Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Review)
Director Guy Ritchie’s trademark impressive style clashes with a poorly-written, convoluted, and hollow script.
Score: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material
2009’s Sherlock Holmes brought a jarring and divisive reinterpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective. Removing much of the slavish attention to personal hygiene and proper demeanor, the brief allusions to Holmes being capable in hand-to-hand combat was brought to the forefront, turning the detective into a highly intelligent, unstable action hero. It was a formula that largely worked and the film went on to be a fairly entertaining action flick, provided one could look past the liberal rearranging of the detective’s character traits. Two years later, one of literature’s greatest villains has joined the fight, but the adventure is not nearly as lively this time around.
Anarchy is on the rise in London at the outset of A Game of Shadows, as terrorist attacks via bombing have reached concerning highs. Irene Fisher (Rachel McAdams), the femme fatale from the first film, is intercepted by Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) as she delivers to a man what turns out to be a bomb. Holmes correctly proclaims Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) as the mastermind. After Irene is killed by Moriarty for her failure, Holmes retreats back into his house redoubling his efforts to find Moriarty. Watson (Jude Law), having recently been estranged from Holmes, visits him in his room to find the man in a state of disarray, living on a diet of tobacco, cacao beans and embalming fluid. Watson is getting married, and wants Holmes to be his best man.
Agreeing to a gentleman’s meeting, Holmes goes to see Moriarty at his office. There, Moriarty invites Holmes to a literal and metaphorical game of chess, and tells Holmes that his strong respect for him is the only reason he has left him alive thus far. Holmes requests that Watson and his wife be left alone in their game, but Moriarty tells him that every battle has collateral. As the story continues, he pair find themselves under almost constant assault from Moriarty’s army of mercenaries as they try to uncover the next bomb sites and figure out what Moriarty’s master plan is with the help of a gypsy (Noomi Rapace).
The biggest offense on display here is the script, which is a mess. The scattershot direction of the screenplay is reflected first and foremost in the treatment of Holmes, which simultaneously tries to increase the emphasis on both his multifaceted interests and intelligence, and continue to paint the detective as completely insane, which only makes him more of a caricature. He even drinks embalming fluid, for some reason. Most disappointing, however, was Moriarty. Jared Harris does what he can with the script, but he never really feels like the Napoleon of Crime that he is meant to be. One of literature’s finest villains just isn’t given the treatment he deserves, and the tension is weakened further by stupid gags such as Holmes dressing up in drag as an effective disguise for getting onto the train.
The broad attempts at humor only hurt a story in which we are also expected to believe the stakes have been significantly raised, to the point where the story switches tones every few minutes and no one knows what to think. In an attempt to pay homage to the literature, the script also borrows elements from one of the last stories in the series, The Final Problem. However, the script’s liberal use of elements from the other stories makes it feel piecemeal. The jarring tonal changes and liberal borrowing from various sources are like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t all fit together, or are forced together in such a way that it looks unpleasant.
The film does not even really get entertaining until after the halfway point, beginning with Moriarty’s detention and torture of Holmes and leading to a stunningly well-shot slow-motion escape sequence in a forest, which was legitimately jaw-dropping as the camera slows down almost to a complete stop to show bullets and cannon shells ripping through the trees and exploding on the ground. It was a terrific action sequence that handily rivals the vault heist from Fast Five as one of the most memorable action sequences of the year. The climax finally delivers the mental sparring between Holmes and Moriarty that the film had been hinting at for a long while, in a sequence that gives Moriarty his due treatment as a mastermind worthy to go against Holmes. I won’t spoil their final showdown, but it was, for me, the most satisfying part of the movie.
I read a remark where someone referred to this film as Sherlock Holmes 2: Holmes Harder, which is of course a reference to the similarly-titled second Die Hard film, which delivered everything of the first film but on a much grander scale. The second Die Hard was not nearly as well-received as the original, which makes the allusion significantly more resonant than might have been the intention: if anything, the lifeless, stumbling Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows shows that bigger does not necessarily mean better.