A GAME OF SHADOWS
Release Date: December 16, 2011
Robert Downey Jr. is the current hot ticket in Hollywood. Between Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes he has hit his crescendo. Unfortunately for anyone at the top of their game it is only a matter of time until they begin to fall. Thankfully that time has not come yet and with this second entry into this sleuthing franchise based on Arthur Conan Doyle's illustrious detective he still appears to be hitting his stride.
Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Irvine Spectrum 21
Time: 12:40 pm December 17, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D
Film Rating: PG-13
Film Runtime: 2 hr 8 min
Loves: Robert Downey Jr.
Likes: Jude Law, Guy Ritchie, the Sherlock Holmes franchise
Neutral: The first Sherlock Holmes movie
Hates: Seeing Sherlock Holmes performing martial arts on his foes instead of simply outsmarting them
Wishes: Guy Ritchie would make something different next time
I did not care of 2009's Sherlock Holmes. It just didn't do anything for me. Robert Downey Jr. was clearly having fun in the role and I was happy to see Jude Law finally become part of something successful on top of which it was a dramatic return to form for director Guy Ritchie who desperately needed a hit. Nothing in the movie excited me, I didn't find the mystery they were trying to solve to be of much interest and the villain (despite being played by the more than capable Mark Strong) was a bore. The comedy bits fell flat for me but I wasn't blind to the spark between Downey and Law who complemented each other well. The fact that I cannot recall much of anything from that first film tells me everything I need to know about it, it just wasn't very memorable and that is not something featuring those actors and that director should be. So with a heavy heart I decided to give it another go with the sequel and I'm glad I did. Because A Game of Shadows is the movie that first one should have been, it is smart, fun and is every bit deserving of the Sherlock Holmes name.
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is hot on the trail of his greatest adversary, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). After months of failed attempts to link the Professor with a series of murders and terrorist attacks he calls upon his long time friend and compatriot Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) for assistance. Watson however has other plans as he and his fiance Mary (Kelly Reilly) prepare for their upcoming wedding which leaves Holmes on his own. Moriarty then begins a game of shadows that forces both Holmes and Watson to reunite once again in order to stop the maniacal genius before he completes his mysterious scheme that will have the world in the palm of his hand.
|Holmes and Watson working together once again.|
Sherlock Holmes the character is at his best and most interesting when he has an equal and challenging opponent to square off against. He is the argument against having a character that is nigh indestructible and having the film he is in still be interesting. I look at the Sherlock Holmes character in almost the same light as James Bond or just about any super hero character for that matter, where unless the adversary is worthy the whole thing just falls apart. It can't just be any person with an evil scheme though, it has to be someone that is the intellectual equal with fictions greatest detective. That is one of the places where the first film fell apart for me, I just didn't find the villain to be all that compelling and having Holmes physically fight him instead of just outsmarting him was not very satisfying.
A Game of Shadows rectifies that issue with great success with the introduction of Sherlock Holmes greatest nemesis, Professor Moriarty. Moriarty is to Holmes as The Joker is to Batman, there may be other evil doers for them to do battle with but neither hero nor villain is as linked to anyone else as much as they are to each other. Now this may sound like I am blowing this out of proportion a bit. Can one villain really be that integral to how we perceive the hero? I ask you this in response, what are the two most memorable Batman movies? If your answer isn't Batman 1989 and The Dark Knight then you my friend have much deeper issues that need tending to than I am willing to go into at this moment. Anyway, those two films featured the clown prince of crime, The Joker. The reason those two films are held in such high regard (and are the two most successful films in the franchise) is because Batman and The Joker are the perfect foils for each other as are Holmes and Moriarty.
|Holmes attempts to work things out.|
What Moriarty brings to the table is a foe who makes Holmes vulnerable. I loved every single moment when the two of them are face to face with Holmes knowing that Moriarty is guilty of countless crimes but unless he can piece everything together no justice will ever be served. The title itself "A Game of Shadows" is not just a fancy name either, it plays into the way the two men constantly try to outsmart and one up each other. They are each in the shadows lurking behind the other as everything plays out. How this plays into the idea of Holmes being vulnerable is that he is no longer the smartest guy in the room, he has to rethink how he has solved mysteries in the past. Moriarty provides him with a challenge not based on brawn but on intellect, even their final showdown is literally played out in their minds which was probably one of the most brilliant face offs in recent history.
