Saturday, December 17, 2011

Getting to the Bottom of the SHERLOCK HOLMES Sequel


- The first film of this revamped Sherlock Holmes franchise was a cool, energetic flick that breathed some new life into a classic character. Director Guy Ritchie's slick sensibilities made for an odd-but-interesting match with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's legendary creations, and the charisma and chemistry of Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson made for a truly dynamic duo. However, a lot of what worked in the first film feels strained and stretched thin in the sequel. There's still some great interplay between RDJ and Law, and Ritchie still impresses with some cool action scenes. But everything seems so self-consciously dialed-up to 11 that it all gets to be a bit much. From moment one in this film, Downey's Holmes races through every scene at full speed, overwhelming every other character and never pausing to infuse the action with much in the way of dramatic weight or gravitas. And Ritchie, well ... I'm not sure what he's going for here, but he seems to be riding the high of getting away with being edgy and experimental in the first movie. Because, here, he just cuts loose, and that's not necessarily a good thing. The editing is frantic, and the action all-over-the-place, and it's hard to say how, exactly, the ADD-addled style fits with these characters or this story. There are, as I said, some really cool things layered into the film. But I also think that some stylistic lines are crossed that only serve to undermine the movie's potential.

A Game of Shadows follows the pattern of the Batman franchise, in that the Big Bad hinted at in Part 1 now takes center stage in Part 2. And that major threat is, of course, the nefarious Professor Moriarty. In the original Conan Doyle stories, Moriarty was ultimately introduced as an archnemesis to Holmes - he was Holmes' intellectual equal, and Holmes, recognizing the threat posed by Moriarty, vowed to hunt him down and put an end to his schemes no matter the cost. In this film, Moriarty - as played by Jared Harris - is sort of Lex Luthor-ish. To the public, he's an esteemed scholar and intellectual - and he's actually traveling around Europe under the guise of a book tour. Of course, there's a much more sinister reason for the Professor to be roaming around the continent, and the movie deals with Holmes' dogged quest to unravel and foil the professor's master plan. Here's the thing - I like the premise behind Moriarty's evil scheme, but at the end of the day, it's not that complicated, and there's not much mystery or ambiguity to it. The movie tries to keep up a pretense that this is all a mystery where Holmes has to connect all these dots and make these crazy connections. But really, it's less a mystery and more a Bond Villain-esque master plan with all the subtlety of a lead pipe to the face. Now, the film tries to get some mileage out of the involvement of a mysterious gypsy woman and her brother who find themselves entangles with Moriarty, but that whole angle never really goes anywhere and is mostly forgettable. Noomi Rapace, best known as the star of the Euro-versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo films, plays the gypsy Madam Simza. But it's a hollow character that is hard to care much about, and Rapace is given little to nothing to work with - and, surprisingly, not even a hint of romance with Holmes/RDJ. The only other prominent female character in the film is Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler, who I was surprised to see return after co-starring in the first film. Unfortunately, Adler's role is strictly to serve as a plot device that sets up Moriarty's evil agenda.

As for Moriarty, I have mixed feelings about Harris in the role. The guy is a fantastic actor - I'm mostly familiar with him via his work on the TV show Fringe, and I'm a big fan. But there is also sort of a mismatch in styles with him and RDJ. RDJ is just such a whirlwind in this movie that he overpowers just about everyone else, including the much subtler and less over-the-top Harris. Moriarty is supposed to be Holmes' equal but opposite number, but here it feels like the two are circling around two completely different orbits. That said, Harris' performance is excellent in and of itself. And when he's finally given a chance to go toe-to-toe with RDJ in the characters' climactic showdown, it's a pretty awesome clash of the intellectual titans. It just feels, though, like Harris belongs in a more serious, less silly version of this movie.

To me though, the character dynamic that's still strongest in the film is the relationship between Holmes and Watson. RDJ and Jude Law do witty banter like nobody's business, and many of the movie's highlights - and much of its humor - comes from the rapid-fire repartee between these two. I really enjoyed - especially at the beginning of the film - the angle that Watson is set to be married, and Holmes is worried that he's losing his partner in crime to the shackled existence of domestic responsibility. Law is in many ways the MVP of the film - he makes Watson into the movie's most interesting and multidimensional character, and the moments of subtlety he brings to the mix are welcome.

Meanwhile, the best new element of this sequel is, by far, the introduction of the great Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, brother to Sherlock. Whereas Sherlock is a tightly-wound ball-of-neurotic energy, Mycroft is wryly funny, sarcastic, laid-back, and uncomfortably comfortable in his own skin (as evidenced by an extended nearly-nude scene for Fry). Fry is certainly a scene stealer, and is a hugely welcome addition to the cast.

Getting back to Guy Ritchie though ... I'm just not sure what was going on sometimes with the direction and editing in this one. There's frankly a messy and uneven quality at work here. On one hand, the scope of this movie - with Holmes and co. on a sprawling quest across Europe - demands that the movie capture a "bigness" you might not normally expect from a film about Sherlock Holmes. But big and epic is not really Ritchie's forte, and whereas the script seems to want things to go big, the visuals never quite capture that feeling in an effective or suitably awe-inspiring way. Then again, this is Sherlock Holmes and not Indiana Jones. So I'm not sure if Ritchie is trying to reign in the script or what, but it ends up feeling off somehow. At the same time, Ritchie is trying things here in the editing and directing that I just don't think work like he might have wanted. There's one sequence in particular - where our heroes are being pursued and shot at while running through a forest - that seemed to exemplify that feeling of "um, WTF, isn't this Sherlock Holmes, and not Transformers or The Matrix?" In this sequence, there's crazy, stop-and-start freeze frames, slo-mo bullet-time, crazy whirring sound effects that seem lifted from an alien-invasion movie, and, overall, an aesthetic that just doesn't fit. And I have to question why these choices were made. In the first film, it seemed like a novel idea to have these slickly-edited flash-forward montages that showed how Holmes thought through a plan before acting on it. But what was novel then seems overused and tiresome now, and I don't see why the quick-cut visual overload used in those scenes had to be utilized throughout the entire film. It all just smacks of trying too hard, and a lot of the scenes feel less polished and also less comprehensible than in the first film. Not every movie - particularly one about a Victorian-era detective - needs to look and feel like a next-gen videogame. Point being that, while Ritchie's stylistic flourishes were appreciated and mostly effective in the first film, here it's not so much flourishes as it is the entire film being directed in overdrive-mode.

I'll say this: much of this film is carried by the still-strong, often hilarious back-and-forth between Law and RDJ. Even as things drag in the middle section, even as other characters come and go without making much of an impression, these two together are always well worth watching. And eventually, the movie rallies after slumping for a bit, and delivers a fairly kickass final showdown between Holmes and Moriarty. There's enough here that's fun and entertaining to keep the movie watchable. But honestly, after this film I'm not sure if the franchise has legs. This one spirals into too much cartoonishness and craziness, and it made me want to see things get toned down and reigned in. Back to basics. In other words, elementary, my dear.

My Grade: B-

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