“Oh, how I’ve missed you, Holmes.”
Any fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes who somehow missed the first of director Guy Ritchie’s movies about the man will probably get a shock seeing this 2011 continuation, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.” That’s because this isn’t your typical Sherlock Holmes. It isn’t the Holmes that Doyle necessarily envisioned, and it isn’t the Holmes that so many film directors over the years recreated. This is an exaggerated Sherlock Holmes, one true to the facts of the character as written down by Doyle but not quite true to the spirit. If you forget everything you’ve ever read or seen about Holmes, you might have a good time with it.
Look! Up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Sherlock Holmes, Action Hero!
Well, Holmes did often wear a cape. Ritchie’s reimagining of the character is neither good nor bad in and of itself. If viewers know going into the movie that they are about to get an updated action figure in the main character, the movie will not terribly disappoint them. Ritchie makes a good action comedy of it. If viewers go in expecting another Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett as a cerebral Holmes, star Robert Downey, Jr.’s vigorous portrayal of the character will surely be unsettling. Forewarned is forearmed.
Here’s the thing: There is really nothing in Richie’s films beyond the embroidered plots that Doyle himself didn’t at least mention in his many short stories and novels. It’s just that this new Holmes incarnation behaves in a more action-oriented mode than in the almost purely methodical, deductive manner we’ve come to know.
Is the new characterization too far out? That will depend on your attitude toward the subject. The film may offend true and dedicated Holmes aficionados. However, as I say, there are precedents for Holmes’s latest behavior: Doyle himself alludes to Holmes being an expert fencer and a skillful boxer; in fact, Holmes’s friend Dr. John Watson (who in the fictions writes up his friend’s exploits) mentions Holmes possibly becoming a professional boxer had he not gone into private investigations. Furthermore, this new Holmes is anything but the meticulously neat, compulsively tidy Holmes we generally see, but, again, Doyle actually describes his character as being rather careless about his housekeeping chores, often using his lodgings at 221B Baker Street as a personal laboratory and workshop. In addition, Doyle tells us that Holmes frequently used drugs in his early career (a 7% solution of cocaine), and that while Holmes never married, he did admire and perhaps even fall in love with at least one worthy adversary, the beautiful Irene Adler (here played for the second time by Rachel McAdams).
What director Ritchie and star Downey do is embroider and magnify the traits Conan Doyle already gave his main character. It’s just that in most of Doyle’s yarns, Holmes never has to resort to much physical activity. In the new movies, Ritchie exploits Holmes’s temperamental nature, his natural athletic abilities, and his acquired talents to produce an amusing, action-oriented hero. If this Holmes smacks more of Tony Stark than of Conan Doyle, it’s no accident.
As for Holmes’s best friend, confident, and biographer, Dr. John Watson, Jude Law plays him more in keeping with Doyle’s vision of the man: strong, intelligent, cultured, dapper, and dependable. Gone is the unfortunate (though highly entertaining) 1930’s-40’s characterization of actor Nigel Bruce playing Watson as a bumbling old fool. The fact is, in the Doyle stories Holmes and Watson are approximately the same age, their late twenties when they first meet and take up rooms together in 1881 (in the present movie, set in 1891, they’re in their late thirties); and Doyle describes the doctor as anything but the blundering, blathering blockhead Bruce made him out to be. Indeed, Doyle tells us that before Watson and Holmes met, Watson was a military surgeon in the Second Afghan War, where he received a severe wound. The author goes on to explain that Watson was a strongly built fellow and apparently quite the ladies’ man, mentioning that Watson married at least twice during the long course of the stories, and in this movie we see one of those marriages.
And what do we see of the famous deerstalker cap, Inverness cape, and curved Meerschaum pipe so long associated with the detective? You won’t find them in these movies; they were the products of people other than Conan Doyle, like the artist Sydney Paget and the stage actor William Gillette, who added these touches of their own to the legend.
What we get in Ritchie and Downey’s reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes saga is again a vigorous, resourceful, almost devil-may-care detective, still brilliant, witty, and arrogant but more prone to take chances than we’ve seen from the likes of previous actors in the part. Downey will not remind you of Clive Brook, Arthur Wontner, Reginald Owen, Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Roger Moore, Nicol Williamson, Christopher Plummer, Ian Richardson, Jeremy Brett, Ben Syder, Benedict Cumberbatch, or any of the countless other folks who have undertaken the role. Downey is unmistakably his own man, making this Sherlock Holmes a logical-minded tough guy, and an eccentric in the extreme.
OK, so much for letting you know what you’re getting in for. Now, is this second entry in the Ritchie-Downey series, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” better than the first movie? I wouldn’t say so. If anything, it’s even more exaggerated and more action-packed. In other words, it’s more of the same, with the emphasis on the “more.” If you liked the first movie, you may like this one even more. If you didn’t like the first one, you may like this one even less. I rather liked the first one and found this one equally entertaining.
In this one, which takes up just after the first movie ended in the early 1890’s, Holmes discovers after a series of bombings in London that his old nemesis, Dr. James Moriarty, is up to his usual no good. Holmes’s friend Watson is just about to wed Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) and wants to settle into a more normal and comfortable lifestyle; but Holmes pulls him into one “last adventure.” From there it’s a battle of wits (and brawn) between the factions of good and evil, with a mysterious Gypsy woman (Naomi Rapace), Holmes’s brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), and Moriarty’s chief agent, Col. Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson), along for the fun.
