Long Take: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Is Not Worth Playing

Viewed June 25, 2012

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest literary creation, the private detective Sherlock Holmes, is everywhere these days. If he’s not appearing in the over-hyped BBC series Sherlock (2010-present) as a fast-talking, tech-savvy eccentric with a Dr. Watson who’s a PTSD-afflicted veteran of the war in Afghanistan, then he’s gearing up for a fall CBS show, Elementary (from 2012), where his sidekick will be a woman. Coincidentally, the star of the former program is Benedict Cumberbatch, who co-starred last year in director Danny Boyle’s innovative stage-play Frankenstein for the National Theatre with Elementary‘s lead Jonny Lee Miller. But Warner Bros. has pumped the most money, special effects, and star power into their Sherlock Holmes-as-action-hero franchise, and the sequel to the 2009 revisionist adaptation, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie, 2011), is boring and tedious. As always, spoilers follow.

Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as Holmes and Watson, respectively, in order to foil the criminal mastermind James Moriarty’s (Jared Harris) plot to instigate and manipulate a world war through the purchase and control of several industries, including the manufacture of machine guns. Downey and Law have a lot of chemistry, because after all it is a bromance. To my mind, the homo-eroticism is more pronounced in A Game of Shadows than in the first film, what with Holmes, disguised as a woman, surreptitiously joining Watson on his honeymoon with the long-suffering Mary (Kelly Reilly). (You’ve seen this sight gag in the trailer.) Of course, Holmes cites Moriarty’s vow to kill Mary and the only person Holmes cares about for the reason that he just had to crash the couple’s much needed alone-time. That, and stopping Moriarty from succeeding in carrying out his plan is simply more important. Holmes perfectly times the moment he pushes Mary off the train so that she lands in the river below the bridge, where his brother Mycroft Holmes (Stephen Fry), making his first appearance in the series, can safely retrieve her. Talk about bride flight.

There is no room in this (b)romance for Mary, but at least Ritchie and his married screenwriters Kiernan and Michele Mulroney write this subtext into Holmes’s and Watson’s dialogue. Watson eventually accepts Holmes’s melodramatic gestures, once he realizes that his and Mary’s assassins are on the train, blowing holes through the walls in pursuit of their prey. Crucially, however, he expels pent-up rage at his best friend, who clasps Watson’s head between his thighs. Remember, Holmes is wearing a dress. Ordinarily I would shriek with delight at this juxtaposition, but the nudge-nudging here is bruising.

On closer inspection, you can see that women just have no place in this world. Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), Holmes’s iconic love interest and intellectual sparring partner, resurfaces after her disappearance in the first film, only to fall victim to her employer’s schemes within the first ten minutes or so. (I forgot about that; I guess Moriarty wants to get rid of two people Holmes cares about.) It may be a byproduct of McAdams having so little time on screen, but she and Downey have nowhere near as sparkling a chemistry as Downey and Law do. And that is the point. Other than Mary, the only other Englishwoman to grace us with her presence is Holmes’s daft landlady Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James), who has a brief stint at 221B Baker Street before the real action begins. The scene in which the dandy Mycroft, who is someone indispensable to the British government but without a clearly defined role within it, walks around his house buck-naked, ordering his decrepit butler around and informing Mary of her husband’s whereabouts (received via telegram) despite her discomfort with his nudity, makes it very clear that the boys have a lot more fun without any girls around.

