Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

"Forewarned is Fore-armed (and Don't Call Me 'Shirley')"

"'Well, well,' said he, at last. 'It seems a pity, but I have done what I could. I know every move of your game. You can do nothing before Monday. It has been a duel between you and me, Mr. Holmes. You hope to place me in the dock. I tell you that I will never stand in the dock. You hope to beat me. I tell you that you will never beat me. If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you.'

"'You have paid me several compliments, Mr. Moriarty,' said I. 'Let me pay you one in return when I say that if I were assured of the former eventuality I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept the latter.'

"The Final Problem" Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the inevitable (and one should say quick-on-its-heels) follow-up to Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, and as an adaptation of Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem," It has as much source-relationship as the later Bond films have to Fleming—the bare-bones structure is there, but it's pumped, plumped, and trumped-up to fulfill the needs of action, humor and modern audience identification.  Really, "The Final Problem" is enough, we don't need the world-conquering machinations of Professor Moriarty (The Napoleon of Crime, the Scourge of London, and Holmes' best match) to make him a worthy adversary.  He merely needs to be omnipresent by means of his web of chicanery, rather than an omniscient history-maker.  In fact, Conan Doyle's Moriarty would rather his bad work went undetected, as opposed to this movie's version producing a shattering World War.  Here, in the words of Robert Downey Jr.'s Holmes, the plot is "so overt, it's covert," involving twins who aren't twins, TB, the Romany, anarchists, darts for various purposes, intricate explosive devices and not-so-intricate shell-firing ones, countries that can't be named ("although they speak French and German"), and the prospect of "war on an industrial scale."

20/20 hindsight always looks like genius when set in the past.

Actually, it's pretty clever how the doom-laden inevitability of "The Final Problem" is translated into the fore-shadowing of the war-torn 20th Century (the screen-writers are the wife-husband team Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney*), and its focus on large artillery and semi-automatic "machine-pistols" has a nice hard edge as opposed to the original film's emphasis on the psuedo-occult.  But, director Ritchie seems to have lost of his somewhat, the fight-sequences (there are many) are nicely fore-shadowed with flash-cut Holmsian cognitive pre-functioning, but when the fisticuffs and baritsu moves start flying, the action is hard to follow, even when the action is slowed to a crawl—there is far too much ramp-editing and Matrix-y "bullet-time" FX in the film for no good purpose other than to slow down the practical and digital effects and give us the illusion of "wow, that was close." (Thanks, we assume that fire-fights and shellings are dangerous things).  However fast the editor can manipulate images, one still gets the impression of the film being a bit too "fussy" for its own good, delaying information or simply obfuscating it for a later time, giving one the impression that one is seeing a lot of the movie twice.  Efficient, it ain't, even if the titular character is supposed to be the heighth of it.

Also, although the first of Downey's adventurings could be seen as being a nicely nuanced (if scruffy) interpretation of The Great Detective, here the character is allowed to go a little more broad, dressing in comedic drag ("I admit, it's not my best disguise") and another, which is actually taken from The Pink Panther series (mind you, Steve Martin's "Pink Panther" series), the comedy is played up and not necessarily in character, and Holmes is seen to be practically infallibleeven his getting seriously hurt is all part of his plan.  

Downey, Jr. is great at playing this, even if it's a more absurd version of Holmes, and Jude Law again plays Dr. Watson (now with a severe limp and who is only now about to be married to Mary Morston, again played by Kelly Reilly) and it's one of Law's best performances, quick as Downey and capable of the slowest of "burns." Law's role is expanded somewhat and he makes the most of itThe two are joined (briefly) by Rachel McAdams, reprising her role as "the woman" Irene Adler, but is soon replaced by Noomi Rapace's gypsy princess Simsa.  Aiding and abetting is Stephen Fry, as Holmes' smarter, drier brother Mycroft (it might actually be considered type-casting), with Jared Harris as the coolest of Moriarty's (Brad Pitt was initially considered for the role), as well as being one of the youngest.

As fun as it is, one can't help but look at it as a step down—the filmmakers are getting further afield of the Holmes characterization, and it's only a matter of time before the Downey, Jr. version is locked into buffoonery and slapstick, and it comes perilously close to teetering off the edge here.  As it is, this plot is more reminiscent of the Basil Rathbone films set during WWII, entertaining if anachronistic fluff.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a Matinee.

Paget's Strand Magazine illustration of the first of two Holmes-Moriarty encounters.

* Kieran is the brother of Dermot Mulroney, husband of Michele, and you may best remember him from "Seinfeld" as the fellow who gets bent out of shape at a funeral reception when he see George Costanza double-dipping a chip.

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