Friday, December 16, 2011

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows — Nothing elementary about this sequel!

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011) • View trailer
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for intense action and violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.16.11

Mention Sherlock Holmes, Prof. James Moriarty and Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in the same breath, and even the most casual fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famed consulting detective will have certain expectations.
With certain death via gunfire and even cannon fire hurrying their flight, Holmes
(Robert Downey Jr., center) and Watson (Jude Law) try to lead Simza (Noomi
Rapace) to the safety of a dense forest, as trees, shrubs and even rocks
explode around them.

Director Guy Ritchie delivers on those expectations, albeit in a roundabout, cheeky and visually exhilarating manner. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is much more audaciously stylized than its 2009 predecessor, which is to say it’s a throwback to the gleefully demented Ritchie who brought us 2000’s Snatch.

This outing with the analytical super-sleuth feels more like an unholy mash-up of Quentin Tarantino and classic Jackie Chan movies, with just enough vintage Holmes — I’m thinking Basil Rathbone’s era — to satisfy Baker Street Irregulars wanting to hear at least some of Doyle’s immortal prose.

Indeed, it’s difficult to repress a shiver of delight when, after Holmes’ unsatisfying face-to-face encounter with Moriarty (Jared Harris) — and the elliptical conversation it contains — the detective eyes his demonic counterpart and says, with the utmost solemnity Robert Downey Jr. can bring to bear, “If I were assured of the former, I would cheerfully accept the latter.”

And if that line doesn’t resonate, then hie thee hence to the nearest copy of Doyle’s “The Final Problem,” in order to best appreciate the phrase’s pregnant implications.

But that suspensefully charged meeting comes well into Ritchie’s film, by which point we’ve already had a great deal of fun.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows opens with an extended prologue that reunites Holmes (Downey) with the larcenous Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, also returning from the first film), the only woman whose intellect ever impressed the master detective. Adler has fallen in with ill-advised companions; one nasty skirmish later, Holmes possesses a bit more information regarding the criminal mastermind pulling the strings connected to a series of recent calamities.

London — indeed, the entire Western European continent — has been plagued with a series of bombings and other acts of sedition, reflexively blamed on vaguely defined “anarchists” supposedly hoping to topple governments. But Holmes suspects a more sinister plot behind these various attacks, and believes that everything can be traced to a brilliant mathematics professor whose reputation is so spotless that he counts the British prime minister among his closest confidants.

Absent physical evidence, Moriarty can’t be touched ... and, certain as he is, Holmes lacks proof.

Holmes also lacks his Boswell — his boon companion — because Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is one day away from marrying the love of his life, Mary (Kelly Reilly), and settling into medical practice after a long and luxuriously relaxed honeymoon. Watson stops at their old Baker Street digs only long enough to verify Mrs. Hudson’s (Geraldine James) concern that her lodger has gotten more barmy than usual, and to remind Holmes that — as best man — he’s responsible for the evening’s stag party festivities.

But when the mildly naughty setting for that celebration comes complete with a mysterious gypsy fortune teller named Simza (Noomi Rapace) — not to mention an exotic assassin charged with killing her — even Watson is forced to admit that the game, once more, is afoot. With his participation, reluctant or otherwise.

Holmes’ battle with said assassin is a masterpiece of directorial splash and editing snap, the latter courtesy of James Herbert; it’s also the sequence that feels most like an athletic and brilliantly choreographed Jackie Chan melee. Downey’s graceful sang-froid is hilarious throughout, as the skirmish and pursuit hurls, tumbles and charges throughout the building’s many floors, onto the streets below and then back inside again.

With this scene — and with the aforementioned skirmish involving Adler — Ritchie cunningly sets us up to anticipate a similarly blithe tone throughout the film. Don’t get complacent: The mayhem grows progressively more dire, building to a gunfire-laden flight through the forest outside a German munitions factory: a breathtaking sequence that very nearly (and deservedly) earned the film an R rating.

This one-sided assault is vintage Ritchie, going back to the charged, vicious and heavily stylized violence of his breakout film, 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

As was the case with Ritchie’s first stab at Doyle’s detective, this film’s most intriguing gimmick — and the most entertaining — is Holmes’ ability to anticipate move, parry, thrust and counter-thrust on the spot, nanoseconds before he hurls himself into a fight. Sometimes these mental maneuverings are shown as foreshadowing, sometimes as flashbacks; however they arrive, they’re always clever and impudent.

The film’s biggest joy, however — as was the case with 2009’s Sherlock Holmes — is the marvelous bond and running banter between Downey’s Holmes and Law’s Watson. In just two films, they’ve become one of cinema’s great acting teams, with snarky bon mots timed just as impeccably as this adventure’s many physical demands.

The nature of their relationship also is shrewdly established, thanks to a slick script from Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney. Holmes invariably makes fun of Watson’s “lesser” intellect — goodness, even Moriarty gets some jabs in — but such insults are misplaced. (Holmes knows this, of course; he just loves to wind up his friend.) When push comes to shove, Watson can be just as resourceful, and — as a skilled doctor — his medical skills prove vital on numerous occasions.

Harris, recognized from television’s Mad Men and Fringe, makes a smooth, suavely terrifying Moriarty: definitely the best interpretation we’ve ever seen of this “Napoleon of crime.” Downey’s cocky, smugly confident Holmes always seems invincible, but Harris’ Moriarty feels every bit his equal ... and quite possibly more. When this quiet mathematician threatens everything that Holmes holds dear, the danger feels palpable.

Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo film series, makes a credible gypsy fortune-teller; Simza’s flinty resolve earns Holmes’ respect, if not complete trust. Reilly is similarly resourceful as Mary Watson: definitely not your average English rose. Paul Anderson, finally, is appropriately sadistic as Moriarty’s sharp-shooting henchman, Col. Sebastian Moran.

Stephen Fry is much less satisfying as Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, whose behavior within his own home is a bit of needlessly cheeky comic relief. Enjoyable as Fry always is, his performance doesn’t belong in this film.

Production designer Sarah Greenwood, nominated for a well-deserved Academy Award for her work in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, returns with equally impressive results here. Whether creating Moriarty’s musty, book-laden office or the chilling expanse of a massive weapons warehouse, Greenwood evokes a wholly authentic setting in every case.

Composer Hans Zimmer also returns with an energized blend of character and location themes remembered from the first film, and pulse-quickening passages for this sequel’s more explosively exciting sequences.

A random thought, with which to leave you: This storyline’s echoes of James Bond’s Thunderball cannot be coincidental, from the imperiled damsel (Rapace’s Simza) whose brother has been co-opted in an unusual manner, to a clandestine mastermind (Moriarty, of course) who hopes to profit by plunging the world into war.

Ritchie’s second stab at Doyle’s legacy is more confident and polished — and a lot more suspenseful — than its predecessor. It’s also nastier: This most definitely isn’t your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes. But it’s impossible to resist another outing with the droll and insolent Downey and Law; they effortlessly sell even the most outrageous elements of Ritchie’s film.

And he can be quite outrageous.

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