Monday, December 19, 2011

Your move, Professor...

When Sherlock Holmes came out two years ago, I was sceptic. I criticized the trailer for marketing yet another dumb action movie that capitalised on an infamous creation. But as the reviews poured in, I found them surprisingly positive, finally relenting and going to see the film for myself. To my delight, I found that the movie was an intelligent and entertaining film with a very modern take on Sherlock Holmes, hardly the all-out action flick the trailer represented. I solemnly ate my words and enjoyed the movie enormously. My reviews were extremely positive— I even made it into The American Culture with my review, the only time that’s ever happened.

I was all for a sequel… but when the trailers for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows appeared, doubt crept back into my mind. These trailers were even worse than those for the first film, showing disparate elements covering everything between Sherlock Holmes cross-dressing, Lisbeth Salander as a gypsy, and homicidal train employees using a machine gun in an assassination attempt. It seemed like this film would be a total disaster. Besides, let’s be honest: A Game of Shadows is one of the dullest and most uninspired titles of all the Sherlock Holmes films ever made.

Yet once again the final product was entertaining and once again I find that I’ve too hastily jumped to conclusions… or have I? The film opens with serial bombings in Europe, blamed on anarchists. But as the good Dr. Watson tells us, Sherlock Holmes has his own theory… and cue the opening credits. All things considered, it’s not a very good nor creative opening. Nothing really happens, that’s the trouble— there’s just a big boom and Hans Zimmer’s music. Not that I have anything against Hans Zimmer’s music (quite the contrary) but only the bare bones for a good opening are there. The meat has been stolen. The opening sequence of Sherlock Holmes was far more engaging, with Holmes racing against time to stop a Satanic sacrifice ritual. Here, we have no reason to be interested in Holmes’ theories, which we know nothing about. Instead of a few minutes of suspense Guy Ritchie gives us a loud explosion and a few seconds of surprise.

Once that’s done, we get a really promising scenario: Irene Adler (once again played by the gorgeous Rachel Macadams) is trailed on the streets of London by Sherlock Holmes, who sees that she has received a package and is curious about its final destination. Oh, and there are three men following her. She smiles sweetly and tells Sherlock that they’re not following her but escorting her, and instead of three men there just so happens to be four. They make a date for dinner and Holmes is left to fight off the bad guys. He manages to do that and tracks Irene down to an auction, where she hands over the package. The recipient insists that she remain present to make sure everything is there, and Holmes just manages to stop a bomb from exploding. He embarrasses Irene, she leaves, there’s another explosion. Irene meets Professor Moriarty at a restaurant and he’s not pleased her mission has failed. Watson drops by Baker Street to see what wackiness Holmes is up to and (ho, ho) it turns out Holmes has grown an entire forest in their living quarters, developing “urban camouflage” on the side. Watson reminds Holmes he’s getting married, Holmes tries to convince him to give the whole thing up. Then they leave for Watson’s stag party. That’s Act One.

All this could have been excellent but the opening act of the film just isn’t up to standards. Here’s why: all the flaws of the first film are concentrated in the opening act. Holmes and Watson don’t even behave like approximations of their characters: they are tough action heroes impervious to all pain. And when they’re not that, they’re busy being wacky comic relief. Holmes’ treatment of Mrs. Hudson would never have been tolerated by any landlady in any time period. We’ve seen all this before (and done far better) in the first movie. By the way, if you watch this movie, try to spot the crucial plot point in the Baker Street scene that will reappear in the third act. Here’s a hint: it’s an unnecessarily written-in cop-out.

As for the action, it’s unimpressive. It’s edited so quickly I suspect the film at this point was just fed through a propeller during the editor’s lunch break. You can’t figure out what’s going on in the fights—it’s hyperkinetic and to the film’s disadvantage. It’s dizzying, disorienting, confusing, and finally, infuriating, particularly when you see a bunch of leers and evil grins and have no idea what on earth is going on. When will directors finally learn we want to see the action?

The turning point of the film is the introduction of Mycroft Holmes, as Holmes and Watson get ready to go to the stag party (which isn’t being held after all because silly Holmes has forgotten to invite anyone). Stephen Fry plays Mycroft and he has such a delightful time it’s hard not to like him. He is extremely lazy and has no social skills whatsoever, but if he actually applied himself he’d be a better detective than Sherlock Holmes. They exchange some deductions but never explain any of them, so Mycroft’s initial introduction is not particularly special. Watson gets drunk and into an enormous brawl, acting completely out of character once again, but the plot finally gets rolling at this point and it is here that the film takes a decisive turn for the better. Holmes walks in on Madam Simza, a gypsy fortune-teller, and tries to extract information from her about her brother, but she isn’t co-operative. But hey, there’s a Cossack waiting to murder her and Holmes helps foil the assassination attempt. We get a great scene where Holmes plans out all his fighting moves in advance and then we go through the fight scene we’ve just had explained in the hyper-kinetic style. The style works really well for these sequences and I only wish there were more moments like this. There is one more scene like this at the very end and it’s an absolute gem—but you’ll get no more about that from me.

The plot is finally underway and from here on, it’s a non-stop thrill ride. Holmes and Watson are still very different characters, but at least now they’re reasonable approximations of the original characters. There’s a lot of fun action sequences that you can actually comprehend— my favourite is when Holmes and Watson walk in on a bomber who gives them a time limit and promptly commits suicide without telling them anything else. It’s a thrilling race against time as Professor Moriarty looks on in self-satisfaction.

