Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows extends Guy Ritchie‘s film franchise, which re-envisions the tales of that brilliant British detective. True to the Holmes stories of old, a Game of Shadows is a distinct mystery unto itself. Though characters from the first film reappear in this one, no plot lines are continued, which means newcomers shouldn’t feel lost.
Robert Downey Jr., that troubled genius that he is, reprises the role of Sherlock Holmes. Again he is manic and wonderful as the freelance solver-of-crimes. As I was watching A Game of Shadows, an interesting thought occurred to me. Perhaps it is Downey’s own personal struggles with addiction that make both his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man’s Tony Stark just a little more interesting. Stark’s struggle with alcohol and Holmes’ affinity for opiates rings a little more true in Downey’s capable hands. Though one doesn’t need to belabor these connections, which could be serendipitous, they help to give depth to an otherwise fun and frivolous character.
If you don’t want subtlety weighing down your holiday fun film, worry not. Ritchie, one of the more aggressive and overt visual directors today, makes sure that he bludgeons you almost to death with heavy transitions, and ruthless use of super slow motion and computer generated effects.
Often these techniques work in Ritchie’s film, resulting in a fun though guilty pleasure. Every now and then Ritchie pushes things to far, and the impressive visual ruptures the story. In one such instance after a visit from Holmes, Dr. James Moriarty (Jared Harris) pushes an enormous looming chess piece forward towards the viewer. The CG pawn towers over us, the music looms, and we move to the streets of London. It was all just a little much, and on more than one occasion I found myself craving simpler cuts over these effects infused transitions.
Ritchie’s penchant for big moments worked really well in his early work that was limited by smaller budgets. In Snatch or Lock Stock, these big moments were driven not by CG elements, or super slo-mo but the simpler techniques of fast cuts and exciting camera angles, which are usually the signs of a youthful action director. In A Game of Shadows the visuals feel a bit overworked and old.
Holmes, in Ritchie’s films, is less heady and more action-hero, always ready to sprint into the dangers that await him. A Game of Shadows‘ pace is relentless which serves the two hour film, until we get to the ending of the 2nd Act. Here, with the mystery all but solved, the film drags as our characters chase Moriarty from Paris to Germany to Switzerland, and they weigh the impossible task of stopping this villain.
Jude Law, as side kick Watson, gives an enjoyably stiff performance. His rigidness and reluctant disapproval balances Holmes’ frenetic effulgence. Perhaps the most enjoyable casting decision is the addition of Noomi Rapace as gypsy Madam Simza. Rapace, though tragically underused, brings a vibrancy to the few moments she does have on screen, and is a more capable counter to Downey and Law than Rachel McAdams, who, as always, is shamefully boring.
The mystery is solvable, the situations are often forced, and yet there is something charming about A Game of Shadows. It makes no attempt to be anything other than what it is, a fun distraction from the obligations that come with the holidays. It’s empty calories, but isn’t that what this time of year is all about?