“Oh, how I’ve missed you, Holmes.”
When 2008’s Sherlock Holmes became a huge success with both fans and critics, a sequel was a no-brainer, especially seeing as how one was already hinted at the end of the first film, setting up a confrontation between the great detective Holmes and his classic rival, Professor Moriarty. Now, we get to see that battle of the minds (and fists, and guns, and…) on Blu-ray in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
Dr. John Watson (Jude Law, Closer) is getting married, which he says will put an end to his partnership with detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr., Tropic Thunder). Holmes, however, insists that Watson join him on one last case. A series of bombings has occurred throughout Europe, and the world is on the brink of war. Holmes, however, believes a single individual, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, The Ward), is responsible. Uncovering the truth about Moriarty leads the pair on a dangerous trip from London to Germany, and, finally, to Switzerland.
Here’s the thing about Sherlock Holmes, and why he’s one of the world’s most popular characters—he’s open to interpretation. Despite fans’ raging about “canon,” there are many different aspects of Holmes for writers, actors, and filmmakers to explore in adaptations. Holmes has numerous odd eccentricities, yet is nonetheless the classic stately English gentleman. He’s stalwart in the pursuit of justice, yet he can be dispassionate about others, to the point of sometimes appearing emotionless. These various traits from writer Arthur Conan Doyle’s work can be emphasized or deemphasized depending on the adaptation. In the 2008 film, director Guy Ritchie did play around the canon some, taking an “action movie” approach to Holmes, and yet Holmes was still recognizable a the classic Holmes we all know. More importantly, the filmmakers went back to Doyle’s work to reexamine Dr. Watson. Instead of the bumbling sidekick, they recast Watson as an everyman, albeit one with occasional tough guy moments. The resulting film was great fun, a Holmes film to be enjoyed by Holmsians and casual fans alike.
How sad, then, that 2011’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows strays too far from who Holmes is as a character. He’s gone from “eccentric” to full-on “alien weird.” He stumbles around in a daze, he looks like he hasn’t showered in weeks, and it seems like he can’t manage basic day-to-day functions without Watson looking out for him. Holmes’s neediness of Watson is a big sticking point for me. Over the years, much has been made about how Holmes needs Watson by his side, in that he needs someone to talk to, to bounce ideas off of. In A Game of Shadows, however, that need becomes some sort of dependence, in which it seems Holmes is so reliant on Watson that he can’t do anything with Watson around. The whole first third of the movie is all about Watson getting married and going on his honeymoon, and Holmes constantly butting and in and interrupting them, in comical ways. This is supposed to be a Sherlock Holmes movie, and instead it’s Victorian You, Me and Dupree. Throughout the whole film, we get wacky comedy shtick, such as Holmes in drag, Holmes and Watson waltzing, or Holmes riding a tiny pony while everyone else rides horses. It feels like the filmmakers are going beyond making Holmes funny, and are instead trying to humiliate him. Instead of chuckling at Holmes’s eccentricities, I felt bad for him, because despite his smarts and skills, he’s constantly being portrayed as pathetic.
If the filmmakers were here, I’m sure they’d argue about how they took the Holmes character and “made it their own,” which is fine—this is an adaptation, after all. It’s just that they’ve taken it too far. I’ll admit it’s also highly possible that readers more knowledgeable than I about Holmes lore will have interpretations of the character different than mine, but I will maintain that this version strays so far from Doyle’s creation it might as well be a new character.
That’s Holmes, what about Moriarty? Jared Harris plays the role in “charming villain” mode, which is a good choice, as you’d never suspect this guy was the last word in evil. It’s only when alone and confronted that Moriarty lets his true colors show. For the most part, it’s a subtle menace, portrayed mostly with a simple look here and there. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t come up with much for Moriarty to do. His evil scheme isn’t too different than any other villain in any other action movie. Worse, there’s very little sense that he and Holmes are rivals, let alone equals. The movie begins with Holmes already on the case, and already pursuing Moriarty, having done the legwork and gathered the clues before the story starts. We never get to see the big moment when Holmes, doing the detective thing, realizes Moriarty is behind it all. Rather than Moriarty being the one Holmes fears and, in his own way, admires, Moriarty instead comes across as “villain of the week” in this movie. The final showdown between the two is not as intense as it could have been, because it’s been rewritten so that Holmes and Moriarty are not dueling over who is the greater mind, but instead Holmes is fighting to save Watson, again leaning in this neediness of his mentioned above. The movie’s finale continues to paint Holmes as his entire revolving around Watson.
The characters did not work for me. Does that mean the entire movie fails? No. There is plenty to enjoy along the way. The cinematography, sets, costumes, and even the CGI are all top notch. The use of slow motion is a little excessive, and perhaps a little too much like The Matrix, but it does give us a better look at the fight choreography. Holmes’s fight with a Cossack assassin is a highlight, equal parts humorous and exciting. Jude Law gets some of the funniest lines as his exasperated Watson has to put up with Holmes. Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) tags along as a gypsy involved with the case. She isn’t given much to do except look exotic, which she certainly does. Just as the first film explored Watson in greater depth, this film puts the spotlight on Moriarty’s right hand man, Moran (Paul Anderson, A Lonely Place to Die). While Moriarty gets to play normal to avoid suspicion, there’s no disguising the sinister evil that is Moran. Anderson is great in the mostly silent role, acting through his chilling glances.
The Blu-ray’s audio and video are top of the line, as expected for a big-budget Hollywood release. This is a movie with a lot of rustic browns and metallic greys, and they pop off the screen, along with excellent flesh tones and deep black levels. The sound provides a lot of big booms, and makes the most of Hans Zimmer’s great score. Robert Downy Jr. “hosts” the disc’s picture-in-picture Maximum Movie Mode, with includes a ton of behind the scenes materials such as featurettes, storyboards and still galleries. You can also sync the Blu-ray with the Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows movie app, for more interactive features. The accompanying DVD copy includes a digital download as well.
I know, I know. As a snooty, highbrow film critic, I’m supposed to view the film on its own merits, and not compare it to Doyle’s originals or the first film. But, the filmmakers are the ones who put the name “Sherlock Holmes” on the title, so I can’t help it. If this were The Adventures of Random Victorian Detective Guy: A Game of Shadows, then I’d be calling it one of the best movies of the year. That is, as a Holmes pastiche. Holmes pastiches are everywhere in books, movies, and TV—evoking the great detective, while carving out a distinct identity of their own. That’s what watching this movie feels like. In their attempts to bring new life and creativity to Holmes, the filmmakers instead strayed too far from what Holmes is about, and that makes for a frustrating watch.