Friday, December 23, 2011

SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS - FILM REVIEW (2011 - Directed by Guy Ritchie)


"When all is said and done, there have never been better detective stories than the old series of Sherlock Holmes; and though the name of that magnificent magician has been spread over the whole world, and is perhaps the one great popular legend made in the modern world, I do not think that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has ever been thanked enough for them. As one of the many millions, I offer my own mite of homage."
- G.K. Chesterton, Principles of the Detective Story, August 19, 1922

"Dr Watson doesn’t write to you, he talks to you, with Edwardian courtesy, across a glowing fire. His voice has no barriers or affectations. It is clear, energetic and decent, the voice of a tweedy, no-nonsense colonial Britisher at ease with himself. He is one of the greatest storytellers the world has ever listened to."
- John le Carré, Introduction to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, November 17, 2004
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There have been numerous complaints from film critics who are annoyed that director Guy Ritchie has turned his Sherlock Holmes films into action movies. But they are forgetting something. When you read these stories as a child, you imagine Holmes as very much the action hero. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is completely clear about Holmes' advanced fighting skills, including both boxing (A Study in Scarlet, The Sign of Four) and historical martial arts like Bartitsu (The Final Problem). And, given the dangerous world he walks in, he makes use of them in Doyle's stories on a regular basis. But really, the action is not really the point of Richie's Sherlockian films. It's the characters that make the film so enjoyable, and it's the mystery-solving deductional powers of Holmes that make his character into the larger-than-life hero that we've all grown to love. The second film in the franchise, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is superior to the first one. And it is better precisely because it gives Holmes a more personal challenge to solve and a more formidable opponent to face. I'd even argue that A Game of Shadows is perhaps also more traditional than the vast majority of other Holmes films in existence. Look at how much of Conan Doyle's original dialogue actually makes it into the film. There is more dialogue from the books in A Game of Shadows, probably, than in any other Holmes film adaptation other than Jeremy Brett's brilliant TV series.

I can happily say that, personally, there is not another collection of stories in classic literature that has captured my imagination more than the adventures and mysteries of Sherlock Holmes. There is just something about the atmosphere of these tales that is completely and absolutely perfect. The dark criminal underworld, the thick inpenetrable London fog, the sound of rattling hansom cabs and the deep chimes of the Big Ben, the Dickensian Victorian characters skulking, creeping and swaggering across the pages, and looming shadows of two figures on the hunt for evil - all these things combine in the jovial friendship of two good men who aid the helpless and protect the innocent when no one else will.

If you still have doubts about Ritchie's latest film, just remember, it's not just a big dumb action movie when you can cram all the explosions of a 128 minute long film in just under 30 seconds ...



Holmes and Watson feel like they are my old friends. I will never get tired of returning to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's writing over and over again. As many times as I've read them, on a consistent basis I still find myself re-entering the rooms of 221 B Baker Street, stuffed as they are from floor to ceiling with books, newspapers, newspaper clippings, the bearskin hearthrug, the violin, pipe tobacco, cigars, chemistry sets, weaponry, bullet holes in the wall, legal codes, scientific treatises, an American Encyclopedia, forensic tools, medical references, elaborate disguises, velvet lined arm chairs, a pipe rack, a Persian slipper, scientific charts, maps, and a typewriter.
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"Holmes, are you in there? ... Your hedge needs trimming."
- John Watson
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Why is this film version worth it? It's worth it, now that I think about it, because it is the single best film portrayal of Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty I've ever seen. The strongest part of A Game of Shadows is how Ritchie builds and builds and builds the tension up to the final confrontation at the end. It doesn't even matter if you've already read the ending, by the end of the film - as every solved problem, every death, every fight, every action scene, every chess move, and every foreign border crossed has led up to it - you'll be on the edge of your seat as Holmes and Moriarty find themselves facing one another for the climax of their intellectual duel at the top of Reichenbach Falls.

As Moriarty, Jared Harris (son of Richard Harris) speaks with his father's same powerful menacing whisper. He's an excellent actor and is surprisingly suddenly in competition as one of the best Professor Moriarty's in the history of film. That, along with Robert Downey Jr.'s acting, allows Ritchie's imagination to turn Holmes and Moriarty's lethal conflict throughout the film into a duel of a kind you will have never seen before. Based on Conan Doyle's short story, A Final Problem , this film elaborates on the journey to Switzerland. And yet, everything matters. Holmes is putting things together in every main scene of the film that is all intended to fall into place at just the right moment. The conflict between Holmes and Moriarty is an intellectual one, violence is just one tool to use when it is most useful.

