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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Way back when I was still writing film reviews for my forum friends, I wrote this review of Sherlock Holmes. Roughly a year later, I wrote this article¬†about the same film, which I’m pretty sure might qualify as a senior thesis. Then came this column about”Hound of the Baskervilles,” followed by a massive 20-part series about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories.

The point being that after reading and writing enough about Sherlock Holmes to earn a year’s worth of English literature credit, there’s absolutely no way I can judge Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows in any objective manner. My thoughts about this film are very complex, but I’ll try to summarize them as best I can.

In the film, Sherlock develops a kind of domestic camouflage, made of a full-body suit painted to look like the surrounding area. Dressed as such, he can blend into a chair or a spot of wallpaper with uncanny ease. On the one hand, the idea is wonderfully creative and it’s executed with superb visual flair. On the other hand, it’s not Sherlock. The idea is far too absurd even for the world created by Conan Doyle, and it’s creation is very far out of character for Sherlock.

In short, the camouflage is emblematic of the movie as a whole. Yes, the entire review is going to be like this. You’ve been warned.

There are a few occasional nods to the canon. There’s a wax dummy reminiscent of those in “The Empty House” and “The Mazarin Stone,” and a bit of “The Greek Interpreter” found its way into the story as well. There’s also a significant portion of “The Final Problem” that was quoted verbatim. Aside from all that (which is a sizable decrease in references from the previous movie), the filmmakers may as well have chucked their copy of the source text into a wood chipper.

Take the relationship between Holmes and Watson, for example. RDJ and Jude Law are both entertaining as ever in their respective roles, and their chemistry together is still outstanding. Having said that, at least their relationship in the last film had some remote semblance of how it was in the canon. In this film, their banter flies off the rails and falls squarely into petty squabbling and pseudo-homoeroticism. Personally, I prefer to see Holmes and Watson solving crimes together instead of complaining about their living habits and love lives, though I guess that’s just me.

Anyway, Rachel McAdams reprises her role of Irene Adler, though her screen time was drastically curtailed for whatever reason (probably a scheduling conflict, this production was rife with them). The screenwriters do an unusually good job of working around this limitation, as Irene uses her brief screen time to move the plot forward in some very important ways. Additionally, her departure is quite nicely handled, particularly in how it affects Sherlock.

Stepping in as the female lead is Noomi Rapace, which is a huge upgrade. Rapace is perfectly capable of holding her own against the male leads, and she’s surprisingly good at action as well. She’s simply a better actress than McAdams in every way. That said, the narrative often struggled quite visibly at fitting her into the plot. Madame Simza (who has no basis in the canon, so far as I know) has some very convoluted ties to the villain’s main plot, and her character arc is left in dire need of a resolution.

Far more disappointing is Stephen Fry in the role of Mycroft Holmes. Don’t get me wrong, Fry does the best he can with what he has, and I personally think that he was the best possible actor for the role. Unfortunately, the filmmakers just didn’t get this character. At all.

To start with, the movie positions Mycroft as a minor employee in the British government. In the text, Mycroft doesn’t just work for the British government, he practically is the British government. And that’s not me saying that, that’s Sherlock Holmes himself saying that (“The Bruce-Partington Plans”). Mycroft of the text was like the relational database of his day, processing huge amounts of information and passing his analysis on to several departments at a time. Such an important figure could have and should have been a key player in such a huge and international story, but Mycroft is instead relegated to being an exposition machine.

That brings me to another point: As brilliant as Sherlock is, Mycroft is smarter. Or at least, he’s supposed to be. Granted, Mycroft of the text was never much for doing any actual legwork, but he could still handily beat the detective of Baker Street at his own game of deduction. I never got that impression from Fry’s Mycroft. This film was terrible at establishing the character’s intelligence, though it took great pains to establish that he likes to walk naked around his house for no apparent reason. Bottom line: Mycroft deserves better than this, and so does Stephen Fry.

(One final note on the subject: The film’s Mycroft tends to refer to his younger sibling as “Shirley.” This has absolutely no basis in the text, but it seems like the sort of brotherly ribbing that he might take part in, so I can let it slide.)

Next up is Jared Harris, here playing Moriarty-In-Name-Only. I refer to him as such because (as I pointed out in my analysis of the first film) this depiction of the character has essentially nothing in common with the text version of the character. There were several differences in the previous film and there are even more now.

For one thing, Moriarty was fired in disgrace before he went into hiding and became a full-time criminal mastermind. MINO, on the other hand, is going on lecture tours, meeting personally with his lackeys, and even attending huge international summits. Put simply, the guy is way too visible. Also, (again, see the previous film’s analysis) Moriarty was like the ultimate mercenary. He didn’t commit crimes of his own, he just arranged for crimes to be committed on behalf of his clients. This is a far cry from MINO, who hatches a war profiteering scheme entirely for his own gain.

Speaking of which, do you remember the remote control device from the first film? You know, something we take for granted in the modern day that was set up to be a Victorian-era science fiction WMD? Hell, the only reason why Moriarty and Irene took any part in the film is because they were both after that device. Well, guess what? It doesn’t show up. The entire previous movie was devoted to setting up that particular gadget and the sequel forgets about it entirely. Oh, and the concealed sliding pistol that was MINO’s most notable attribute in the previous film? Yeah, that never shows up either. Nice continuity, guys! But I digress.

