CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011)
By Michael Arruda and Garrett Cook
(THE SCENE: A moving train, travelling through a picturesque European countryside circa the 1890s. On the train, in a private compartment, sits MICHAEL ARRUDA reading a book titled “Huckleberry Hound of the Baskervilles.” MA looks up at the camera, then at the book, and then back at the camera.)
MA: It’s a re-imagining.
(There is a knock on the door, and GARRETT COOK enters dressed as a woman.)
MA: Now I know why L.L. took this weekend off.
GARRETT COOK: Hey there. I made it.
MA: Right on time, too. You know, that costume looked horrible on Robert Downey Jr., and it’s not so hot on you either. You don’t have to wear that for the whole review, you know. (MA’s cell phone rings.) Yeah, I know cell phones didn’t exist in the 1890s. It’s an anachronism. Hello? Yeah, he made it. (to GC) It’s LL. He said since it’s your first Cinema Knife Fight, you should wear the dress.
GC: What? Give me the phone. Hey, L.L, I get the dress, but I don’t think they had thongs in the…
MA: He hung up. Let me start the review, and we’ll get this over with quickly, so you can change.
Garrett and I are here on this train today to review the new Sherlock Holmes movie, SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS (2011), starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson.
I enjoyed the first film in this series, SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), as it was one of those movies I didn’t really expect much from, but was pleasantly surprised.
This time around, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) square off against their arch-enemy Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Moriarty is hell-bent on getting the European powers-that-be to go to war with each other, and he’s doing this by arranging bombings and assassinations of key officials, always behind the scenes of course, and never leaving any evidence. It’s up to Sherlock Holmes to match his superior wits against those of the genius villain, Moriarty. Of course, in this series, Holmes is not only a super sleuth, but also a super fighter. Throw in a little James Bond, and this Holmes is as adept with his fists and guns as he is with his powers of deduction.
This Holmes is less apt to utter “Elementary, my dear Watson” than “Hand me that machine gun.” Still, I can’t deny that through it all, Holmes remains entertaining.
GC: Yes, well the movie does take Sherlock Holmes out of the tea parlor intrigues we’ve come to expect from our Victorian detectives. Thing is, a lot of those expectations come from PBS and our imaginations and misconceptions.
If you hear interviews with Robert Downey Jr., he constantly brings up that Holmes used to be a more dynamic character. Holmes was a martial artist, Holmes packed heat, and while Holmes was the archetypical Victorian detective in a lot of ways, he was still a forerunner to pulp heroes and superheroes as we know them.
When we watch Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett playing the character, we see Holmes as an urbane genius with mild eccentricities. But you’ve gotta remember this is the same guy that shot down the Hound of the Baskervilles and also the same guy, who in ”A Study in Scarlet” lectured Watson on why he really didn’t need to know that we live in a heliocentric universe.
MA: Good points.
GC: Sherlock Holmes is not just a great detective, but one of the deadliest men on the autism spectrum. And Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes does everything to remind you of this. One of my favorite things from the first SHERLOCK HOLMES movie was that, each time we see Holmes engage in a fight, we get to watch him reason out and imagine the consequences of each action he takes. Which adds a lot to the (all too frequent) fight scenes.
MA: I liked this better in the first movie. It started to get old in this sequel.
GC: That’s because SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS takes both the eccentricity and the combat readiness of the detective a little too far. When Watson first meets up with Holmes, he finds that he has turned his office into a jungle of sorts and is trying to perfect a form of “urban camouflage,” and soon he’s wearing a dress and shooting people. Like this.
(GC pulls a gun out of the bodice of the dress and fires off a shot. A scruffy Victorian thug manifests out of nowhere, clutches his chest and dies. MA applauds.)
MA: Nicely done. You fit in here very well.
GC: Having seen me do that, you have no reason to think I’m a skilled film critic or at least no more reason than you would have before reading this piece.
MA: That’s okay. We shoot people around here all the time. Actually, we do much worse. (with his foot, MA slyly pushes a machete underneath his seat, concealing it.)
GC: Watching Holmes wear a dress and shoot scruffy Victorian thugs, you have little reason to think he’s a great detective, which is one of my biggest complaints about A GAME OF SHADOWS. You don’t get to watch Holmes doing detective work all that often. While it’s refreshing that you get to see Holmes as a man of action, the only times you get to see Holmes as a great detective are during his confrontations with Moriarty.
MA: I definitely agree with you here. It would have been nice to see Holmes do some old-fashioned detective work.
Getting back to the story, the bottom line is the plot doesn’t really matter. It’s just an excuse for the audience to see Holmes in action. The only other plot point of note is that the case leads Holmes to a fortune teller gypsy woman, Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace, who was Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO films), whose brother has gone missing and is somehow mixed up with Moriarty, and so she wants to find him to save him, and Holmes wants to find him to learn more about Moriarty’s plot. Rapace is excellent in the role, and her scenes with Downey Jr. are energetic and entertaining.
The conclusion to this story is never in doubt. We all know who’s going to come out on top, and so there’s not much suspense in this one, even as it builds to its explosive climax.
I could take or leave SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, depending on my mood. I’ve seen much worse sequels (I thought this was a better sequel, for instance, than Downey Jr.’s IRON MAN 2 (2010)), but it didn’t rise above my expectations by any means.
(A pair of thugs suddenly appear outside the window and attempt to break into the compartment. MA hits one over the head with a club, while GC removes a bra from inside his dress and strangles the second thug with it. They kick both thugs off the moving train.)
MA: Nice job.
MA (pointing to bra): I can’t say that we’ve ever used a bra as weapon before in this column. How about that? A first!
GC: I try.
