Sunday, December 18, 2011

review: a game of shadows

This past Friday evening I had the opportunity to see Guy Ritchie's sequel to his Sherlock Holmes (2009).  If you were expecting more action-packed thrills, slow-motion battle imagery, and intrusion into the personal lives of Dr. Watson and Mary Morstan by Mr. Holmes, then this is the movie for you.

*Warning: Here Be Spoilers for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  Do not read if you do not want the movie ruined for you*

Transitioning perfectly from the events of the first film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows opens up with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), apparently having served her time in prison, continuing her role as henchman for Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris).  One raw fistfight, explosion, biological weapon, and stood-up date later, and Watson (Jude Law) returns to Baker Street to banter with Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) about conspiracies, urban camouflage, and stag parties.  Did I mention that the good doctor will marry Miss Mary Morstan on the morrow and wants to leave bachelorhood in style by honoring that precious old tradition?

Holmes, meanwhile, has other intentions, leading to a series of events that threaten Watson's pending marriage, honeymoon, and own existence.  But he is soon reconciled to Holmes' meddling in his life when he realizes that the fate of Europe rests in their abilities of observation, fighting, and gunslinging.

image source:  Gotcha Movies
There is much to be said for this new installment of the Sherlock Holmes franchise.  While the beginning of the movie had a few old gags, for a sequel it managed to contain itself, instead of adding all of the same old characters and dragging down the plot by giving old, somewhat irrelevant faces more screen time.  Rachel McAdams' cameo appearance was handled beautifully- short, sweet, and relevant to the plot.

New characters were delightful as well.  Madam Simza (Noomi Rapace) was treated as most of the women in the original Sherlock Holmes stories are treated- as a plot device, not a romantic interest or an intellectual equal.  She has a goal, and she works her way to fulfill that goal by helping Holmes.  But she never has conversations with the two main characters that have nothing to do with the actual problem to be solved (i.e. no confidences about personal relationships or romantic overtures)- a refreshing thing to see.

image source: Gotcha Movies
As for Professor Moriarty, I am pleased to say that the casting was perfect.  Jared Harris plays a remarkable Moriarty- a nice mix of the nondescript academic that he actually is, the intellectual and rationally defined cruelty inherent in his nature as the Napoleon of Crime, and an emotionless demeanor when confronted with Holmes.  His "moral depravity" is clearly buried beneath the surface, popping up only a few times in a cool, calculated way- even when he plays an opera on a phonograph and starts belting out words while torturing a person dangling from a hook.  He is the perfect match for Downey's Holmes, and it was a genuine pleasure to watch their intellectual sparring.

The only significant new character that I was pretty disappointed with was Stephen Fry's depiction of Mycroft, the unsocial older brother of Sherlock Holmes.  I felt that Fry's personality is too bubbly in general for the normally withdrawn Mycroft.

I did thoroughly enjoy the following:
  • The lightening of the "bromance" aspects.  Scenes such as Holmes making sure that Watson got to his wedding on time, if hungover and the worse for wear, demonstrated Holmes as a good friend in his own way, even if he did ruin the stag party.
  • Watson's scarf.  
  • The "neat" disposal of Mrs. Watson from the train.
  • The depiction of the struggle by Reichenbach Falls.
  • The mental depiction of the final fight to occur between Holmes and Moriarty- shown in such a way that it appears that they share the same thoughts.  They certainly are shown to possess a nearly identical mind in that scene, leaving all doubts of their mental capacities being equal to be blown away by the Swiss mountain air which they breathe.
The plot, meanwhile, was a little slow to start and somewhat difficult to follow, and I am still not sure I completely understand the importance of certain plot devices or details.  As a result I will probably see this movie again soon.  I get what the overall plot was, but how Holmes figured out that his trail of clues led from Point A to Point B to Point D was rather confusing to me.

Action fans will not be disappointed.  There were plenty of fistfights and gun battles, many in that slow-motion shot technique that Ritchie seems to so adore for physical confrontations and dangerous situations.  My opinion was that there were too many of these "slo-mo" scenes at times.

There was also plenty of new humorous scenes, although a few may have been way over the top. For example I wasn't a fan of Holmes' rooms looking like a jungle when Watson first entered- it seemed like they were trying to outdo the first movie in making Holmes look eccentric.  I did love Mycroft's old manservant.

My complaints are quite a few, but many of them became satisfactory to me when their purposes were resolved as the movie progressed- such as Watson doing nearly as much detecting as Holmes in several scenes, and the infamous "urban camouflage".  The ones that weren't were the following:
  • A scene where Holmes and Watson are dancing at a ball.  It looked very improper for Victorian times, even if their intentions were to find an assassin (on that note, it made them very conspicuous as well)
  • Mycroft standing naked in front of Mary Watson (who started the movie as Mary Morstan).  Despite Mycroft being considered even more eccentric than Holmes and less acclimated to society, it just seemed unrealistic that such a high government official would not consider covering up after bumping into a Victorian lady.  And while Mrs. Watson did avert her eyes, the fact that she did not run out of the room immediately also doesn't seem to fit into the image of a Victorian lady.
  • An entire brick structure falling on Holmes and Moriarty and no one sustaining any serious injuries from that incident.
  • Moriarty not noticing that his little red book had gone missing and was replaced with a duplicate until Holmes told him so.  Wouldn't he have updated his accounts at some point, if he was so obsessive about this particular little red book?
  • The lessening of the "bromance" of the last movie in favor of some extreme homosexual imagery.  I am mostly thinking here of the tussle between the two heroes in the train carriage after Watson learns that his new wife was thrown off a moving train by Holmes.  While hilarious, it was also way over the top for my liking- as if the director was trying too hard to make Holmes and Watson out to be repressed homosexuals finally letting their sexual urges out. 
  • Holmes and Watson being able to take out way more men without more than a few bruises.  But that's my complaint with most action films.
  • Watson performing chest compressions on Holmes.  This method of restarting a heart hadn't been invented yet.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and would recommend it to anyone hoping to see a good action flick this winter.  The jury's still out as to whether it was better than the first one.  I do think I need to see it again.  Such a dilemma, however, does suggest that this sequel was at least on a similar level of quality to its older brother.  

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