On the plus side, Holmes has another worthy opponent with whom to contend in his most-famous of all antagonists, the redoubtable Professor James Moriarty, played with menacing glee by Jared Harris. Moriarity was Holmes’s archenemy in several of Doyle’s stories, a felonious mastermind behind most of the crime in London (and all of England and Europe for that matter), a man clearly the intellectual equal of Holmes. And you want action between them? In Doyle’s own account of events (“The Final Problem”), Dr. Watson sees Holmes and Moriarty engaged in a death struggle with one another at the top of Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, both men apparently falling to their deaths in the waters below. Yes, Doyle wanted to end the character once and for all and get on with his other writing. The public, however, wouldn’t stand for it and pressured the author into bringing Holmes back and continuing the stories for many more years. Much to our continued pleasure.
Downey and Law are as good as ever in their characterizations, their banter, their interactions, with more emphasis this time on their constant humorous bickering. Again, we see this contentiousness in the original Doyle stories, although in the present movie director Ritchie rather enjoys expanding it for comic effect.
The sets and costumes also add to one’s enjoyment of the film. The CGI used in recreating late nineteenth-century London is splendid, and the careful attention to period detail in clothing, hats, furniture, hair styles, and such pays off. For those critics who complain that Ritchie’s depiction of Holmes is not accurate to Doyle’s accounts, I can only remind them that after Twentieth Century Fox made the second of their popular Basil Rathbone Holmes movies, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” in 1939, the studio changed the time setting thereafter to World War II and beyond, a far bigger revision of Doyle’s original concept than anything in Ritchie’s world. Few people seemed to complain about it back then.
On the minus, side, though, viewers have to contend with several annoyances in this new film, ones so troublesome viewers may not be able to overcome them. First, it seems as though Ritchie intentionally wanted more clever one-liners than he wanted actual dialogue. The characters don’t so much converse with one another as quibble, jest, and parry. It is a comedy, after all, yet it would have been nice to hear a little more civilized conversation once in a while. Second, and probably more vexing, is the fact that Holmes doesn’t so much investigate the mystery through logical deduction as he does stumble (or blunder) upon the truth. True, Holmes is still a shrewd guy and still “sees everything” in advance; it’s just that Ritchie would rather have him dodging bullets than pursuing clues. Third, Ritchie continues to use his trademark stop-action/slow-motion technique for having Holmes visualize an event before it takes place, fine once but not three or four times in a movie. Fourth, Hans Zimmer’s background score can be unrelenting. His main theme music for Holmes is pleasant enough, but the loud, glaring accompaniment to every action scene is like the laugh track in a TV sitcom, in this case continuously telling us that this must be exciting because the music is so blaring. Fortunately, watching at home one can turn the volume down to a more comfortable level than in a theater.
Finally, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” may contain too much action and too many explosions for its own good. One can enjoy an action movie best when it slows down a bit and lets us savor the activity and exploits. This film moves along at so fast a pace, we hardly have a chance to catch our breath before something else blows up. Frankly, I most cherished its quiet interludes, as few as they were. Nevertheless, with concessions made, the movie makes for an enjoyable romp.
I liked what I saw. The folks at Warner Bros. used a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the film as well as possible to Blu-ray, retaining its original 2.40:1 aspect ratio. There’s good detail and delineation in most scenes, and some minor softness in others. Colors look natural, often deep and vibrant, and skin tones are realistic. A very fine, very light film grain provides a lifelike texture to most of the shots.
Once you adjust the volume to a level where the background music doesn’t overwhelm you, the lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio renders the soundtrack quite well. The dynamic range is wide; impact is strong and taut; and bass is deep and solid. The surrounds reproduce a variety of noises, from gunfire and explosions to a pleasantly ambient musical bloom. True, the soundtrack can be raucous, but it goes with the territory; and in any case it can be tamed.
The Blu-ray disc’s primary bonus item is a Maximum Movie Mode: “Inside the Mind of Sherlock Holmes,” wherein star Robert Downey, Jr. takes us behind the scenes during the film via personal inserts, picture-in-picture, storyboards, “Focus Point” segments, and the like. Then, the disc makes the “Focus Points” available separately as little, three-to-seven minute featurettes. After that, the disc offers access to a free “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” movie app for your tablet or mobile device, and supposedly you can go even further into the film, “uncover, immerse and interact,” with more behind-the-scenes material (although being as I am a Neanderthal without a tablet or mobile device, I didn’t try it).
In addition, the disc provides thirteen scene selections; BD Live (guaranteed to slow down the disc’s boot time); English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Spanish, and other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Finally, because this is a Combo Pack, you get not only the Blu-ray disc but a standard-definition DVD, and an UltraViolet copy, the latter offer available until June 12, 2014. The two discs come packaged in a flimsy double Eco-case, further enclosed in a handsomely embossed, light-cardboard slipcover.
Let me again put it this way: If you liked the first Guy Ritchie “Sherlock Holmes” movie, you’ll probably like this second one as well. If you didn’t like the first one, you’ll no doubt hate this one. It’s just too different an interpretation of the iconic Holmes character to appeal to everyone. That said, I found it mostly fun.