MA: Getting back to the movie—there is non-stop action, one action sequence after another, and you barely have time to breathe. While on paper this sounds like a lot of fun, I always find movies like this get boring after a while, and this movie is no exception.
I wish things had slowed down long enough to give Downey and Jude Law a chance to act, because I certainly would have enjoyed seeing them do more. Now, they do a lot of fighting, chasing, and shooting, but their best scenes are actually when they’re talking. Imagine that!
By far, my favorite part of this Sherlock Holmes movie, and the first one, is the camaraderie and chemistry shared by Downey and Jude Law. They really work well together, and they make for a very entertaining and enjoyable Holmes and Watson. And I like Robert Downey Jr. a lot as Sherlock Holmes. After two movies, I’m almost ready to say I like him better as Holmes than as Tony Stark. Almost.
Noomi Rapace brings a lot of energy to her role as Madam Simza Heron. I thought her scenes with Downey really sizzled. Jared Harris also made for a fine Professor Moriarty. He was an effective evil genius.
GC: I thought Jared Harris as Moriarty was the best part of the movie. The confrontations between Holmes and Moriarty are fantastic.
If you’ve seen Guy Ritchie movies, one thing you expect is a great monologue from an intimidating criminal mastermind. I can’t tell you how many times I heard friends of mine quote crime boss Brick Top’s “Nemesis” speech when they first saw SNATCH (2002). The Napoleon of Crime delivers on this.
Jared Harris makes this movie, and his chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. is explosive, down to the final battle of wills and intellects.
MA: And Stephen Fry was also memorable in a supporting role as Sherlock Holmes’s brother, Mycroft Holmes. He generated a few welcome laughs in the movie. SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS certainly has a strong cast.
It also has a catchy music score, again written by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer has a very impressive resume of film scores going back to the 1980s. His recent credits include both the Christopher Nolan BATMAN movies and the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN series.
As Garrett noted, Guy Ritchie, who directed the first HOLMES movie, is back at the helm for this one. There are lots of satisfying action scenes and some picturesque European locations (even if they are CGI creations) and the pacing is good, as there’s one action sequence after another, but in terms of story, this one never really grabbed me.
(A man appears from behind MA’s seat and grabs him by the back of the neck, strangling him.
GC: That’s because unfortunately, Guy Ritchie makes all of the mistakes you’ve seen him make before, with the exception of marrying Madonna ten years too late into her career and letting her convince him to remake a Lina Wertmuller film.
(MA gesticulates to GC that he needs help. GC removes a hairpin from his hair and sticks the thug in the eye with it. The thug releases MA and flees, screaming.
GC: Ever use a hairpin in this column before?
MA (catching his breath): Nope.
GC: Two firsts.
I brought up the overabundance of uninformative action scenes, but there’s also the problem that the film’s female characters are almost completely undeveloped. Holmes’s love interest, chirpy femme fatale Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is seen all too briefly, and worse yet, she’s not particularly interesting as a character during her time in the movie.
MA: I agree. She’s not in this movie enough, and I was disappointed she wasn’t in it more.
GC: Noomi Rapace’s character Simza the gypsy is motivated by her desire to find her misguided anarchist brother, but we don’t get to see her character grow and develop. We’ve had an entire film to get to know Holmes, Watson and their relationship, but Simza is a recent addition to the cast. With a bit less action, this could have been possible.
MA: Yep, definitely. There was way too much action in this one, and not enough character development.
Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney wrote the screenplay, and I’m sure they wrote what was expected of them, but that’s not saying a whole lot. The story didn’t take me to places I didn’t expect, nor did it truly captivate me. It played out, like so many other movies nowadays, like a video game. Let’s watch Sherlock Holmes fight this group of bad guys. Okay, now let’s watch Holmes get on this train and take on that group of baddies. And so on. For me, this gets stale after a while, even with a top-notch performer like Robert Downey Jr. on the screen.
That being said, it’s still hard not to like SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, because it looks good, it’s got terrific acting, lots of action, and is permeated by a general sense of fun. However, it never rises above the average in terms of story, plot development, and characterization, and as such, as easy as it is on the eyes, for the mind and heart, it’s mundane.
Watching SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS is like being at a shopping mall during the holidays. It’s all richly decorated and looks great, and there’s certainly a lot going on, but it’s loud and noisy and not that satisfying. After a while, you really just want to go home.
I give SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS two and a half knives.
GC: I agree with most of what you said, Michael, but I liked it slightly more than you. I found it to be a fast-paced, clever blockbuster, well-acted with strong set pieces, one of which in particular proves that Ritchie and crew do actually care what fans of the detective care about their work, so I give SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS three knives.
All the leads are magnetic and fun to watch. The lesser characters are also fun, and more importantly, this is the right time for the American public to be exposed to Holmes’s adventures. If, even for two hours in the dark, American filmgoers change the way they look at smart people and the military industrial complex, it’s a good thing. In times of rampant misinformation and factphobia, if American filmgoers are exposed to analytical thinking and people who are heroes because they think analytically, it’s a good thing.
MA: Uh-oh. Don’t go getting all philosophical on me now.
GC: How about it’s a timely, exciting holiday blockbuster?
MA: That’s better. So, that’s it. You found SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS to be really exciting and fun, and I found it a bit too shallow and action-oriented, but nonetheless entertaining.
Okay, we’re done. Garrett, thanks for filling in for L.L.
GC: No problem. Happy to do it. Thanks for asking me. I can’t believe he told me to keep this dress on, though. (Exits).
MA (to camera): I can’t believe it either, especially since—he didn’t call. LL’s not the only one with a dark side in this partnership, heh, heh.
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and Garrett Cook
Michael Arruda gives SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS ~ two and a half knives!
Garrett Cook gives SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS ~three knives.
(“Cinema Knife Fight” title coined by L.L. Soares)