And, speaking of violence, all those scenes where you've seen Holmes analytically think through every single trigger-pull, kick, stab and punch of a fight that Ritchie's stylized take on violence allows us to follow? Just remember what makes the ending into the chess match that it is ... Moriarty is Holmes' intellectual equal, so that means ...
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"The laws of celestial mechanics dictate that when two objects collide there is always damage of a collateral nature ... Now, are you sure you want to play this game?"
- Professor James Moriarty
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There just one difficulty with their conflict. Holmes has one weakness that Moriarty does not. He's the good guy, and therefore, there are other people he cares about (Irene Adler, Watson and his wife Mary, his brother Mycroft) that he wants to protect. Moriarty does not have this problem and, logically, it makes sense for him to exploit it against Holmes. So in spite of their intellectual equality, Holmes is the underdog at the disadvantage here. He is hamstrung by his humanity. Early in the film, you discover that Moriarty is essentially interested in starting a World War (Holmes' career is historically set from about 1880-1914). Holmes, on the other hand, is obsessed with stopping him. When Moriarty scoffs at Holmes and explains that "you're not fighting me so much as you're fighting the human condition" he's commenting on how his enemy, despite all his powers of deduction, is fighting a losing battle. Moriarty has human nature on his side. Holmes has only abstract ideals on his ... and Watson.

Another aspect of Robert Downey Jr.'s bringing the famous detective to the big screen is how he humanizes Holmes without losing the logical superpowers that Sherlock is famous for. Holmes is known as completely calm, cold, detached, aloof, and purely intellectual as a character. He has trained himself to observe every little tiny detail, to deduct the relevant logical conclusions from these details, and to arrive at the solution to any problem whether it's how to follow Moriarty's tangled web of schemes, how to precisely time a domino cause and effect chain of events, or how to physically incapacitate a physically superior opponent. But Holmes is still a man, not a superhero, and Downey shows this by playing Holmes as an eccentric unkempt, manic depressive, socially awkward soul who could very likely have some form of Asperger's Syndrome. His powers of observation and deduction make him into the hero that he is, but they also hurt him.

If you've seen the first film, then you will remember the exertion it takes for Downey Jr.'s Holmes to simply just sit still in a restaurant, much less to act empathetically with the special girl that his friend wants to marry. In fact, I'd have to suggest that, even though the second is better to the first, seeing the first film is almost a requirement for understanding the second.


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Sim: "What do you see?"
Holmes: "Everything ... That is my curse."
Sim: "But, you don't see what you're looking for."
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Bee Wilson just recently wrote for The Economist that Holmes' energy is part of what make the mysteries worth following. "Holmes never stands up if he can spring to his feet. He also grasps, thrusts, jerks and tosses." Downey Jr. gets this. He's always moving and when he's still, his eyes are moving (while his brain is moving even faster). In fact, he won over a number of Conan Doyle fans in a few of his interviews for the first film. For example, in the Wall Street Journal, Downey Jr. was asked -

"To prepare for the role, as well as that important relationship with Watson, did you watch previous portrayals of Sherlock Holmes, in movies, on television?

I watched some of the old movies, but to tell you the truth, the more you watch the old stuff, the more you realize how not traditional it is — it's not like the stories at all. Part of the tableau in which Holmes is always thought of is him, in profile, with a deerstalker hat and with a curved pipe in his mouth. Nothing about that has anything to do with Doyle's description — in one description, Doyle says he is wearing a hat, but it's more of a moleskin cap. The oversized pipe came from something that theater actor [and playwright] William Gillette used in his portrayal — and now it's always used on stage.

So how did you prepare?

I really wanted to portray Holmes as Doyle wrote him. When I played Chaplin I flew all over the planet looking for clues, but the definitive Western expert on Holmes [Leslie S. Klinger] lives 20 minutes up the road in Malibu. So I went and hung out with him, I read through his book, a definitive annotated Sherlock Holmes, which was probably the modern data center for us.
Did you read a lot of Doyle’s stories?

I read them all.

Were you a Sherlock Holmes fan before you signed onto the movie, or did you pack in all that reading afterwards?

I honestly knew nothing about the character — just that he's a detective and that he's a weirdo. But there are all kinds of misconceptions about him. Many have said that he's a huge drug fiend, but it's clear reading the stories — he's not. It's just that none of those behaviors were considered strange or illegal at that time, so he partakes in drugs, but he doesn't abuse anything. He just overindulges in them when he's bored and when he's not bored he puts them down.

Why do you think Sherlock Holmes is such an enduring character?

