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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Review

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by Casimir Harlow May 30, 2012 at 12:46 AM

  • Movies review

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    Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Review

    I simply can’t get enough of the recent adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s evidently timeless Sherlock Holmes tales. I thought that things might have hit an over-saturation point what with Guy Ritchie’s stylish impressionist blockbusters dominating the Big Screen whilst Doctor Who reboot scribes Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss worked their magic with a modern reimagining for the small screens, but I love them both. Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes, or Benedict Cumberpatch’s Sherlock – they are both superior takes on the same character, and both worthy of your undivided attention.

    Of course, whilst there’s still money to be made, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t milk Doyle’s legacy dry, other than the fact that there’s a very real risk of rinsing the whole subject-matter. Perhaps the most unnecessary step in this direction is the upcoming US TV series, Elementary, which purportedly pitches a ‘unique’ take on the classic detective tales in that it updates them to a modern setting. Hold on, that’s been done already; I guess if it hasn’t been done in the States, then it doesn’t count. The new series will features Stuart Townsend as Holmes, and Lucy Liu as Starbuck-sorry, I mean, Watson. I really don’t know who comes up with these ideas but, thankfully, fans of quality Sherlockian tales still get to look forward to both a third season of the excellent BBC Sherlock series and a third Guy Ritchie / Robert Downey Jr. movie.

    In the mean time, if you didn’t get the chance to catch their second foray into the wonderful world of the original Great Detective, now’s the perfect opportunity to take a look at Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

    2009’s Sherlock Holmes introduced us to Robert Downey Jr’s take on the title character and to Jude Law as his loyal – and beleaguered – partner Dr. Watson, following their end-of-the-19th Century exploits as they hunted down Mark Strong’s suitably imposing villain, Lord Blackwood. Whilst on their adventures, Watson revealed that he was looking towards settling down with the young widow Mary Morstan – much to Holmes’s chagrin. Meanwhile Holmes himself had to contend with his own on-again/off-again relationship with femme fatale Irene Adler. By the end of the piece, the villain was suitably deposed; the love interest was rescued from her plight, and everything was right in the world or 221B Baker Street. Or not. Actually, it transpired that both Blackwood and Adler herself were working for a higher power. A certain Professor Moriarty.

    Despite being set the best part of a year after the events of the first movie, A Game of Shadows still feels like it picks up basically where the story left off, with Holmes and Adler still engaged in a strange dance of both romance and one-upmanship – the latter’s strings still being pulled by her mysterious client, Moriarty. When Holmes saves the day once again, however, he inadvertently foils one of The Professor’s schemes, thus incurring his wrath. It’s not long before the two great minds are locked on a head-to-head collision, and Holmes is forced to call upon the help of some gypsy rebels, his elder brother Mycroft, and, of course, his trusted colleague Dr. Watson, in an effort to put an end to the dastardly plans of possibly his greatest adversary.

    Based on the classic Holmes vs. Moriarty story, The Final Problem –which was recently reinvisioned for the Sherlock TV series as the second season finale episode The Reichenbach Fall – the story to A Game of Shadows has a few strong founding elements upon which to weave its grander-scope tale, taking a “bigger, louder” approach to following-up the 2009 first chapter. It also adopts a Bond-style stance in its globe-trotting scale; the adventure taking us from England to France, Germany and Switzerland, via all manner of suitably period transport, from horseback and carriage to early automobiles and trains, stopping off at a rebel camp, the Paris Opera, a weapons depot and a peace summit along the way.

    The usual suspects return to reprise their roles from before – including the two leads, Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) as Irene Adler, Kelly Reilly (Pride & Prejudice) as the soon-to-be Mary Watson, and even, briefly, Eddie Marsan’s (Tyrannosaur) best-of-a-bad-lot Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard – and we are also introduced to a number of new components – from the Noomi Rapace’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Gypsy fortune-teller to Stephen Fry’s (Hitchhiker’s Guide) Mycroft Holmes, as well as, of course, Jared Harris’s (Mad Men) final reveal as Holmes’s archenemy Professor Moriarty.

