"The curious sequel of our investigation" [SOLI]
[Editor's note: the following is the first is a series of reviews by contributors to I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere.]
I should start by mentioning that I enjoyed Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes. There were elements that grated, but I thought it was an overall fun action film. To quote Roger Ebert, “The less I thought about Sherlock Holmes, the more I enjoyed Sherlock Holmes.” For the sequel, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” I was already familiar with Guy Ritchie’s version of Holmes’ world and was able to become a little more immersed in the story, having established the rules of the game in the first film. Though there were certainly still points that could have been improved upon, I left the theater with a grin on my face.
The film starts with Watson at his typewriter, establishing right away that this is all one long flashback - we are viewing his account of the adventure. The year is 1891, and a series of bombings throughout Europe have led to the straining of already tense relations of the continent’s nations, particularly those between France and Germany.
To assure the viewer of exactly what we are in for, as if we didn’t know, things start with a very loud bang - literally. Along with an explosion, we see Holmes in disguise, Holmes fighting multiple opponents in the same slow-motion style as was utilized in the first film, our first glimpse of Moriarty being delightfully creepy without becoming melodramatic, and a character ends a brief cameo by being murdered. All of this happens before the opening credits.
I should take a moment to point out that it is not all one massive adrenaline rush. I thought the movie was well paced for an action film, and there are a few quieter moments that are taken advantage of, particularly the wedding of Dr. John Watson and Miss Mary Morstan. It is a brief scene, but in it we see Holmes’ reaction to his best and only friend getting married, and it is appropriately bittersweet. On the other end of the emotional spectrum are moments of suspense given weight by Jared Harris’ shiver-inducing performance as Moriarty. When Holmes and his archenemy meet face to face for the first time, it is all restrained gentility and diabolical undertones. They even manage to work in a nod to the original Canon.
As I said before, this is a sequel and works within the already established changes of the first film. Differences from what fans of the Great Detective might expect are to be, well, expected. This time there were two elements that sort of threw me off, though as more of a mild annoyance than anything else. Holmes is seen in disguise many times in this film, and while that is excellent in concept, the disguises themselves were obviously designed to get a chuckle from the audience, rather than show Holmes’ skill in the art. Then there’s Mycroft Holmes. Stephen Fry gives an excellent performance, he rejoices in the character’s stuffy aristocratic omniscience, is given a fun tweak in calling Holmes “Shirley” just to annoy his brother... and then we see him in his office, nude. Not doing anything in particular, apparently just preferring not to wear clothes while he goes over correspondence and tells an understandably flustered Mrs. Watson (who is nicely utilized - take that Doyle) that he is starting to understand why a man might possibly want to associate with “a person of your, ah... gender.” The scene is funny, no denying it, but very superfluous.
The only issue I had with the film itself, outside of Canonical derivations, was one sequence in which the heroes and company are running through a forest and the slow-motion I had grown accustomed to seeing for the majority of Holmes’ fight scenes becomes so excessive it killed the momentum of the film at that point. Lots of explosions? Fine, it’s a Guy Ritchie film with anarchist bombers and steampunk weapon manufacturers (automatic pistol, anyone?), there will be lots of explosions. An over-the-top moment for the villain to torture his nemesis while singing along to opera? The cliche actually works well, which was somewhat surprising, thanks largely to the torture itself being relatively mild and Jared Harris obviously enjoying being evil so much. The slow-motion, however, works when Holmes is narrating his thought process for each fight, but to have an entire scene of running with explosions and trees shattering from artillery fire all done in jerky stop and go slow-motion is too much. They’re trying to escape - just let them run!
One thing I think many people had problems with in the first film was Robert Downey Jr’s performance. I have to admit, it grows on me. His Holmes is manically obsessed with Moriarty, to the point where the start of the film made me wince a little. “Please don’t let him be this crazy the entire film”, I thought to myself.
Fortunately, while maintaining his own brand of a quirkier, scruffier Holmes, the craziness gives way to a comparatively much more Holmes-ish intensity. His fights are all well choreographed, more like dances with weaponry than fights, and Downey gets to display some of his martial arts knowledge by working it into Holmes’ demonstrations of bartitsu. He also gives something of a justification for his character’s strange behavior. While dancing around a room in which he knows an assassin is hiding, his partner (a rather two-dimensional gypsy played by the lovely Noomi Rapace) asks, “What do you see?” His response? “Everything. That is my curse.” As was hinted in the first film, this is a Holmes who literally observes everything, and can’t turn it off. No wonder he’s a little crazy.
Fortunately for him, and us, he has Watson. I loved Jude Law’s portrayal of the Good Doctor in the first film, and he does not disappoint this time either. Watson primarily provides backup with his trusty revolver, but he is still granted some clever moments of ingenuity. Law’s portrayal of Watson, in addition to maintaining a slight limp through the whole film, is every bit the soldier, a soldier who simply wants to have his honeymoon in peace and quiet but who will also follow his friend no matter what because he knows he is needed.
[POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT]They maintain the “Odd-Couple” bickering that was seen in the first film, but there are some small touches this time around that add shades of a deeper bond to their friendship, making them a little more believably best friends rather than just action hero partners. For example, during Watson’s very impromptu bachelor’s party (Holmes is not the best best-man in the world) the doctor declares that he is going to gamble. Holmes’ response is that Watson should give him the wedding ring, a request which Watson scoffs at and derides as Holmes has never professed any interest in performing his ‘best man’ duties. Holmes, mildly abashed, very quietly protests that he doesn’t want Watson losing the ring on a bet. This reference to Watson’s “gambling problem” (the fact that Holmes keeps his cheque book locked up and that Watson is ‘familiar with the turf’ at the very least) also illustrates how much Holmes really does watch out for his friend. Similarly, Watson gets to display how much he cares about Holmes a couple of times, once when he thinks Holmes has died, and once when he... well. Thinks Holmes has died. The first happens on a train. The second happens at a peace conference by a waterfall in Switzerland.
It is a great scene. I knew what was coming and I still gasped.
The Russian playwright Anton Chekov once said, "If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act." Apparently, the writers behind “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” must have studied, or at least Googled, Anton Chekov. Every reference made to everything throughout, no matter how ridiculous it may have seemed initially, gets used and/or referenced and/or wrapped up at a later time... except, of course, for the fate of Holmes and Moriarty. We know Holmes lives - so does anyone in the audience who hasn’t read the books by the very end - but it is still a classic (campy?) question mark ending, with just enough being left open for the next film in the franchise to expand upon. And, to be honest, this time I’m rather looking forward to it.