Look at "Hill Street Blues" or "CSI" — there have been so many legacies that respond to Holmes's character. He can be a little cocksure and full of himself, but Holmes is also like that freaky roommate everybody has once in their life, that guy who is a math genius but could never pay his part of the rent. And at the same time, he has this dedication to doing the right thing to the exclusion of doing all other things. He sacrifices everything so he can become better at what he does. As a character actor, I found that trait endlessly compelling."

Understanding that this is Downey Jr.'s take on Holmes allows you to appreciate many of the little things he does for the character (and his attachment to/jealousy over Watson has to do with the fact that their friendship is one of the only human indulgements that he's allowed himself). Downey Jr.'s Holmes is therefore a little more vulnerable than most other film versions of the great detective. In fact, he's not just vulnerable, he's a mess - a mess out of which he has created the superpower of his analytical mind. Not many other films have explained the personal cost of Holmes' creation of his powers, but these films do.

Now, even though this film is receiving more positive reviews than negative reviews, I'm still getting the impression that the criticism that the film is receiving is turning people away from it. Don't let this happen to you. This sort of film is bound to get negativity of one sort or another, but that's not a reason to give up on it. In A Game of Shadows' defense, let's briefly go over the main points of abuse being leveled at the film. Why do so many critics dislike the film? Here's why -

#1 - Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. have turned Sherlock Holmes into an action hero.

(According to Matt Brunson, Peter Rainer, Peter Travers, Richard Roeper, Jim Judy, Mike Scott, Rick Groen, Peter Sobcynski, and etc.)

Answer: While this is the most popular criticism of the film, they've got it wrong. Conan Doyle is the one who made Holmes into a thinking man's action hero. The action is just fine as long as they combine it with intellect. Besides, I've never had a problem with Holmes applying his intellect to ridiculously elaborate and precisely timed action set pieces ever since seeing the manic depressive Basil of Baker Street as a child -



This criticism is fun-killing. Downey Jr.'s Holmes does exactly, in the train sequence, what Basil does here. It's quite fun, so don't let the whining about the action scenes stop you from seeing the film.

#2 - The film doesn’t follow the books.

(According to Jules Brenner, Ethan Alter, Mark Dujsik, Todd McCarthy and etc.)

Answer: I can only point out that Conan Doyle's The Final Problem does not "follow the books" either. It is not a traditional Holmes & Watson story and Doyle never intended for it to be. It's not set in London or at rooms of 221 B, instead it's on the international stage (thus, the inevitable and relentless comparisons to James Bond). A Game of Shadows follows the story of The Final Problem , therefore, criticizing it for not following the books is silly. While expanding on the journey Holmes and Watson take overseas, Guy Ritchie uses it to show the more vulnerable side of Holmes (something that, if you remember those little flashes of actual human emotion that would occasionally appear in Doyle's stories, like The Adventure of the Three Garridebs , DOES follow the books). If you are going to base a film on a short story, then you are going to have to elaborate. The important thing is getting the spirit of the story right, and Downey Jr. and Law get it right.

#3 - The film critics had no sense of humor and were thus frowning with deep disapproval every time Holmes or Watson would crack a joke.

(Dennis Schwartz, Matthew Razak, Kyle Smith, Mick LaSalle, Claudia Puig, Shaun Munro)

Answer: They ought not to be Scrooges this time of year. Holmes and Watson bickering like an old married couple is all part of the fun. They insult each other like old friends are supposed to. If you can't enjoy that, then ... I don't know, just go read your Ayn Rand or Franz Kafka. Actually, P.D. James would probably be more along your line of mystery story than Conan Doyle's. It is important to point out that A Game of Shadows , in spite of the occasional dark subject matter, is meant to be a light-hearted adventure romp. Holmes and Watson's tales have a smattering of philosophy in them, but, for the most part they are meant to be enjoyed. So, enjoy it.

#4 - The film critics’ humorlessness resulted in their taking every gay joke seriously.

(Tony Medley, Bruce DeMara, John Beifuss, Stephen Whitty)

Answer: Beifuss and Whitty especially take every tiny bit of innuendo completely and utterly seriously. This is completely oblivious to the facts that: (1) there have always been literary critics who have tried to explain, with Freudian obtuseness, how Doyle really meant for his stories to secretly be about a repressed homosexual relationship between Holmes & Watson, (2) when the news media kept asking Robert Downey Jr., before the first film, if they would finally explore this aspect of the story, he kept a straight face and gave them what they asked for saying, 'Yes, Holmes and Watson are gay,' and (3) in Guy Ritchie's films devoted to the criminal underworld, jokes with sexual undertones of every sort are commonplace. The solution to the whole question then, for these filmmakers, was simply to make fun of it. This way they can both tease us and follow Doyle's intention at the same time.