Let's talk about the actors for a second, more specifically some of the newer faces. I found Jared Harris to be perfect as Moriarty. There is nothing really more that needs to be said beyond that. His distinguished qualities mixed with his arrogant facade make for the perfect Moriarty plus it is just really nice to see him get such a big role in a film that is bound to get him more notoriety which can only be seen as a good thing. The other two new faces didn't thrill me as much though. Stephen Fry, who is a fantastic actor, is saddled with the almost pointless role as Holmes brother and Noomi Rapace (someone I had heard great things about due to her starring role in the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) was very underwhelming to say the least. Blame it on the script but I found myself in almost constant boredom whenever she opened her mouth. As far as actors reprising their roles are concerned, other than the two leads which I will get to in a second, I really liked Kelly Reilly as Watson's wife Mary. She seemed to be having a lot of fun in the short amount of time she was on screen and had me wishing that she would have been part of the adventure instead of Rapace. Then you have the two stars of the show.
|Professor Moriarty challenges Holmes like no other.|
What can I say about Robert Downey Jr. that hasn't already been said a thousand times over? He is one of the most gifted actors working today and how he has risen from the depths of entertainment hell into one of the most well regarded and highest paid people in Hollywood is the type of fairy tale usually reserved for the movies he plays in. While I still feel he sometimes chews the scenery just a little too much at times, he makes for a perfectly fine Sherlock Holmes. I am not sure if this has more to do with all the crap the character is put through or just how beaten down (mentally and physically) he appears at times but it just felt like he nailed it this time around. There was some kind of balance between the self assured cockiness and self doubting nature to the character present in this film that wasn't there before that I found to be very appealing. I suppose you could say that despite how larger than life the character appears he still felt fairly grounded most of the time which is a hard feat to accomplish. That of course is also thanks in no small part to Jude Law as his counterpart.
I have always like Jude Law but the man has never really found something that resonated. He is an extremely handsome guy who often gets stuck playing the pretty boy which never really fit him very well. His John Watson is not the type of character one would usually associate with Law but I think that is what works best about his performance as Holmes forever tormented assistant. Besides the fact that both Downey and Law share a great deal of screen chemistry I believe what ultimately makes the role work is how it downplays the actors natural good looks and focuses instead on his enormous amount of charm. This is a clear cut case of perfect casting where both actors are superb in their individual roles but they only truly begin to shine when they are on screen together which is where some of my issues with the film lies as a matter of fact.
The opening moments of the film were a mixed bag for me with only a couple of highs and a lot of lows. The actual opening scene was decent but it felt more like a quick way to knock a certain character out of the picture as quickly as possible, which in itself felt completely unnecessary other than to give Holmes something to vow revenge for. The real crime here though is that we don't get Holmes and Watson actually WORKING together until about a good forty minutes into the movie. Sure they are in scenes together early on but it is mostly just Holmes working on his own while Watson is dragged along not ever knowing what is actually going on. I didn't really take notice of the fact that my interest level was at an all time low during the first third of the film until they finally started working together to stop Moriarty. The first half of the film dragged on for what seemed like an eternity and despite being filled with a couple of rather unremarkable fight scenes and a couple of humorous bits of dialog it should have cut to the chase much quicker than it did.
But when the film did finally start to deliver the goods it never let up. From the ambush on the train, probably one of the best sniper battles I had seen since The Hurt Locker (mostly for how unique it was), a few well placed explosions and a finale that trumps everything that came before it without one punch thrown or one gun shot, there is was no shortage of exciting moments to be found. Another plus is that the mystery Holmes and Watson are trying to unravel was actually quite good. I can see some labeling Moriarty's scheme as very James Bondish but you know what, it works. More importantly though is that all the pieces come together in a very satisfying way when all is said and done. Not to mention the final shot of the film having one of the best call backs to a gag I have seen in a very long time.
|Holmes and Watson go undercover.|
The only negative I can throw in about all the action in the film is that it sometimes feels out of place given that this is a Sherlock Holmes story after all. I know the first film was also guilty of this by making Holmes into not just a competent hand to hand combat artist but a master of fisticuffs in general. It makes some semblance of sense how the film presents it by showing us that Holmes is working out the situation in his head and determining the outcome before it ever happens but I still can't get over the fact that Sherlock Holmes knows martial arts. That being said though, it is startling to think this is a Guy Ritchie movie simply because most of the action is shot in a way that makes it hard to determine what exactly is happening. What little action there was in films like Snatch and RocknRolla was usually done well enough but here it all looks like a muddled mess most of the time. Luckily he makes up for that small shortcoming with his brilliant use of editing techniques for a lot of the insert shots such as weapons reloading and some very liberal use of slow motion.
I am not a big fan of "Action" Sherlock Holmes, but you know what? I am OK with that now, I have made peace with the fact that modern day Sherlock Holmes needs to kick ass while also outsmarting his foes in order to survive in this day and age. The balance I needed for it to work just wasn't there for me in that first film but in this much improved sequel it appears as though they got it mostly right. I now find myself somewhat anticipating the inevitable follow up and hope that whatever adventure they get in next will be just as much fun as this was. I am happy to say that I am now a fan of this new version of Sherlock Holmes and expect you might be too which is why I suggest you...
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