Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most iconic characters in Western culture. Despite sporting that super-cool name to begin with, the exploits of Arthur Conan Doyle's inimitable detective have been adapted and retold countless times. He's been played by everyone from Rupert Everett to Wishbone -the latter being the greater, in my opinion (no offense meant to Mr. Everett, in all likelihood he agrees as well). But in the spirit of the first decade of the 21st century, Sherlock Holmes has been among one of many characters and franchises getting the boot; uh, the re-boot that is. 2009 saw the return of the titular character in Guy Ritchie's fast-paced and deliciously entertaining Sherlock Holmes, with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law playing the detective and his partner-in-not-crime, Dr. Watson. The movie made a big splash for all involved, and deservedly so. But Guy Ritchie had to scratch that sequel itch and released Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows last week. So is the game still afoot?


Most writer-directors have a decidedly unique directorial style; Quentin Tarantino samples genres to perfection and is known for his love of near-manic homage. Christopher Nolan constructs intricate and gripping narratives underscored by an appropriate amount of violence. The Coen Brothers blend darkly humorous wit and pitch-perfect writing with Roger Deakins masterful cinematography. And Guy Ritchie makes movies that are defined by a sense of kinesis and visual energy. Beginning that tradition with Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Ritchie has refined and experimented his way through several movies. With A Game of Shadows, it seems to me he's reached the critical mass he was working toward. His visual style is fully matured here, and once or twice verges on overdoing things. But true to form, Ritchie manages to balance impulse with temperance for a film that works wonders with motion - from a cinematographic standpoint. You've likely seen snippets in the trailer of the chase scene through the woods, shot at an incredibly high frame rate for maximum effect during slow-motion. The scene is just jaw-dropping and downright fun, despite a generally negative opinion in the critical community (more on that later). Ritchie also employs the Snorricam or body-mount rig in this sequence in a similar manner to the way he did in RockNRolla. It's quite innovative actually, as I don't know that I've seen the rig mounted to an actor's side before. But a few shots employing this method - the actor fixed at one point in the screen while the locale flows by behind him - really up the ante in this sequence and make that much more of a visual treat.

A Game of Shadows also exploits some fantastic additions to an already top-notch cast. In addition to the already proven characterizations of Holmes and Watson, Stephen Fry enjoys a turn as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's equally eccentric older brother. The phantasm of Sherlock's archnemesis Professor Moriarty is now replaced by an in-the-flesh villain, played with visible relish by Jared Harris. The tense banter between the two rivals makes for some of the films finest dialogue and works Moriarty in as a much needed counterpoint to Sherlock's near superhuman-level powers of observation. Noomi Rapace, whom viewers will likely recognize as Lisbeth Salander from the original film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy, also adds an additional dimension to the cast as a gypsy fortune-teller embroiled in a political conflict.

Without spoiling anything, another point I found particularly enjoyable in this film were a few very recognizable moments from the books. Ritchie has done a magnificent job of weaving in classic Holmes-moments while still telling a stand-alone tale. You don't have to have seen his first Sherlock Holmes adventure or have read the books to enjoy this one - though it certainly doesn't hurt either.


The movie does drag a bit in the beginning. With our characters already in place and defined, it seemed a bit unnecessary to spend as much time in re-establishing them as the film did. Having said that, the pace of the film picks up marvelously after the first 20-30 minutes, so it's a pretty minor concern.

There are a handful of moments in which characters mumble their dialogue, or so it sounded to me. And invariably it seemed during major plot points. So some of the details in the story were a bit clouded, though it's a visual enough film to keep up with despite this.


Critics and audiences these days are paradoxically both fickle and jaded. On the one hand, a movie like Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon breaks box office records, being the highest grossing of the franchise, the second-highest grossing worldwide of 2011, and the highest grossing film for Paramount/Dreamworks to date. But it, along with the previous films in its franchise, is vilified for being too overburdened with visual effects and bogged down by poor acting and writing. So everyone wants to see these movies - but apparently everyone wants to rip on them, too. I don't think the Transformers movies are anything to write home about, but I don't think their existence somehow besmirches the work of auteurs like Terrence Malick or Darren Aronofsky. So I'll take the good with the bad; a movie isn't inherently flawed if it's a VFX vehicle in my book. But a large amount of the criticism leveled against A Game of Shadows is precisely in that vein - as if critics were expecting a movie that was actually *less* VFX dependent. That's not how sequel-syndrome works in Hollywood, and in the case of the latest Holmes flick it's not a bad thing at all. Moreover, the VFX-laden sequences in A Game of Shadows work with the film rather than against it, and in the end there's plenty of meaty dialogue and crisp acting leftover for the film snob in all of us...er, most of...well, some at least...fine, we few.

Guy Ritchie has managed to truly blaze new territory with his directorial style, and yes it involves lots of ramping, juxtaposition of wide shots with extreme close-ups, and slow-motion explosions. Why the majority of the critical community seems to object to this is beyond me. I wouldn't go so far as to say A Game of Shadows is better than Ritchie's first outing with the iconic character, but it's pretty darn close. And in the end it's just a lot of fun to watch. I sincerely hope this isn't the last entry in Ritchie's take on the Holmes saga, because A Game of Shadows has only left me wanting more.

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