#5 - The film doesn’t help the viewer solve the mystery along with Holmes and/or the film is just too complicated.

(Mike McGranaghan, Rob Vaux, Rebecca Murray, Jeffrey M. Anderson, Connie Ogle, Dustin Putman, Andrew Lapin, A.O. Scott)

For example, Dan Lybarger writes that "it would have been preferable if we could have shared in Holmes’ ability to crack the case. Simply taking for granted that he’s a genius seems like a cheat. Mysteries are a lot more fun if viewers can solve the case with the detective." Thus, these are the reviewers who, most likely, have not actually read Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem. The traditional Sherlock Holmes mystery starts out with a client explaining his or her problem to Holmes and Watson in their rooms on Baker Street. As the reader, you get to hear every clue in the story that Sherlock hears. You then get to read Watson describe Holmes's investigation and deductions and try and guess the solution. But The Final Problem was famous for not being a traditional Holmes story. There isn’t much of a mystery to it. You already know who the villain is. The fun of it is watching Holmes as he is forced to deal with his evil intellectual equal. So, like #2, the fifth criticism of the film is also a criticism of Doyle's original story.

I agree with Mr. Lybarger's sentiment, but it's a modus operandi to be followed as a general rule (and not for the story that takes you to Reichenbach Falls).

Finally, the most interesting criticism of the film I've heard comes from my favorite writer on Sherlock Holmes films, Nathanael Booth. It's interesting because this is a film with a distinctly human Sherlock Holmes. And yet, I'm not arguing that it's perfect.

#6 - The film suffers from a lack of emotional committment

Booth writes -

"Perhaps it’s not a lack of heart, but a fear of commitment. Having established a light, fun, and engaging base in banter and companionship between Holmes and Watson, the screenwriters seem to be nervous about lingering too long on Holmes’ conflicted feelings about Watson’s marriage or about Irene Adler. And at the end, after a certain inevitable event occurs, the screenwriters are unable to leave well enough alone; ending the movie thirty seconds earlier, even, would make the movie far better than it winds up being. Perhaps I seem to overstate, but it really does rob the movie of what little emotional investment it’s earned. This cowardice is unfortunate; if it is compared to other comedy-adventures that have succeeded in raising the dramatic stakes without sacrificing either the comedy or the adventure (Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man’s Chest springs to mind), A Game of Shadows is a pale thing indeed."


Answer: If you think about it, no matter how much you humanize Sherlock Holmes, it wouldn't really be a Sherlock Holmes film if the filmmakers allowed themselves to explore Holmes's feelings to the extent that they could for a regular protagonist. The point is to only see momentary glimpses. The Holmes romance with Adler is famous for it's rarity. A Game of Shadows might have achieved further emotional depth with prolonged scenes on how devastating it was for him to lose Watson to a happy marriage, on the other hand, Downey Jr. ultimately makes more with less - and keeps Sherlock as Sherlock at the same time. The scenes where he does show emotion for others are more valuable for being rare.

The strength of the film is that they show the momentary glimpses to let you know what's below the calm and imperturbable surface.

Finally, could the ending have been better if it was thirty seconds shorter? Probably, but honestly, it really only matters for those who have not read Doyle's stories. Those of us who regularly read the stories already understand what is supposed to happen. There would be more power to the climax without taking from other stories, but doing so was probably inevitable. Besides, Doyle himself did not write The Final Problem to develop any emotional attachments in the reader. Anyone with an IQ over 50 should know, watching this, that this is a franchise promising further multiple films. There is enough surprise at the ending that adding humor to the last few seconds doesn't eliminate how fantastic the Reichenbach scene still really is.

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"Of course, I still have magical, unauthorial reading experiences, and in the hands of great writers, my thin skin of technical knowledge falls away and I am as exposed and loving a reader as I was as a little kid hoping Sherlock Holmes would kick Professor Moriarty off that cliff."
- Arthur Phillips
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Finally, in spite of all the negativity, remember - a majority of critics still highly enjoyed this one (including Roger Ebert, Owen Gleiberman, Chris Hewitt, Drew McWeeny, Peter Bradshaw, Andrew O’Hehir and Lyndsay Faye).

And this brings us to the question of why Sherlock Holmes, as a hero, has so much appeal. (See also Booth's excellent discussion on detective stories.)

