Friday, December 16, 2011

Outwit, Outlast, Outplay: SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS


I remember being surprised by how much I found myself enjoying Guy Ritchie’s take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes when it showed up two years ago. It was the kind of big holiday season spectacular that rolled in, made a bunch of money, and rolled away leaving nary a trace. I remember only the sensations, the charm Robert Downey Jr. brought to the title role, and the surprising score. I looked back on what I wrote about it at the time and found that I called it “a mostly enjoyable experience, a big-budget, slightly goofy, action-thriller-mystery driven forward, and kept afloat, by its cast, its production design, and the charmingly off-kilter score by Hans Zimmer that recalls The Third Man’s zither in its unexpected instrumentation.” So, there you have it. It was a fun movie, but, aside from distinctive aspects of design, casting and score, not especially memorable on the plot level.

Going into Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, I was ready to be disappointed. Once again, I emerged surprised. It’s a fun, slam-bang adventure in the spirit of its immediate predecessor, hardly the patient mystery of past Holmes, but still a rush, and I mean rush, of deduction that often leads to loving photographed destruction. It’s a slicker follow up to a film that was itself very slick. Ritchie directs with a bit more of a more confident style and a wider screen, speeding his characters through a convoluted, yet ultimately simply twisty, plot set amidst fantastic production design. The 1890’s bric-a-brac is lovingly presented as it sits ready and waiting to be blown to bits. The costumes themselves are sheer delight. This is a movie that has an old-school period-piece glamour that it zips through with action sequences sped up, hacked up, or slowed way down. It’s a collision of approaches that can be quite bracing.

The plot this time around concerns Dr. Watson (Jude Law) checking in on his good friend Holmes (Downey Jr.). The detective has been consumed with his research into a series of bombings that have plagued Europe in recent months. The opening sequence, involving the beguiling Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) from the first film, causes Holmes to start drawing connections. These bombings, blamed in the press on anarchist groups, must be circuitously connected to the devious Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris, most recently found on TV in Mad Men). But before the investigation can continue, it’s Watson’s wedding day. Too bad the poor bloke won’t get much of honeymoon, though. Moriarty is onto Holmes’s investigation and targets the two men in order to take them out of the equation. No loose ends can be had, you see.

The film becomes a continent-crossing adventure that takes Holmes and Watson from London to Paris, from Germany to Switzerland. They even pick up a helpful gypsy (Noomi Rapace, so good in the otherwise awful Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) who sneaks them across borders and helps them decipher some crucial clues while Sherlock’s brother (Stephen Fry) helps them decode the treacherous political climate that has Europe on the precipice of war. For most of its run time, the script by Michele and Kieran Mulroney keeps the set pieces big and action-heavy. The rapport between Holmes and Watson still shines at times, but more often than not they’re getting involved in shootouts and fisticuffs that occasionally turn into chase scenes and extensive use of explosives.

But right before I was about to declare myself warn out by the film’s bigger-is-better attitude, it pulls back. The climax thrillingly foregrounds the mind games that Holmes and Moriarty have been playing over the course of the last couple hours or so. Theirs is a game of wits and skill, misdirection, obfuscation, and surveillance. I wish the film could have let us in on the game a little earlier, giving us clues instead of relying on rapid-fire flashback inert shots that show us all the little details, even moments of earlier set-up, that only Holmes saw earlier. Downey Jr. and Harris are a good match, though. They’re believable charming and intelligent and bring to their roles a nice amount of playful danger. They clearly hate each other, but are relishing the opportunity to clash intellect with their equal and opposite.

It all provides a good time at the movies. The movie is a light, accessible romp through late-1800’s Europe, and a thunderous, stylish, red-blooded adventure with little comic flourishes. There are even some good set-ups and pay-offs and some nice winks at original Holmes lore. (I particularly appreciated the use of a waterfall late in the picture). It’s hardly essential, but with both of these Sherlock films Ritchie’s doing some of the best work of his career. These are stylish, reasonably well done crowd-pleasing popcorn films, with mostly satisfying mysteries, puzzles worked out with some degree of wit amidst the gunfire and explosions. 

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