on an unstoppable romp that swaps wit for swagger much too often. Whilst Robert Downy Jnr and Jude Law do their best to cement what is undoubtedly a great double-act, the lacklustre villainy and rather bland and obvious masterplan that Moriarty concocts leaves the conflict, in spite of Terminator-like Cossacks, evil Grenadiers and grand artillery ambuscades, oddly unsatisfying and suspenseless.
Don't go hoping for any rapier-like repartee from the otherwise magnificent Stephen Fry either. I've heard of having your wings clipped, but it seems as though the master-wordsmith's tonsils have been taped-down. And Noomi Rapace, as gorgeous as she is, just ends up running hither and yon in a film that also cannot seem to sit still for long.
Although I have given the film a 7 out of 10, which would imply that it's actually pretty good, it gets by, in this case, on sheer brain-switched-off entertainment value alone. It is not “Bigger, Better & Funnier” at all. And it is not half as clever as it thinks it is. But the action is often stunningly wrought-about and, my misgivings notwithstanding, it is certainly a tonic to be back in-amidst the warped mindset of the puzzle-prince of Old London Town and running alongside his trusty sidekick.
I just hope that the third adventure will successfully marry-up the action with the wit and intelligence of a thunderingly good story. Case closed. For now.
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