Ah yes, Professor Moriarty—let’s finally meet our villain for this evening, who has fascinated readers ever since he first appeared. I don’t blame them—he is Holmes’ equal in every way but chooses to apply his genius to the “dark side”. Jared Harris does justice to the character, and his scenes with Robert Downey Jr. are electrifying— sparks practically fly off the screen as they argue. All this culminates in a brilliant final scene, where Holmes’ associates are busy trying to foil the Professor’s scheme. Moriarty and Holmes, meanwhile, play a game of chess, but before long, they ignore the board altogether and simply announce their moves to the other man. The intercutting technique chosen for the sequence is positively brilliant, as the intellectual chess match is being played out in real life and both these characters know it perfectly well. It’s a sequence like that one that reveals Guy Ritchie has become comfortable with the material, and dare I say it, it was even worth the atrocities of the opening act.

Generally speaking, the plot is good, and at the very least does not cheat like the original film did. The original withheld clues— the most infuriating of these was when Holmes said “but surely you noticed this-and-that” to which any honest viewer would reply: “I’m buggered if I did!” The reason for this is simple: the evidence was clearly shown the first time without the tell-tale sign Holmes points out at the finale! However, you’re more or less given clues this time. Some puzzles are better than others, but none leave you fuming about the screenwriters making the puzzle up as they go along. (Unfortunately, none attain the height of the death-by-spontaneous-combustion puzzle the first film had.)

You may have noticed how little I refer to Irene Adler. This is for the very excellent reason that after the opening act, the filmmakers decide to drop her. A similar fate befalls Inspector Lestrade, who appears in a single scene at the very end. These were some of the last film’s best characters—casting them aside is not a wise choice, and reminding us just how fun they were the first time is not much wiser.

Hans Zimmer’s music is, meanwhile, absolutely brilliant. He has outdone himself yet again, improving on the first film’s already-excellent score. His musical motifs for the gypsy characters are fabulous. When you can’t comprehend the action scenes or have no reason to care about their outcome, at least they’re accompanied by Zimmer’s music. Every note is excellent— it’s one of Zimmer’s best efforts, lifting the entire movie considerably.

Guy Ritchie’s direction is a mixed bag. The first act is very poor, but once he gets a firm grasp on the material, he does a good job in the director’s chair. The final Holmes/Moriarty confrontation is positively brilliant: it’s one of the most enjoyable climaxes I’ve seen in a while. My main beef is that Ritchie doesn’t use his best idea often enough: Holmes planning his fights out in advance in a matter of seconds. The opening fight presented a great opportunity and Ritchie ignores it, resulting in a confused mess of a fight that spoiled the movie’s opening notes.

Overall, if you can look past its flaws, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a very enjoyable film, with the various elements from the trailer making sense in the end. If you didn’t like the first movie, you won’t like this one; but if, like me, you enjoyed the first film, you will probably enjoy the second. I found the opening act a shambles, but once the film gets going, it really gets going. The only problem once it does get going is that it isn’t a particularly memorable story. Professor Moriarty is out to do evil things because he can—we’ve seen all this before. A Game of Shadows brings nothing brilliantly original to the table like Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven Per Cent Solution did, and at times Holmes and Watson behave nothing like they would in the pages of Conan Doyle’s stories. Nevertheless, it’s a pleasant enough two hours’ entertainment and it delivers what it claims it will.

The only problem I have with these recent movies is that they bring in the entirely wrong crowds to see this film. There was a relatively large crowd at the theatre today, and the comments I heard saddened me. “The books are sh*t but the movies are f*****g awesome!” I heard one intellectual say. I had to force myself not to intervene when I heard a self-proclaimed Sherlock Holmes scholar lecture on the original tales. Some justify this kind of film treatment as “bringing the stories to a new generation” but I was disillusioned about that a long time ago. It simply gets a few young people to read a story or two and be disappointed because there are no big guns, chases, or explosions.


  1. Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes is probably the only part in this movie that would be of interest to me, as, I have no doubt, that I will end up completely disgusted with everything else that is thrown at me.

    I guess these Hollywood adaptations of detective characters from the classical period are made for an audience that I am simply not a part of.

  2. Glad to hear it's better than the slightly dodgy trailer Patrick - and Stephen Fry is always worth investing in, so I shall definitely give it a go. In the first line of the last paragraph you mention 'crows' but I am assuming a 'd' got lost there somewhere ...

  3. I haven't seen the first one, because I was a bit doubtful, but maybe it's time to give it a go. It doesn't seem like it would be quite okay and true to the characters.

  4. Stephen Fry was the obvious one for Mycroft and he is more like the original than either Holmes or Watson. But, do beware: there is one absolutely terrible scene with Mycroft about half-way through. I shall say no more.

  5. @TomCat
    I was inclined to think well of this movie once it got going, but I think the opening act would be a major turn-off for anyone who didn't like the first movie. I thought it was worth it for the finale, Stephen Fry, and Moriarty. Some might disagree.

    Thanks for spotting that-- it's been fixed. When you do get around to it, be sure to share your thoughts with the rest of us!

    I'd recommend it surprisingly enough. I still think the first film is an excellent update of the original stories, with Holmes and Watson emerging more or less unscathed, some impressive action scenes, and overall a good story. My review can be found at the link below, after a rather less-than-enthusiastic review from Henrique Valle:

    I think I was far more positive about this film than you, but I don't think that scene you mention was that bad. The writing for the scene was absolutely dreadful, but Stephen Fry saved the day with his delivery.

  6. Given that IMdb lists Holmes adaptations as far back as 1905 I guess every generation will have to endure at least a few of them. I wonder how long it will be until Pixar takes a crack at it?

  7. Great comments in the last paragraph about the argument put forward in support of the adaptations that purport to do with Sherlock Holmes, but are just crass commercial attempts to mint money.

    As always, you rock with your superb posts about Sherlock Holmes!