Monday, December 19, 2011

A Game Afoot

Well, not EVERY December film release aspires to be a major award winner. While studios DO release what they consider to be the best of the best at this time of the year in anticipation for the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, SAG awards et al, they still need to make money for their efforts. With so many nominated films being limited released, niche affairs, it only makes sense to put out a few serious moneymakers to distract those who might not have (or don't wish to see) The Artist or Shame playing at a theater near them just yet. That's why I saw Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows this past weekend. The sequel to the Guy Richie-directed 2009 Sherlock Holmes, this film brings back not only the visually prolific director, but arguably the best duo to have ever played the incomparable Sherlock Holmes and his loyal assistant Dr. John Watson. I'm the first to admit that I didn't think much of the casting choices when they were laid out two years ago, as Robert Downey Jr. had only recently proven his value and drug rehabilitation with 2008's superhero flick Iron Man, and I've tended to dislike Jude Law in whatever film he appeared (a trend that still continues today, mind you). When I did get around to seeing the new interpretation of the master detective, what stuck me most was the ability of the lead actors to play perfectly off of one another, which was more than enough to make up for the film's most acute flaws. This playful character interaction was what made me so excited to see the newly-released A Game of Shadows, as well as the addition of Swedish actress Noomi Rapace to the cast. Rapace made a name for herself playing Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film adaptation of the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson (Rooney Mara, you have a lot to live up to), and I was excited to see what she could bring to her first English language film.

And THAT'S what happens when you cross the streams, Venkman
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows begins not long after the revelations at the end of its predecessor. Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr) is hunting down proof that renowned Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) is responsible for bombings and murders across Europe, tensing the major nations for a potential war across the continent. Moriarty is very good at covering his tracks however, and Holmes can find no immediate proof to substantiate his claims. Meanwhile, Watson (Law) is preparing to marry his love interest from the first film, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), and has stepped away from assisting Holmes in his investigations. However, when Moriarty sends his goons to kill the newlyweds as they travel to their Honeymoon, Sherlock whisks them to safety. The legendary mystery solvers pair up for one last mission, alongside a fortune-telling gypsy with a personal stake in the story (Rapace), to take down one of the era's (and classic literature's) most brilliant criminal masterminds.

There's a story here; I just know it
The story behind the film is of course based on the extensive works of Sherlock's creator, the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. More to the point, it is loosely based on his story The Final Problem, as pivotal a Holmes tale as you can have. Much of what made Sherlock Holmes so much fun two years ago is still here: visual appealing direction, properly-distributed spoken humor, gratuitous action sequences that are actually well-thought out; it's this last part that really makes Sherlock Holmes stand out among the glut of brainless action-oriented movies every year. Thanks to Holmes as a character being able to anticipate and adapt to any fighting situation, some of the film's best moments include the precursor to Downy Jr.'s battles, in which we see inside his mind and watch him plot out and choreograph every major moment in the upcoming brawl. From an aesthetic standpoint it's spotless, and the final product is often made all the better by seeing beforehand what will come. Director Guy Ritchie has become an expert on the different visual styles necessary to make these sequences stand out, and under his plan the whole thing feels organic and without error.

Oh, the happy memories...
The film also stands a head over its predecessor by skewing much more closely to its source material, and by sating Holmes' greatest fans' desires by pitting him against his most renowned villain, Professor Moriarty. In the former, several minor characters from Doyle's stories, including retired Colonel Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson) and Sherlock's own brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), are brought in to provide more character interaction. Ritchie not only introduces these characters, but presents them in the same or remarkably similar fashion as Doyle intended, a move that seems odd in this day and age of adaptations that barely resemble the material on which they were based. In the latter, bringing Moriarty into the picture could have been disastrous if done incorrectly. Fortunately, the man is in almost every way portrayed as Holmes' equal, and superior in the few moments when he is not. Ruthless, conniving, and altogether just a bad guy, he is infinitely more memorable than the original film's adversary (bonus points for those who can give me his full name and title without looking up on Wikipedia), who was by no means memorable or important in comparison.

Yes, run FROM the explosions!
As before, the witty banter between Holmes and Watson is the main source of enjoyment that the film provides, and thankfully Downey Jr. and Law are still at top form when playing off of one another. As Holmes, Downey Jr. continues to shatter all those old images of the master detective as a stuffy know-it-all. Instead, Downey continues to play him as a stuffy know-it-all who can also throw a punch when needed. In a way, Downey's Sherlock Holmes is like a nineteenth century Batman, self-taught to be the best at everything. Downey also plays for laughs when needed, both as a master of disguise and with his mannerisms and wit. Law plays Watson as the straight man to Downey's madman perfectly, and as I've mentioned this is one of the few roles I've ever liked for him as an actor. His constant frustrations with Holmes are tempered by the respect of Sherlock's skills and their lifelong friendship, and that he can convey it so easily is a point in his favor. While the pair at the top of the cast are of course wonderful, a good core of support characters makes the real difference when it comes to how the tale moves forward. Jared Harris is perfect as the evil genius Moriarty, his piercing gaze and subtle ferocity making him the perfect cerebral enemy for Holmes. He is by far the best addition to the series, and if the franchise continues I would love to see more from his corner. On a more practical villainy front, Paul Anderson is menacing and effective as Moran, Moriarty's sharpshooting second in command. I don't know where Anderson has been all these years, but he gets plenty of chances to shine in this film and doesn't pass on any opportunities. Though Mycroft Holmes is largely played to comedic effect, Stephen Fry is up to the task, and he does a good job when asked to do something other than drop some funny dialogue. The only real disappointment in the cast is Rapace, though this is by no means her fault. While her rendition of a knife-throwing gypsy fortune-teller with a connection to Moriarty's network is well-played, and it was nice to not stick her in a cliched love-interest role, I can't help but feel that she is sorely underutilized. This came as something of a surprise, as the ads and trailers made such a big deal about her involvement, only for her to be moved to the side at most opportunities.

He'll kill you with kindness... Ha ha, no, he'll just kill you
So what is it I like the most about Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows? Is it the wonderful visual effects? The compelling storytelling that misses no details? The ability to drop hints at the beginning that you completely forget until Holmes reintroduces it in solving his case? The wonderful acting, led by Downey Jr. and Law? The broad mix of humor and adventure? How about the exciting, climactic final battle between Holmes and Moriarty that is both a literal and figurative chess match? Presented with these options, I'm going to have to go with "all of the above", as Sherlock Holmes stands a good head over most movies released this year. It's not good enough for Top 10 status, but it holds place among other highly watchable and enjoyable fare with few flaws, among titles like The Muppets, Footloose and Crazy Stupid Love. Better than the original, and arguably better than any Sherlock Holmes film you can name, I can't recommend this title highly enough. Since The Artist isn't playing anywhere near you, try the next best thing: a smart, funny, highly engrossing title that won't make you feel stupid for having paid full price to see it.

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