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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

December 17, 2011
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

As the Christmas movie release schedule rolls on we dip back in for another installment of the Robert Downey Jr.-driven Sherlock Holmes series with the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. And it doesn’t fall off a cuff the way some sequels do, but it doesn’t exactly break any new ground. If you liked the first one a couple years ago you’ll probably enjoy this one too.

What this series brings to the property that other versions don’t is, of course, the strongest homoerotic undercurrent we’ve ever seen between Holmes (Downey) and Watson (Jude Law). Downey and Law absolutely recapture their chemistry, bickering incessantly like an old married couple who, underneath it all, really do love each other. But of course these suggestions will never come to actions, especially since as we open Watson is about to marry his surprisingly-capable fiancée, Mary (Kelly Reilly).

Holmes, of course, is neck-deep in a case and can’t be bothered to act like he cares about anything but his own interests. This time he’s convinced that a recent string of anarchist bombings in Europe are secretly traceable to the famous professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), which, of course, they are. Holmes’ investigations bring him and Watson into contact with a Romani woman, Simza (Noomi Rapace), whose brother seems to be one of Moriarty’s chess-pieces. They also bring Moriarty’s wrath against Watson, making it necessary to hide Mary with Holmes’ equally bemusing brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry). Mycroft, for his part, grumbles about the prospect of traveling to a peace conference in Reichenbach, Switzerland, which destination’s mention makes the ending half-predictable already to any Holmes fan.

The other thing that this series has introduced is this idea of Holmes as a fantastically capable calculating machine. This is expressed most noticeably in the slow-motion previews of certain fight scenes, as Holmes makes his plans, which he then executes — more or less — at full speed. But it also shows up in series of swift zooms to tiny pieces of evidence, along with flashes of their implications. The frantic editing speaks to Holmes’ near-superhuman ability to make these rational deductions in a snap.

Unfortunately, the technique doesn’t stop there; one action scene after another is erratically sped and slowed — “chaos cinema” meets “bullet time”. One particular subsequence stands out as an example: a race through German woods towards a rushing train. We are shown the train — or at least the tracks — early on and told that it’s the goal, but we have absolutely no orientation until we actually arrive. In the meantime, the characters charge between the trees chased by increasingly large-bored artillery. Explosions illuminate and throw fantastic shadows for the camera — if it’s even a real camera — to circle around; trees explode as if shot at hundreds of frames per second. Every slowed patch is rendered crystal clear, letting us track the exact path of every splinter, but taken as a whole the shots don’t seem to hang together. It isn’t even presented as Holmes’ viewpoint, so the only message we have left to take away is “they’re running towards a train and people are shooting; shut up and watch the pretty pictures.”

And this chaos aesthetic seeps into the structure of the story. This is the rambling guy who periodically stops his tale to go back and fill in some point he’d forgotten to mention before. Not to mention that there’s precious little deduction going on; more than one treatment has glossed the character’s name as “Sheer-Luck Holmes”, and nowhere is it more appropriate than here. Holmes is told that Watson and wife are in danger, and in the next scene he knows the exact sort and has already laid in some convoluted plan to save his friend. There’s no mystery if the audience isn’t given any clues until the reveal, and so this isn’t really a mystery story at all anymore.

But they’re very pretty pictures.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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