Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, 2011.
Directed by Guy Ritchie.
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Rachel McAdams, Stephen Fry, Eddie Marsan and Kelly Reilly.
Sherlock Holmes finds a worthy adversary in Professor Moriarty, who is hell-bent on murdering Dr. Watson and his new wife, and instigating a war between France and Germany.
The film’s music is really rather good. Consistent from the first film, you recognise the clanging theme from its first few notes. It reminds you of all the fun you had watching the original.
Which makes for a nice transition into this sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. The absence of a number from that – i.e. Sherlock Holmes 2 – implies the studios want this to be a franchise for quite some time.
The players are the same, with some disposed of rather quickly and a couple new ones brought in to replace them. Stephen Fry plays Holmes’ brother, Jared Harris is the dastardly Professor James Moriarty and Noomi Rapace hops over from Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film versions of the Millennium trilogy. Yet most importantly, Robert Downey Jr. remains as Holmes and Jude Law returns as Dr. John Watson.
Their chemistry is increasingly affable. They bicker back and forth like a married couple, endearingly so, like the old husband and wife who everyone enjoys to watch arguing. They match each other for wit, yet they are essentially an odd couple. Holmes is unstructured, drunk, ingenious, arrogant. Watson is restrained, a war veteran and soon to be married.
Holmes doesn’t much like that. Whenever Mary (Kelly Reilly), the soon-to-be Mrs Watson, is mentioned, his eyes beam a contemptuous glare. He begs Watson to put off the wedding so they can solve just one last case – possibly the greatest they have ever encountered – of a number of explosions in mainland Europe. Watson declines and marries Mary. Everyone celebrates outside the church but Holmes, who stares forlornly from the gate. As he walks off with a lonely waddle, you remember Downy Jr. once played Chaplin’s Tramp himself.
The two are quickly reunited, though, as men attempt to murder Watson on his honeymoon. Mary is placed under Mycroft’s protection, whilst Holmes and Watson go off on a honeymoon of their own – across Europe trying to thwart Professor Moriarty’s attempt to orchestrate a war between two European countries. “I can’t tell you their names,” Mycroft teases Holmes and Watson, “but I can tell you that they speak German and French.”
Guy Ritchie’s Holmes is a superhero in the Batman sense: a master detective with great foresight. As Batman has no metahuman abilities – no invincibility to bullets, no powerful green ring – he must rely on his preparation before encounters. One wrong move for Superman means he gets knocked back. One wrong move for Bruce Wayne means possible death.
It requires Holmes to think through his battles in advance with extraordinary precision, his fights and plans and rouses playing out like a game of chess. Grandmasters have the ability to see when and how a match is driving towards an inevitability. Holmes does the same, deducing action and reaction, action and reaction until it works its way through to his desired conclusion.
Ritchie depicts this by turning the lens into Holmes’ mind’s eye. He plots through the actions, narrating his thought process, identifying weak spots and how he can neutralise his enemy. The image takes a faded appearance, tending towards the monochrome. The edges blur slightly, too. “What can you see?” the gypsy woman asks him as they gently swirl around a ballroom, looking for the assassin who lurks amongst the ambassadors and delegates in the film’s final scenes. “Everything,” Holmes replies solemnly, “that is my curse.”
Chess is a recurring theme for Ritchie, and one that he explicitly presents in Game of Shadows, much as he did throughout Revolver. Moriarty and Holmes constantly tease a game of chess, finally settling down to a blitz version near the film’s end. A gentleman’s game, it allows them to exchange false courtesies of how they admire one another. The board game is entwined with the film’s visuals, yet people often argue that Ritchie’s stylisation lacks substance.
Ritchie receives a lot of hate from some circles. They seem to miss his point (Ritchie’s company is named ‘Toff Guy Productions’), and you’d think if he was from the East, and subtitles adorned his films, he might be more applauded.
He makes comic book movies – not ‘Superhero’ movies, as has been the Hollywood way over the last decade. The experience of reading a comic, the speech bubbles, panels and visual anarchy, is captured far more in a Guy Ritchie film than in Green Lantern, The Dark Knight or Captain America. In a climate so overrun by superhero films, it’s easy to forget that comics centre upon gangsters or master sleuths just as adeptly.
This is helped by Ritchie’s capability for visuals of immense awe. In one scene, Holmes, Watson and an assorted bunch of gypsies run through a forest, fleeing a German arms factory that is launching all its might at their heels. The film cuts between extreme slow motion long shots of the escapees running, to close ups fixated on a specific part of their person – an arm, the side of a face, a thigh. It is as though a steadycam rig has been fitted to the side of an actor, so their body is always the central position of the shot, with the rest of the environment moving around them (a far more advanced and aesthetic version of Sir Digby Chicken Caesar). The resulting image is spectacular, and one cannot deny the chaotic atmosphere it captures, as individual bullets splinter trees or brush past clothing, or how it isolates the panic of individual limbs and heavy, heaving breaths.
However, this is more a defence of Guy Ritchie as a filmmaker. The film itself is slightly bloated and too long. Some scenes aren’t nearly as funny as they think they are, and nobody would miss them if they were to be cut. The chief antagonist, Moriarty, lacks the intensity of Mark Strong’s predecessor villain, and the overall film is weakened because of it. After all, a hero is only as great as the foe he is up against. Additionally, Eddie Marsan’s Lestrade, the most incompetent man in Scotland Yard, is only afforded the briefest of cameos.
Game of Shadows is an enjoyable film. It passes the time with ease and will garner more than a few belly laughs. The action is riveting and the characters entertaining. It’s a great way to see you through a cold, Winter night.
It’s just that after I saw the first Sherlock Holmes, I literally tried to be him for a week. I slightly altered my pattern of speech and would play silly games in my head of how best to discombobulate potential enemies on the tube during my commute to work. I felt the same again after I watched it earlier this year.
Unfortunately, Game of Shadows slipped out of my consciousness the very next day.
365 Days, 100 Films