By Jacob Mertens.
Imagine the dim squalor of a CGI 19th century London. A conspicuous automobile squeezes past a narrow alley, coughing smoke, shambling down the cobbled street amongst pedestrians and horse drawn carriages. Inside the car, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) dons the vaudevillian disguise of a wispy, full-length beard, bantering with his perennial mate Dr. Watson (Jude Law). Holmes claims he is under observation and must abscond to Watson’s bachelor’s party unseen. When Watson marvels at the spectacle of their departure, Holmes remarks: “It’s so overt, it’s covert.” In a strange way, this sentiment is emblematic for Guy Ritchie’s directorial approach. True, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows does not cover any new ground from its predecessor in terms of trick narratives. Both films withhold clues from the audience, only to reveal them as clever twists at opportune moments, acting as if the revelations were earned. However, beneath slow-motion theatrics and intense action set pieces, and amidst the natural camaraderie between Holmes and Watson, lies an oddly engaging film.
The Sherlock Holmes franchise marks a mild resurgence for Guy Ritchie, after beginning his career with the cult indie sensations of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000). These precursor films similarly embraced a convoluted plot that untangled near the end, revealing the steadying influence of fatalism and rewarding viewers by showing how disparate narrative components locked into place. In contrast, the Holmes films murk the waters in order for the titular detective to rise above the bedlam and restructure events in a way that proves his superior insight. Consequently, both franchise films can feel cheapened by their resolutions because they deny viewers the convention of fair play, preventing them from knowing enough to solve the crimes themselves. However, the films are built in the mold of the Hollywood blockbuster, in which escapist thrills trump narrative coherence and the end justifies the means. If Downey and Law’s performances were half as inspired, and if the action did not move fluidly throughout ridiculous plot machinations, the film would fall flat. As it stands, Game of Shadows whiles away two hours in an increasingly jubilant fashion.
Despite its complicated delivery, the story of Game of Shadows is fairly simple. Holmes tentatively links a series of terrorist attacks to the devious Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). He confronts the Professor and inadvertently endangers Dr. Watson and his new bride, who Moriarty hones in on as collateral damage. Holmes saves his friend from a murderous band of British army impersonators, and Watson and Holmes go off on a globetrotting mission, leaving Watson’s wife more or less forgotten for the rest of the film. Eventually, the pair learn that Moriarty holds large stock in the mass production of military arms and seeks to ignite a world war in order to reap immense profit. Cue Holmes and Watson struggling to derail the insidious plot while Moriarty broods to the warbling throes of opera. True to the sequel’s form, the scale of action has escalated from the previous film, and while the strained affection between Holmes and Watson remains largely unchanged, the film’s style has evolved as well.
Consider, for instance, a scene in which Holmes and Watson flee from Moriarty’s military cohorts, bullets and mortar shells flying amidst a gnarled forest. The film plays out in hyperbolic slow motion, creating tableaux of violence, such as Watson stuck in mid-leap as a bullet grazes past him, ripping the threads from his shirt. At the same time, the editing constantly flits from one end of the forest to the other, and from long shots to extreme close ups. In this way, the film engenders a sense of clarity and confusion concurrently. This scene represents the strained apogee of a filmic device popularized by The Matrix (1999), using slow-motion of heightened action in order to carefully organize a disorientating progression of events.
In terms of the film’s characters, Downey continues to play Sherlock with the flair of a mad scientist, teetering on the edge of insanity. Along with the exhilaration of explosions and bizarre Sherlock Holmes martial arts sequences, Downey’s manic portrayal compels the viewer to fear for his life, enhancing narrative tension. Additionally, Downey and Law exhibit a natural screen chemistry, which is important given that the film basically works as an off-beat romance between them. Unfortunately, while these two characters are given their proper attention, along with a brilliant performance by Jared Harris, other characters are either unceremoniously swept under the rug or are basically irrelevant. Most importantly, Noomi Rapace’s gypsy character stands in the film as a pretty face that helps move the plot forward, receiving no unique characterization at all. In fact, if she were completely removed from the majority of the film, we would lose nothing. While I can forgive a lot in the name of mindless entertainment, this particular oversight is lazy and inexcusable.
This leads me to an admission of sorts. I know Game of Shadows is not inspired filmmaking, but I do believe it stumbles upon inspired moments. Additionally, I find there is something immanently likable about the film. The dialogue reads like the cocaine-addled subconscious of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ghost, Downey approaches his character with a maniacal glee, and while Game of Shadows may not be perfect, its sheer energy becomes infectious. In the end, the overt style of the film and its joyous debauchery of the great literary detective wins me over.
Jacob Mertens is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.