No matter what happens, no matter how ugly the crime, no matter how evil or intimidating the villain, no matter how dangerously lethal the criminal mastermind, or how threatening or demonic the monster ... there is still a warmth and reliability to these stories.

A large part of the warmth resides in the brotherly friendship between Holmes and Watson. Part of it resides in the familiarity of the stolid and Victorian societal sense of honor and chivalry of that time. But that doesn't explain the whole of it. Part of the wonder of these stories is that Sherlock Holmes is a man who, because of what he believes about the world, is willing to stand up to anyone and anything that he believes to be evil.

Because of the laws of logical and mathematical deduction, Sherlock Holmes believes that there is no problem that cannot be solved, no challenge that cannot be accepted and no question that cannot be answered. It doesn't matter to him how many lies or how much falsehood is obscuring the truth. He still believes that there is always a truth to be found - and that it is findable.

He holds to this idea with a will of steel and it makes him look at the world around him with a hunger and an energy that the other nonthinking, asleep characters around him have no likelihood of sharing or understanding.

In fact, one could even say that the love of Sherlock Holmes is pursuing the truth especially when other unsavory elements or characters have attempted to hide it. There is nothing that excites him more than the game of applying the laws of logic to the powers of observation and forcing conclusions by irresistible and unrelentless process of elimination. A Game of Shadows is therefore an appropriate title for this film. Holmes and Moriarty are, in reality, playing a game that, because of their moral character, is setting them in direct and inevitable collision. Moriarty can use the laws of logic and apply the powers of observation too, and then twist them in order to accomplish his own schemes. Holmes becomes obsessed with Moriarty because he is twisting the laws Holmes uses and loves in order to accomplish what they were never meant to accomplish. Both are masters of the same sciences. Both are formidable in their realms of practice. And both find themselves headed towards the option that the intellect usually only uses as a last resort.

Moriarty has human depravity on his side (with all the natural sidekicks and minions who are willing to kill, hurt and destroy for money). Holmes has the common decent everyman as his ally, Watson, who would personally much prefer to spend time with his wife than he would battling against crazy criminal crackpots. But it's Watson's good-naturedness that makes him such a good ally for Holmes. Genial and good men only go to war reluctantly, but when they do, their single-mindedness focuses on how to eliminate the evil so that they can go back home. Watson's commitment to the basics of life - country, wife, family - is a necessary moderating influence on Holmes, who has given up most of the good things in life in order to be the analytical master that he is.
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Watson: "I think we should go home."
Holmes: "I concur. We're going home ... via Switzerland."
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All the bantering and the bickering between Holmes and Watson is that of two different sorts of men who believe in the same common good. For those of you who know your history, when you hear that Professor Moriarty intends to murder the Crown Prince of Austria in 1891, you also know what such an assassination would cause in the fragile diplomatic world of that time. World peace is often held together by the most fragile of diplomatic ties and balances. It doesn't take much to upset such balances, and it is a worthy and noble effort to attempt to protect them against those who want them destroyed.

Thus, Sherlock Holmes stories offer us a hero that is rare among adventure stories. There is not another character in Western literature who probably more fully represents the virtues of the Enlightenment. His faith in reason and in making sense out of all the tiny details that make up a crime scene (or a diplomatic human attempt to limit the evil that humanity is capable of) turn him into the legendary private consulting detective that he is. He is the foil to the destructiveness inherent in crime. He is the opponent to those who abuse the tools of the natural law in order to cause harm for their own benefit. He is the hero who is always willing to stand up against any threat or brutality. And this is what makes the character larger-than-life.

A Game of Shadows is a good and enjoyable film because it takes this famous, larger-than-life, hero and humanizes him ... just enough for us to glimpse that he's still a man with weaknesses not unlike our own. In spite of his problems, he's still the one willing to take on anything the worst of criminal masterminds can throw at him. Since charity for others always places the good guy at the disadvantage because the villain is not bound by any concern for collateral damage in the achievement of his diabolical ends, Holmes also accounts for this additional fact in his plans. He steps in to the rescue of Watson and Mary with a sangfroid that lends confidence and dignity even to the most ridiculous of disguises.

This is why Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr.'s Sherlock Holmes is more compelling, probably than the majority of Holmes portrayals on film, precisely because they keep the giant intellect of the character, but then explain the pain that he has to will himself to ignore in order to successfully achieve the necessary intellect capable of satisfying his intense love for hunting down the truth when it is hopelessly lost in the shadows.
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"He is the Napoleon of crime! Fortunately, you now have me as an ally. Perhaps you've heard of me."
- Sherlock
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