    Indeed, with Ritchie still in the driver’s seat, and both cinematographer Phillippe Rousselot and composer Hans Zimmer returning from the first outing, it would seem that all the pieces were in place to make this the biggest, best Sherlock Holmes outing yet.

    Unfortunately – and not for want of trying – A Game of Shadows falls short of hitting the mark as a worthy successor to the 2009 film, instead merely remaining a decent and eminently entertaining outing; one which was thankfully at least popular enough to guarantee a chance at a return to form with the third film.

    Ironically, it was perhaps the marginally unexpected success of the first film that set in motion a chain of events that couldn’t help but to negatively impact the outcome of the production and, in particular, the script. You see, after its success, Warner Bros. fast-tracked the sequel, and persuaded both Ritchie and Downey Jr. to drop what they were involved in (an adaptation of DC’s Lobo, and Cowboys & Aliens, respectively) and do that instead. Indeed, just 10 months after the release of the first movie, the duo, along with the other returning cast and crew members, were already busy shooting the sequel.

    What they were shooting, however, was a hash-job script by relatively inexperienced husband-and-wife filmmaking team Kieran and Michele Mulroney who basically have nothing else attached to their names. Without a doubt the best bits of the script – and thus the movie – revolve around the pieces taken from the original source novel, namely the confrontations between Holmes and Moriarty. In fact, I’m sorry to say that this particular sequel falls into the trap of being largely driven more by elaborately conceived grand set-pieces, and a globe-trotting style, than by any genuinely clever plotting.

    Worse still, it’s impossible not to notice some gaping plot-holes in what should be a perfected mystery detective story. Whilst some viewers were not wholly impressed by the revelation-style plot to 2009’s first Sherlock Holmes outing – you know, the way in which he picks up clues along the way that audiences are largely oblivious to, and then masterfully puts the pieces of the puzzle together at the end – it’s impossible to deny that this is what Doyle’s tales were all about. Intricately plotted, staggeringly detailed, they were designed to be too dense to predict – it was Holmes’s mystery to solve, after all, and not yours. Unfortunately fans of this style will be sorely disappointed to see that the writers fall down completely in their attempt to replicate it for the second movie.

    Characters are introduced into the plot with little or no point to their existence; grand locations are used as marker-points as we throttle along from one set-piece to another; and significant events are thrown to the wind without giving them the proper respect and attention.

    The potentially devastating effects of the explosive pre-credits sequence is squandered through unnecessary delay tactics that rob it of any value, the writers immediately abandoning the undeniably dark tone of this loss with a return to the jovial interaction of Holmes and Watson, before then seeking to reinstate the impact at a later stage. It just doesn’t work, and this disjointed trend continues across the narrative, which tries its best to hold together, but often buckles under the weight of its necessary-for-a-sequel larger-than-life set-pieces and fails to remain a consistent whole.

    A supposedly pivotal Great Detective revelation, where Holmes deduces that a highly accurate sniper assassination shot was covered up by a room-destroying explosion, beggars belief in its attempt to fool you with faux cleverness. Surely the question on everybody’s minds should be – why bother to shoot the guy at all if you’re going to blow up the entire room anyway?! It’s this kind of sloppiness that really lets down the piece, and leaves you scratching your head not in befuddlement over the intricacies of the mystery, but in confusion over who approved this flawed script.

    The new cast members, whilst largely well-chosen, often seem under-utilised or, at the very least, misused. Mad Men’s Jared Harris plays Holmes’s archenemy Moriarty but doesn’t get his teeth into the role until their second encounter, initially disappointing in his distinctly small-scale professorial lecture duties before finally proving himself a truly worthy adversary when their confrontations escalate.

