Saturday, December 31, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

As a defender of Guy Ritchie's first Sherlock Holmes film, it pains me to admit that pretty much everything critics complained unjustly about last time is actually true in the sequel.  Everyone I saw the film with enjoyed it, however, so I suppose it depends on what you liked the first time around.  I also think that I might just fundamentally be not on "A Game Of Shadows'" wavelength.  I strongly disliked 85% of this film, and that's a whiff in my book.

So much that I enjoyed in the previous "Sherlock Holmes" is not here that I can't appreciate the elements that remain.  The sets are still nicely stylized, but in the exact same way.  The erudite dialog of the first film is back, but the characters aren't saying nearly as much of interest.  After all, in this episode Holmes and Watson pretty much trot from place to place following an endless series of breadcrumbs and running from explosions.  A few perfunctory scenes of quick deduction don't accomplish much except to say "I ASSURE YOU THESE PEOPLE ARE BRILLIANT".  It almost seems like they're contractually bound to have a scene of pseudo-Victorian banter every 5 minutes or so because it's inherently funny when people talk quickly and precisely using big words.

Behind our heroes, a mystery is solved!
I enjoyed how the action scenes of the original seemed to have a real thought process to them: Holmes would think quickly, then something would muck up his plan mid sequence and he would readjust on the fly.  In this film, we still slip into Holmes-O-Vision where Sherlock runs through the upcoming action sequence in his mind before actually doing it, but aside from the whole "I've seen this before" element, it verges on a flat out cheat at one point.

I'm referring to a scene where it looks obvious that Holmes and Watson are about do meet their end.  Suddenly a high speed flashback occurs that shows how Holmes thought ahead earlier, somehow predicting that this instance would arise, setting a trap for his assailant.  Maybe it makes logical sense if you go back and examine it, but in the moment it reeks of Deus Ex Machina.  It's like those scenes in the Bill and Ted Movies where people continuously reveal that they travelled back in time over one another to set a trap to save them from the other guy's trap, except that this isn't a joke.

The obvious, but completely suitable gay subtext of the first film has been blown up to the point of cartoonishness.  The script hammers on it relentlessly, and I wouldn't mind so much if it weren't such an obvious goof.  If you're not going to actually engage the subject seriously, then have some restraint for the love of God.  Scene after scene of Holmes being jealous of Watson's wife, making single-entendres left and right, and giving constant significant looks that scream "WHAT ABOUT MY NEEDS?" are tedious, tedious, tedious.

A nice surprise is Stephen Fry giving a well rounded portrayal of Sherlock's similarly brilliant but terribly boring brother Mycroft.  I expected him to be the comic relief, but he played an actual character very well.  A story that examined the relationship between the brothers Holmes could have been very interesting in a different sort of movie.  I could have done without a "comedic" scene involving Mycroft's nonchalant nudity, because it pushed him from the realm of not caring what people think into being a complete weirdo.  Only Dr Manhattan can get away with that sort of thing.

Rachel McAdam's Irene character is brought into the plot only to be swiftly removed in a way that pissed me off right from the get-go.  Why introduce her at all?  She's replaced with Noomi Rapace as a gypsy fortune teller in a role that is not defined in any way except "she's a gypsy".  Guy Ritchie seems to have told her to not emote at all, lest she imbue her character with a personality by accident.

Jared Harris makes a fine nemesis as Moriarty, but his scheme is a bit obvious and more fitting of a Bond Villain than someone in a mystery of any kind.  The first film showed a villain doing impossible things, and the fun was in watching Holmes determine how they were actually possible.  This time, I was basically checking my watch until the final showdown.

What movie am I watching?
Speaking of which, the climactic sequence finally delivers what I'd been hoping for throughout the entire film.  Watson gets a chance to show what he's truly capable of, and the way that a bad guy is unmasked is legitimately clever.  Meanwhile the film's most effective use of Holmes-O-Vision makes the ultimate confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty fascinating and even moving.

The problem is this:  Since the series is now an established franchise, it's taken on a life of its own and become a shambling colossus propelled forward by millions of dollars.  Where Ritchie had something to prove the first time around, he's content to just spew out scenes in the exact same way this time because what the hell, you know he can at least get a trilogy out of the deal.  Any possibility that this is Holmes' or Watson's final adventure is a complete joke because that would be bad for business.  That the film spends so much time mining this territory for drama shows that it has its priorities in the wrong place.

Guy Ritchie has breathed new life into the Holmes character in a wonderful way, and if it weren't for the previous film we wouldn't have the excellent BBC series "Sherlock", which is similarly inspired.  But "A Game Of Shadows" feels like a "Pirates of the Caribbean" film, where a script that could have come from anywhere is gussied up with period attire because people think it looks neat.  There's still hope for the series as long as Ritchie reins it in just a bit and gets back to smaller scale stories that involve actual thought.  He's clearly capable of it, but if he follows this trend, it's only a matter of time before Nazis and frickin' laser beams get involved.

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