January 4, 2012

The Game of Shadows is Afoot

Director Guy Ritchie’s latest foray into the Holmesian hemisphere pits the world’s most famous detective against his greatest nemesis, source material against reimaginings, and deductions against explosions, culminating in a sometimes problematic slant on “The Final Problem.” But what Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows lacks in canonicity it begins to make up for in chutzpah.

I will continue to defend Robert Downey Jr.’s initial portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the 2009 film as a unique performance that is closer to book-accurate than many viewers may realize. For some fans, Basil Rathbone is the Holmes-shaped yardstick by which all deerstalker-donning detectives are measured, while Jeremy Brett is the Sherlockian litmus for others; there’s a range of what constitutes “right” for Sherlock Holmes and Ritchie’s original movie fell somewhere in the margins. But in A Game of Shadows, RDJ doesn’t just stretch the tenuous ties to canon, he gleefully snaps them. This Sherlock Holmes is almost a parody of his own eccentric incarnation from two years before, verging on caricature and buffoonery. I’m trying to tamp down my inner purist, but Sherlock Holmes is not comic relief. Harrumph.

But, of course, Holmes is lost without his Boswell, and Jude Law performs admirably--yet again--as Dr. Watson. His portrayal is quiet compared to RDJ’s but builds an incredibly likable, rough-and-tumble Watson. The duo’s bromance--for lack of a better word--is touted as one of the film’s draws. Their sniping happily mellows somewhere in the middle of the movie and I was once again not only convinced of their friendship, but also reminded why I enjoy these two characters so much.

Much as Holmes thrills in the chase, Ritchie seems to relish thumbing his nose at the purists and at some moments all but eliminates the “bro” part of the bromance equation. Suggesting that Holmes and Watson are lovers is not a new interpretation, but this film’s stance is odd in that its subtext verges on outright text without ever truly making a statement. In 1891, there would likely be much fan waving and monocle popping at the sight of two men waltzing together, but the movie dances around their relationship in such a way that it fails to make any assertion and stumbles into an awkwardly anemic sort of homoeroticism.

To put a finer point on it: A Game of Shadows is hobbled by incongruity in tone, character, and theme. Some expressively melancholic moments in the final act are barely given time to breathe before jokes are cracked or hijinks ensue.

Then again, this film doesn’t take itself seriously, and perhaps I shouldn’t either. Rising alongside any pratfalls were scenes, exchanges, and characters I honestly loved. Hans Zimmer’s compositions and the Foley artists’ effects, especially during the chase through the forest, add an invigorating and atmospheric aural element. I always enjoy Ritchie’s unique cinematography (if frenetic and dripping with slo-mo), stark visuals, and plainly fun action sequences. Despite minor roles, Kelly Reilly and Rachel McAdams are welcome returnees and Stephen Fry is especially suited to play Mycroft Holmes. Though, he is tasked with some rather un-Mycrofty moments. Oh, hey again, inner purist. Didn’t see you creep up.

Jared Harris plays a fine Moriarty, at once a mild-mannered math professor and chillingly cruel villain, without being too mustache-twisty. Harris truly sold the icy tension, the carefully restrained yet intense feelings of rivalry sliding just below the surface. Even knowing how Reichenbach Falls would play out, the famous scene unfolded with an applaudable combination of tension, exposition, mental sparring, and physical action. I wasn’t entirely sold on either Holmes’ or Moriarty’s extraordinary cunning and wits in this film--largely because of the general emphasis on fisticuffs over sleuthing--so their conflict coming to a head through Holmes-o-vision felt appropriate.

One wonderful thing about the seminal stories is that they offer a deep well from which new details can be gleaned and new yarns can be spun, and I enjoy these films’ confident willingness to tread along the fringes of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. Though Sherlock Holmes’ incarnations may don many new disguises, he must remain the famous consulting detective underneath. This film’s Sherlock Holmes comes close to being present only in name, but I’m cautiously hopeful for his return.

**Medium with a Refill**

Spoiler Rant:

What’s that sound?
Why, it’s the tooting of my own horn! I designed a Sherlock Holmes t-shirt; I hope you will wear it proudly with your iconic yet not really canonical deerstalker.

Holmes and Watson get steamy.
Steampunky, that is. But the automobiles and weapons are just close enough to being historically accurate that they seem unintentionally anachronistic. Feel free to correct me hotly, history buffs. One thing I do know: Watson did not invent CPR. I guess they couldn’t have the good doctor merely wring his hands and fret Holmes’ heart into resuscitating itself.

Cake or death?
So the cake bomb in the hotel was orchestrated to cover up a shooting? I believe the phrase, “What better way to disguise a killing than with an explosion” is uttered. Yes! Draw attention away from murder with a different manner of murder--ingenious!

Chekhov’s got a gun.
I love the notion of Chekhov’s gun, I really do. Playwright Anton Chekhov said that, "One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it." In other words, any seemingly irrelevant detail that is introduced must later become significant to the narrative. It’s a sort of foreshadowing technique that discourages the inclusion of unnecessary elements. Holmes’ adrenaline experiment and Mycroft’s personal oxygen supply, for instance, follow this concept. How not to do it: The “twins” were incorporated so minutely that referencing them later was more of a “huh?” than an “ah ha!” moment.

Canon fodder.
The original stories are not without their less-than-awesome moments. Remember Colonel Sebastian Moran? Moriarty’s sidekick who is an expert sniper and marksman? Well, guess how he tries to take out Holmes as the detective struggles up the ledge at Reichenbach Falls. By throwing rocks at him. Mother. Flippin’. Rocks.

(Images courtesy of Warner Bros. and www.webweaver.nu)