Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the second installment of director Guy Ritchie’s imagining of the Sherlock Holmes world. Again starring Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law and Rachel McAdams, this new film also introduces Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, and Jared Harris as the devious Moriarty.
A Game of Shadows finds our hero Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) meeting back up. While Holmes is busy stalking and/or protecting his love interest Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), he disrupts a bomb plot and uncovers clues about a larger plan at work by Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). But more than just a hit or a heist, Moriarty has much, much bigger schemes in mind. By getting involved, Holmes is putting himself, as well as Watson and his new fiance, at risk. But once he begins to unravel the global reach of Moriarty’s plan, he doesn’t have much choice but to enlist Watson’s help. Included in the troupe this time is a band of gypsies, led by Madame Simze Heron (Nooma Rapace) who must cooperate with Holmes in order to rescue a fellow countryman. Also starring is a stable of hi-def Phantom video cameras that capture almost every other scene as a slow-motion chase sequence.
You can’t escape some comparison of this movie to other Sherlock Holmes efforts (although I try to balance it out below). After all, it’s an adapted character and a borrowed world. Conan-Doyle’s books are the jumping off point, but so are earlier iterations featuring Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett. And then there’s the recent and excellent BBC series starting Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. So what is it about Ritchie’s version that sets it apart? Well, the obvious bits include all the no-holds-barred fighting. At some point, Sherlock must have decided that kung-fu was at least as important as statistics, because he has no problem calculating a boot up your ass. Sherlock’s deductive skills are still on display, but they’re no longer his primary thing, more of a sidearm to his shotgun. And so we find Holmes and Watson once again traipsing around Europe, flicking cigarettes and opening some slow-motion cans of whoop-ass. Is it absolutely silly and a large bit ridiculous? Oh yeah. Does it still look cool? Yeah, it really does. And the overdone action sequences would be fine if Sherlock’s mental judo was kept in top form. But it’s not. The story is clunky and crudely pasted together, relying much more on wild and almost laughable coincidences more than any real cunning on our protagonist’s part.
And now here’s where I try to play devil’s advocate. Although I have my preference between this version and the BBC series, it’s ultimately a bit of an unfair comparison. Yes, they’re both working with the same characters and bits of stories, but they seem to have very different goals. Ritchie appears to have a genuine understanding of and respect for the Holmes canon, but simply wants to take his lead character in more of an action direction. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, other than the fact that in a two-hour movie, the abundance of action sequences necessitates some of the storyline being truncated for time’s sake. And the “Holmesavision” is a rather clever visual punch he utilizes for demonstrating Sherlock’s methodical and finely-tuned thought process; something that the more meager BBC budget couldn’t match. Likewise, the BBC version – as the contemporary counterpart – has time on its side, with several more episodes to work with, attaining the advantage of a longer-breathed and more intricate character study. Its action is there, but some of it is also handled as almost manically clever dialogue.
A Game of Shadows may have lost the element of surprise that the first one delivered, with its new Holmes creation, but is still consistent with the series thus far. Ritchie has delivered a thrill-ride action adventure film that sets up his characters for more such adventures should the demand continue.
Say what you will about the story itself, but there is almost nothing to complain about when it comes to the a/v portion of this disc. For starters, the visuals are top notch. The look of the film is fairly consistent with the first installment – lots of blue hues and cool contrast, almost sepia in effect – which is to say impressive and rich. And the ample slow-motion scenes are clean and exciting; which is good, since they become, perhaps unfortunately, the point of the movie at times. About the only fault to find with the film is in its use of sometimes loose green screen backgrounds. To compensate, the film lets some of these backgrounds go soft, including during some of the slo-mo. They’re done stylishly, but especially after you see some of the specific enhanced examples, they stick out against an otherwise very sharp and beautiful print.
For the audio, I’ll make this easy: This Blu-ray simply sounds fantastic. Not only is the entire surround field called into action at almost all times, but it’s done in a way that’s much more rich than it is just “loud”. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is nothing short of engrossing. The plentious action sequences will have you on the edge of your seat (and occasionally your remote), while the more dialogue-driven scenes will still tease with excellently spaced ambient noise and background textures. And the real icing is composer Hans Zimmer’s excellent and playful score, which receives ample and deserved space within the mix. It’s obvious that the producers spent a lot of time fine-tuning the look of the film, but fortunately they spent just as much time finessing the audio track.
The main supplemental item on the disc is an expansive, and occasionally illuminating “Maximum Movie Mode.” Hosted by Robert Downey Jr., this viewing option is like a hosted version of a picture-in-picture track. And while impressive on a technical level, some of the actual content feels scraped from the floor. Downey spends most of his time trying to play for yucks – as if he’s only there out of contractual obligation – and the bits of extra content otherwise presented are cool from a disc mastering perspective more than a enhanced substitute for, say, a real commentary track.
However, some of the more substantive video featurettes from the Maximum Movie Mode are available individually in the “Focus Points” section. These seven mini-features offer the most standard, but also the most interesting, bits about the production, casting of characters and goals for this film as a sequel. Included items are: “Holmesavision On Steriods” (HD, 4:02), “Moriarty’s Master Plan Unleashed” (HD, 7:09), “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: A Perfect Chemistry” (HD, 5:18), “Meet Mycroft Holmes” (HD, 5:30), “Sherlock Holmes: Under the Gypsy Spell” (HD, 4:02), “Guy Ritchie’s Well-Oiled Machine” (HD, 3:04), “Holmes Without Borders” (HD, 5:51).
For those with an iPad, there is also a movie app available that syncs with a network-enabled Blu-ray player. The app offers still more interviews, photo galleries and conceptual sketches, as well as controling your Blu-ray player to show selected scenes relevant to the part of the app you are navigating. (You can also use the app without syncing it to your player, where you mainly miss just the relevant movie excerpts).
Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows is certainly a fun ride. It’s an action-packed installment that’s every bit as exciting as the original, if a bit less steampunk in design. But make no mistake, this is first and foremost a Guy Ritchie action adventure, much more than it is a traditional Sherlock Holmes mystery. After the excellent modern BBC reboot of the Holmes world, it’s hard not to feel as if Ritchie’s version is “Jackie Chan presents Sherlock Holmes”, with an emphasis on action over substantive (or sometimes even sensical) story. But it’s still a very well-done action film on a technical level, and fans of the first entry will find more of the same to enjoy here.