Even Holmes and Watson’s new partner in crime (fighting), the gypsy fortune teller Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace in her first English-language role), hardly gets any play. From the moment of her introduction (Holmes winds up saving her from an assassination attempt before she goes underground in France, where he and Watson later track her down), her part is marginalized. Though she treks all the way to Switzerland with the pair for the climactic event, you barely know she’s there. The guys ostensibly keep her around because she will lead them to her brother, Rene, a member of a revolutionary group that she was once a part of and which Moriarty now controls. Madam Simza coaches them on how to dress less conspicuously as they cross national borders, assists Watson in literally bringing Holmes back to life after Moriarty captured and hung him up by a hook in his shoulder, and identifies Rene at the international summit in Switzerland despite his extreme cosmetic surgery. (I didn’t tell you that this movie is ridiculous?) Since she spends most of her time with Watson, she cannot be a romantic interest for either of the men. While this is refreshing (for once, a woman doesn’t exist in a “manly” action film for the sole purpose of affirming the hero’s masculinity), I’m afraid the screenwriters Mulroney just don’t know what to do with her. Hell, even after the smoke has cleared in the end, there is no follow-up with Madam Simza.

Back in 2009, Sherlock Holmes was billed as an inventive rehashing of a familiar story. For in it, Holmes is literally a man of action, not some aloof intellectual. He’s “edgy,” participating in bare-knuckle fights. It was during this film that audiences first witnessed “Holmesavision,” his deconstruction of hand-to-hand combat, narrated in voice-over so as to grant viewers access to his mind, to his ingenious plans for how to tackle each of his opponents (“Holmesavision” is actually the name of a featurette on the sequel’s DVD about this very storytelling device). Unfortunately, I cannot share in the filmmakers’ enthusiasm for this kind of indulgence. It is tedious and boring how we’re made privy to his particular, slowed-down way of seeing the physical threat before him and then subjected to watching him carry it out in real time. In later scenes, such as when Holmes, Watson, and Madam Simza are running through the forest with Moriarty’s henchman hot on their tail and blazing bullets, the action slows again. Why are people constantly trying to adapt The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999)? Doesn’t it strike anyone else as passe?

Admittedly, I am biased against action movies. This is why I find the narrative emphasis on Holmes’s fighting ability, at the expense of showcasing his intellectual prowess and highly evolved deductive reasoning skills, so disheartening. As much as I find Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat’s Sherlock grating, pompous, and too slick for its own good, I can concede that at least the show’s makers get Holmes’s astounding puzzle-solving skills right; his “Holmesavision” zeros in on the teeny tiny details others can’t see because they don’t know where to look. His view of the world is grounded in logic, or at least the logic of his own universe. Thus, when in the end of A Game of Shadows, Holmes defeats Moriarty in Switzerland over a game of chess and reveals how he uncovered his arch-nemesis’s plan to destroy the world, at the same time explaining all to the audience, the fun of watching a brilliant mind at work is already spent. Quite literally. He connected all the dots beforehand, never even letting on to his companions that he has already figured everything out and planned ahead, sending word to Mary in London in order to ensure the public discredits the mild-mannered and secretly evil Professor Moriarty. Well, gee, Mr. Holmes, I’m sure glad you brought me along for this crazy ride. This makes Holmes no different from the hero of other it’s-the-end-of-a-major-plot-to-destroy-the-world movies and almost diametrically opposed to the Holmes that has fascinated us so for 125 years. I’m all for reinvention, but this tactic is just uninspired.

Although the story of A Game of Shadows itself is original, I believe, the ending–in which Holmes and Moriarty fall to their death at the Reichenbach Falls, conveniently located across from Moriarty’s balcony–is drawn from Conan Doyle’s 1891 attempt to kill off his hero. According to Wikipedia, the fans weren’t having it, and so the author was goaded into bringing back Sherlock in a series of prequels. The point is, this is how Holmes dies. Like Sherlock‘s final episode of the second season, titled “The Reichenbach Fall,” in which Watson also witnesses his BFF’s death (Moriarty kills himself instead), Holmes later appears in a cliffhanger. Whereas in Sherlock, he watches from afar as Watson grieves over his grave, in A Game of Shadows, he disguises himself as an armchair in Watson’s study, right before his eyes if only Watson knew to look. Warner Bros. preemptively assumes that audiences want more of this Holmes character, and the studio would do well enough to leave him alone. Trompe-l’œil, indeed.

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