*½/**** Image C+ Sound A+ Extras B
starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Rachel McAdams
screenplay by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney
directed by Guy Ritchie
by Angelo Muredda On my way out of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, I overheard a woman telling her friend that it was "the sort of thing you have to see a second time." Presumably she meant the intricate scheme by which "Napoleon of Crime" Moriarty (Jared Harris, suitably menacing) seeks to deliver Europe into an early Great War, a mystery so trite that its solution hinges on whether Holmes (Robert Downey Jr., inching dangerously towards Johnny Depp levels of hackdom) can get a hold of his nemesis's pocketbook. But showing us everything for a second time is very much Ritchie's M.O. There are about twenty minutes of movie in A Game of Shadows, all told: the rest is instant replay, a shameless parade of alternate angles and slow-motion recaps of bullets firing out of barrels or getting jammed in the process. It's as if in lieu of the finished product, Ritchie submitted home footage of his own work in the editing suite, dazzled by Final Cut Pro's array of grey filters and motion blurs.
Ritchie deserts the first film's high concept of de-sanitizing Arthur Conan Doyle's eponymous hero by emphasizing his facial scruff and prowess as a boxer and dramatizing his unsavoury depression. Downey's Holmes is less manic here, more high-functioning, bothered only by the impending marriage of (questionably) hetero lifemate Watson (Jude Law)--at least until Moriarty threatens to derail the stag party. The series of events that ensue are loosely cribbed from "The Final Problem," insofar as there's some combination of Moriarty and a waterfall, but this is mostly a rudderless and inexplicably violent tear through the trains, bawdy houses, and forests of various European locales. The mildly amiable companions along for the ride this time are Sim (Noomi Rapace), a Gypsy fortune teller who suspects her brother Rene (Laurence Possa) might be involved in the mysterious suicide of the Crown Prince of Austria, and Holmes's own brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), who definitively doesn't wear bathrobes.
Serving last time as the drapery behind Downey's outsized star-mugging, the production values are now the franchise's sole raisons d'être. The film is immaculately art-directed, crammed with enough late-Victorian knickknacks to whet the appetite of any steampunk fetishist. Returning DP Philippe Rousselot thankfully brightens things up so we can clearly make out these doodads, trading the murkiness of the first chapter for a sharper palette that better suits the velvet upholstery that follows Holmes everywhere he goes as much as composer Hans Zimmer's Morricone-inflected leitmotif. What does it matter, though, when Holmes is nothing but a bauble himself? So light is Downey's characterization of this supposed genius that there's nothing to grasp onto. Moreover, the film is so poorly plotted by co-screenwriters Kieran and Michele Montgomery that we careen from set-piece to set-piece with nothing to orient us but the vaguest threat of the impending First World War--which, the intrepid viewer might deduce, is going to happen regardless of whether Holmes makes nice with a band of gypsies.
What's worse, Ritchie obviously has no affinity for this material, and even less respect for the genre; he aggressively flattens the revelatory moments for which mystery fans salivate. As Paul Auster's New York Trilogy nicely illustrated, detective stories are always allegories for reading: we admire detectives' interpretive skills and flatter ourselves into thinking we've come along with them at every step. Ritchie, though, seems to hate readers. As before, Holmes's powers of inference--deduction seems not to be his bag--are rendered through incoherent montages that use wonky colour-grading to single out objects he's noticed, so that he might offer a brilliant account of whether someone is about to give him a left or right hook. "What do you see?" Sim asks him at one point, and he replies, "Everything. That is my curse." It's ours, too: Ritchie has saddled us not with a mystery but with a bloated action movie--not with a detective but with an undiagnosed ADD sufferer prone to fistfights. To call it elementary would be generous.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers After an unusually lengthy post-theatrical release window, Warner brings Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows to Blu-ray in a frankly disappointing 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. Soft-focused with mushy shadow detail (check out an early, bizarrely featureless silhouette of Moriarty that makes the viewer feel faceblind), the image suggests the film was photographed digitally, but aside from super-slo-mo shots captured with the vaunted "Phantom" camera, the picture was shot in Super35. (By the great Philippe Rousselot, no less, returning from the first film.) A rather severe colour grading--the palette has been reduced to two-tone Technicolor, if that--simply doesn't translate to the small screen, as exemplified by a maddeningly blotchy and desaturated aerial view of the German forest (above left--click to expand). Throughout, noise is more prevalent than grain, again a surprise and a disappointment given the movie's celluloid origins. I will say that the opening and closing titles, replete with faux-quill-on-parchment script, look splendid, and the attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is comparatively irreproachable--even though the mix itself has all the restraint of a six-year-old with a cap gun. The sequel literally opens with a bang that will, like most subsequent scenes, test the limits of your subwoofer. Shrapnel and wood splinters slingshot around the soundstage while dialogue continually, admirably distinguishes itself from the fray. Hans Zimmer's banjo-laden score sounds so crisp that it only brings the shortcomings of the video presentation into sharper relief.
With predictable flippancy that's bracing in this context, Robert Downey Jr. hosts the requisite "Maximum Movie Mode," though he appears for maybe fifteen minutes in total, with B-roll and talking-heads captured on set (a disappointingly vapid Rachel McAdams pops up to discuss her death scene, for instance) occasionally filling in the gaps between his segments in PiP windows. A running gag finds Downey assuming that we at home must be sick with the flu to have gotten this far into the disc, and throughout he teases the future of the "franchise" with a mixture of optimism and cynicism, but there's hardly a tongue in cheek when he asks, rhetorically, whether it was a good idea to "turn the film into Blazing Saddles" with an overplayed sight gag of Holmes riding a pony, or whether it makes sense that Holmes could hang from a hook through his shoulder for fifteen minutes without his collarbone being ripped out of his body. No doubt about it, he has a healthy ego, all but taking credit for writing the script, yet when he laments that Noomi Rapace didn't get to do more in the film, he could scarcely sound like a more conscientious collaborator.
Joining this HiDef feature are seven self-explanatory HD "Focus Points"-- "Holmesavision on Steroids" (4 mins.), "Moriarty's Master Plan Unleashed" (7 mins.), "Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Perfect Chemistry" (5 mins.), "Meet Mycroft Holmes" (5 mins.), "Sherlock Holmes: Under the Gypsy Spell" (4 mins.), "Guy Ritchie's Well-Oiled Machine" (3 mins.), and "Holmes Without Borders" (6 mins.)--plus Warner's version of Disney's "Second Screen" app, which synchs with mobile devices to provide access to relevant ephemera while the movie's playing. With regards to the former, I loved all the goofy footage of Downey Jr. fighting in slow-motion, like a kid playing Six Million Dollar Man on the playground, and wife Susan Downey is a sight for sore eyes as always. We meet the film's chess supervisor (Adam Raoof, from the "English Chess Federation"), discover that director Guy Ritchie should not be seated in a spinny chair for interviews, and see actors bathed in a rich, sulphuric green light levelled out in post; Wim Wenders would not approve. Indeed, the backdrops and costumes are filled with vibrant, delectable hues, but non-sickly colour is verboten in 21st-century cinema.
A promo for the Blu-ray 3D format cues up on startup. Meanwhile, a combination DVD/Digital Copy comes packaged with the platter.