The long and short of it is that Harris plays an intelligent, sinister, perfectly worthy adversary for Holmes. He’s a solid actor and he gives a solid performance. Such a pity, then, that we had to settle for seeing him play MINO instead of Moriarty.

However, there’s one other villain in this story, and he’s definitely worth mentioning: Sebastian Moran, played by Paul Anderson (No, not the director. Or that other director, either). In the text, Moran was one of Moriarty’s most trusted henchmen, a crack shot with a sniper rifle, and one of the most dangerous men in London. Of all the villains from the original text to obtain “fan favorite” status (and there have been quite a few, believe it or not), Moran definitely ranks up there.

I’m very glad to say that this movie gives Moran a depiction worthy of the source text. I’ll grant that Anderson looks extremely boring in the role and easy to confuse with the next English gentleman, but that just makes him a better assassin. The guy can blend into any crowd, and he can kill instantly with silence and startling precision. My sole disappointment with the character is that he was never given his proper confrontation with one or more of the protagonists, leaving his arc hanging in a very anti-climactic way. I’d assume that the character is being saved for the sequel (yes, this movie ends with a sequel tease, though one that’s not nearly as egregious as the last film’s), though given this franchise’s track record with loose ends, I wouldn’t bet on it.

As for the story, I’m obviously loathe to discuss it in detail. I’ll only say that the narrative is truly international in scope, taking us from London to Paris to Switzerland. I have mixed feelings about this. For any other movie, I’d applaud the filmmakers for opening up the franchise’s scope, delivering a film that felt bigger and far more dangerous than its prequel. Additionally, those Sherlock Holmes stories with such international stakes — “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Naval Treaty,” “The Bruce-Partington Plans,” etc. — are typically among my favorites in the canon. On the other hand, even those stories took place in England. Sherlock Holmes has always been a creature of London and precious few of his stories ever took place outside Great Britain. The only exception that comes to my mind is “The Final Problem,” which was supposed to be the great detective’s last hurrah. Then again, this movie takes so many cues from “The Final Problem” that… *sigh* whatever. Never mind.

Then there’s the action, which is certainly commendable. There are a lot of very inventive fight scenes and several great explosions to be found here. Still, as creative as the fight scenes are, I do have a few bones to pick. For one, the editing is horrific. The movie features several scenes — particularly during the action scenes — that are peppered with obnoxious sequences of close-up shots. My favorite example is probably the firing of an enormous cannon, in which the film shows us every step of the gun’s loading and firing. Every. Single. Step. The inner workings of this cannon are shown in great detail, as every moving part of the firing mechanism is shown in close-up and in slow-motion. It’s unnecessary and it doesn’t contribute to the action in any way.

Furthermore, the use of close-ups and speed-ramping in this film is horrendous. Though there are a few times when it works well, even Zack Snyder might think that shooting 100% of an extended action scene would be overdoing it. Yes, I know that the last film had slow-motion as well, but at least it had a purpose. When slo-mo fight scenes happened in that film, it was only to show Sherlock sizing up the situation and predicting how the fight would go. Here, the slo-mo is used all over the place and it gets real old, real fast.

I should also point out that to my delight, the aforementioned “fight predictions” do make a return in this film, though its use here is rather hit-and-miss. To my memory, there are two such fight scenes — both of them go on for long stretches of time in Sherlock’s head and neither turns out to be how he forecasted. It’s an interesting twist.

One of these sequences is Sherlock’s climactic showdown with Moriarty. What makes this one particularly fun is that while Sherlock is planning out his strategy, Moriarty is planning out his in exactly the same manner. This is a brilliant idea, but there’s just one problem with it: The way the sequence is written, you’d think that the two combatants were having a telepathic debate, going back and forth about what they’d do. If these two geniuses were independently reasoning and coming to the same conclusion, that might have been awesome. Instead, they’re reasoning together, which doesn’t make a lick of sense.

Finally, I just have one more major gripe: The mystery. This is a movie focused on action to such a degree that its mystery aspect suffers woefully. Say what you will about the last film’s plot (and there’s a lot to say, make no mistake), but at least it had a villain with objectives, motives, and methods that Sherlock had to discover through clues, observations, and logic. In this movie, there’s never any real mystery as to what Moriarty’s endgame is or how he’s going about it. Watson gets an awesome moment of deductive reasoning in the climax, but such moments are exceedingly rare in the film. Holmes does outsmart Moriarty, but that’s mostly done through pickpocketing and liberal use of disguises, as opposed to observation and reasoning. Yes, I know that Sherlock’s mastery of disguises was one of his more important skills, but not like this.

In spite of all my griping, I don’t mean to say that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a bad film. The presentation is solid, the action is enjoyable (for the most part), the scope is tremendous, the actors all provide very good performances, and there’s a great deal of creativity on display. The problem is that though this may be a decent action movie, it’s a terrible Sherlock Holmes movie. The Holmes/Watson homoeroticism is pushed to an absurd degree, the mystery aspect is terribly unsatisfying, and there are precious few moments that seem compatible with canon. Not that I’m a purist about Sherlock Holmes — far from it — but I find it so very aggravating when I clearly know more about a movie’s source text than the filmmakers do.

As entertaining as this film is, it isn’t nearly as fun as some of the original stories. As such, if you’re already familiar with Sherlock Holmes, I’d suggest waiting until the DVD release to satisfy your morbid curiosity. All others will probably have a fun couple of hours with this one, though I’d strongly recommend reading Conan Doyle’s work or (re-)watching the recent BBC modernization instead.

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