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Josh Reviews Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I really loved Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes film from two years ago, and so I was thrilled that they went into production on a sequel so quickly. (That the first film ended with such a delicious promise of further adventures didn’t hurt, of course!)

But, unfortunately, the follow-up installment, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, left me rather cold.

To be honest, I’m having a bit of trouble putting my finger on what exactly went awry. I still love Robert Downey Jr.’s manic interpretation of Holmes, and I thought Mad Men’s Jared Harris was terrific as Professor Moriarty. There are some big laughs in the film, and also some terrific sequences of action/adventure. The chase through the frozen woods, in which Holmes & co. are barraged by artillery fire, is pretty thrilling (much more effective in its entirety than it was in the film’s trailer, in which I thought those slo-mo shots looked pretty silly). And Holmes and Moriarty’s final confrontation — a chess game that moves into an intense battle of wills, all inside their heads — is genius, and probably the reason-for-being for the entire film.

So why did the whole thing leave me feeling somewhat empty?

Well, let’s start with Professor Moriarty. We’re told, over and over again, that the genius professor is an evil mastermind, and a mental match for Holmes. But except for one moment in the middle of the film, in which Holmes admits that “I made a mistake” and finds himself unable to stop an assassination, we don’t really see Moriarty as a genius mastermind until that final confrontation at the very end of the movie. I wanted a sense of urgency throughout this film. I wanted to feel, over and over again, that Moriarty was two steps ahead of Holmes. But I never felt that way at all. In fact, Moriarty makes a big mistake early in the film in which Holmes is able to rescue Noomi Rapace’s gypsy character, Madam Simza, from death. So right away we see that Moriarty isn’t infallible and, of course, Simza ultimately proves key in helping Holmes unravel Moriarty’s plans.

It’s not until that final battle-of-wills-to-the-death between Holmes and Moriarty that we’re really given a sense of Moriarty’s genius. I understand that the filmmakers wanted to save that mental duel for the film’s climax, but the result is that everything that comes before feels somewhat underwheming to me. This is a story-telling problem that, in my opinion, the filmmakers weren’t able to solve.

The result, as I noted before, is a film that I found to be rather lacking in intensity. Take the opening scene. (SPOILERS ahead now, my friends, so beware.) I was thrilled to see Rachel McAdams return as Irene Adler. I didn’t expect to see her in the film, so I was very pleased to see this connection with the first movie. In the opening scene of A Game of Shadows, we see that she is in Moriarty’s employ, something we knew about from the first film. Nice bit of continuity.  Irene lets her affections for Holmes waylay her, and so Moriarty decides he can no longer use her. Then the scene cuts away abruptly. The viewer is left to wonder whether Moriarty let her live or not. Later in the film, Moriarty tells Holmes that he killed Irene, and we see a very brief flashback to her getting poisoned.

The idea of the film beginning by showing the new bad guy killing off the heroine from the first film is very clever. That would immediately establish Moriarty as someone very dangerous, a force to be reckoned with, and it would give some dramatic heft to the story that unfolds. Now Holmes would have a personal, not just a professional, reason for wanting this villain brought to justice.

But the movie totally squanders that. By not SHOWING Irene die in the opening, the prologue loses all of that heft. It just turns into an “oh, that’s interesting” sort-of pre-adventure before the start of the real story. And we lose the added emotional weight that the first half of the movie would have had, had we KNOWN of Irene’s death. Then we get to the scene, mid-way in the film, in which Moriarty tells Holmes that he killed Irene. This should be dramatic, but here too the scene is undercut by the filmmaking choices. Because it’s Moriarty giving Holmes (and the audience) this information, and because we didn’t actually SEE it at the start of the film, I immediately assumed that Irene WASN’T in fact really dead. As it turns out, while I suppose she could return in future sequels, the film never returns to her and so I guess at the end we’re supposed to assume she really was killed. But because I doubted that was the case, right up until the closing credits rolled, the second half of the film ALSO lost any of the emotional heft that death should have given it! Because I never believed the death was real!

What a waste of a story-telling opportunity!  I could go on. I think the filmmakers were a lot more amused by the sight of Robert Downey Jr. in drag than I was. Holmes is supposed to be a master of disguise, and while I’m all for the film mining some humor from Holmes’ disguises (the first film certainly did), I found Holmes as a woman, or Holmes as a chair, to be on the wrong side of silly. (The stupid side.) I also felt that while I enjoyed the more expansive settings of this sequel, somehow it didn’t feel quite like a Sherlock Holmes film, not taking place in London. That’s a matter of personal taste, I suppose, but that’s how I feel.

There was still a lot that I enjoyed about this film, for certain. I really dig these actors’ interpretations of these characters, and I love Guy Ritchie’s action/adventure style of direction. The final Holmes/Moriarty confrontation is, as I wrote above, absolutely genius, and I also really dug the film’s final scene. Thankfully there wasn’t any let’s-explain-it-to-the-audience exposition when Watson opened the package, just a shot of the object inside. I loved that.

I do believe there is still life in this franchise, and I’d love to see a third installment. I just hope it comes together a little more smoothly than A Game of Shadows.

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