    Now relegated to little more than cameo roles (or, in the case of Eddie Marsan’s Lestrade, just one shot), both Rachel McAdams’s Irene Adler and Kelly Reilly’s future Mrs. Watson are largely wasted in their roles, but neither seems so utterly pointless in the movie as the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, whose role as the Gypsy fighter is one that could have been great, but ends up being little more than eye-candy girl-along-for-the-ride, a position that Rapace seems distinctly unqualified (or over-qualified) for. Rapace may have a few lines, but they appear to have little value; she may appear in most of the important scenes, but she does nothing important; and you may want to like her, but you will struggle to find a reason why you should. Let’s hope she fares better in Prometheus.

    She’s not the worst victim of the script, however, as that award goes to the great Stephen Fry, who is truly and utterly wasted in what was surely perfect casting – as Holmes’s older, arguably more intelligent, and certainly just as eccentric brother, Mycroft. Fry also has nothing of value to add to the proceedings and, worse still, none of his supposedly witty remarks and anecdotes are in the least bit funny, which is surely a first for this actor.

    Funnily enough, however, despite my issues with the script, and criticisms over the presentation of some of the characters largely as a result of it, A Game of Shadows is still a fairly good ride. It may run in at being that little bit too long; it may not have a strong enough foundation to hold the weight of many of its dark events, nor to justify the over-the-top bombast of some of its most elaborate action set-pieces, but there’s an undeniable entertainment factor – and fun factor – that remains strong for the most part. And there’s just enough significance in The Final Problem elements that they do carry over from the original source work to hold things together until that last masterful chess-move between the Great Detective and his greatest enemy.

    Fans of the TV show will still find it remarkably easy to watch both, and to enjoy both, for very different reasons. Although both the first and second seasons of Sherlock – for many – make for better viewing, they are not flawless, and certainly those who didn’t get along with the modern-day reimagining of Moriarty will prefer Jared Harris’s arguably much more conventional take on the classic villain.

    Of course, the biggest reason why A Game of Shadows ultimately works, despite its flaws, is the presence of one of the greatest paired cast/characters, Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson. Fans of the BBC TV show may – quite rightly – regard it as superior in almost every respect, most notably in scripting, but Downey Jr. and Law are hard to beat as the original dynamic duo.

    Downey Jr.’s made one hell of a comeback following on from a number of fallow years, where he was more famous for his bad boy drug and alcohol issues than his acting, and has pretty-much guaranteed his future through two main incarnations – Iron Man’s Tony Stark and Sherlock Holmes. It may have all started with a brilliant Shane Black script and a superb turn in the underrated noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but it’s these two roles that have put him back in the big league, and that will ensure he will stay there. Iron Man; Sherlock Holmes; Iron Man 2; Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; and, of course, Avengers – few Hollywood actors have had it so good – and with Iron Man 3, Sherlock Holmes 3 and Avengers 2 already set in stone, the man has it made.

    His portrayals of Stark and Holmes are eminently similar – understandable given that they are both eccentric genius scientist heroes – and yet he makes them different enough to easily differentiate, and equally likeable. It’s the one aspect where Downey Jr.’s Holmes just about trumps Cumberpatch’s admittedly brilliant (and better, in many respects) turn as the modern-day Holmes in Sherlock – it’s quite simply easier to like him.

    Yes, you may pick up the film expecting a grand Doyle tale, but you’ll stay for the ride because of Downey Jr.’s Great Detective, who makes Ritchie’s hit-and-miss steampunk interpretation of the classic material so much easier to swallow, flaws and all. Whilst few are going to deny that this movie should have been so much better, there’s still plenty to enjoy about A Game of Shadows. Indeed, it’s not wholly unlike Iron Man 2 in the way that it disappoints after a great first movie, but, in both cases, there’s still enough strength, presence and potential in Downey Jr.’s interpretation of the lead character to leave you in anticipation of the next instalment.

    So whilst the planned US TV show, Elementary, may be one take too far on that classic character of Sherlock Holmes, fear not, there’s plenty more in the pipeline from the adaptations that we love – a third series of Sherlock and a third film from Ritchie and Downey Jr. – and, in the meantime, you can still enjoy another 2 hours in the company of one of the best incarnations of the Great Detective, which can surely only be a good thing.