Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Popular literature that gets turned into movies often disappoints the people who read the books.  The biggest complaint I’ve heard about the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” films is that much of what was in the books never made it to the screen.  Others complain how events in, for instance, book two happen in movie three.  Those who convert books into movies have difficult choices to make about what should survive the translation from page to screen.  A truly faithful adaption of any of the “Harry Potter” books would produce a movie that is 12 hours long.  No matter how much you love the boy wizard, you’re not going to sit through a movie that length.  Despite the complaints, most of the time the essence of what people love about a literary character makes it from the written word to the silver screen; however, that isn’t always the case.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Master Detective gets his second modern cinematic appearance in Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows” and fans of the resident of 221B Baker Street will be appalled again. 
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) has become obsessed with a series of bombings and other crimes bringing Europe to the brink of war that he believes are being orchestrated by one man:  Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris).  Complicating matters is the upcoming nuptials of Holmes’ trusted friend and ally Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) to the beautiful Mary (Kelly Reilly).  Holmes intercepts a message from Moriarty being delivered by his occasional flame/adversary Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) to a gypsy fortune teller named Madam Simza (Noomi Rapace).  The message is a farewell note from Simza’s brother who is somehow involved with Professor Moriarty’s plot.  A stag party for Watson at a private club is merely Holmes’ excuse to deliver the message to Simza and enlist her help in stopping the plot.  Holmes saves her from an assassination attempt (as Moriarty always ties up any loose ends) but in the aftermath she runs away.  A bombing in Paris further heightens tensions, but Holmes discovers the explosion is merely a cover for the assassination of a munitions manufacturer whose company is now owned by Moriarty, just one of many business acquisitions he’s recently made.  Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) is a diplomat with the British government and will soon be attending a peace conference in Switzerland in an effort to reduce hostilities.  Sherlock Holmes is convinced Moriarty will strike at the conference plunging Europe into a devastating war that will make the professor rich and powerful.
I am of two minds about “Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows.”  First and foremost, the movie is Blockbuster Entertainment (I’d turn those words into a flashing chorus line of high kicking dancers that explode into sparks as an animated gif if I knew how).  The movie uses the usual tactics of a modern action picture; from super high speed camera images to pounding music to intricately choreographed fight scenes to elaborate special effects.  The high energy story jumps from one exotic locale to the next before winding up at a Swiss castle cut into the side of a mountain with a massive waterfall pouring from beneath it.  Characters are shot at, tortured, die, are revived, dance, fight, fight some more, etc.  It all comes together into a very exciting picture, expertly assembled by teams of technicians from around the world.  The credits on the film are massive, approaching the numbers of people needed to create a Pixar or Dreamworks animation feature.  Downey, Law, Rapace and Harris all deliver excellent performances when they aren’t running or fighting or performing some other stunt.  Downey and Law seem to have a very natural and friendly chemistry that makes them a great duo.  They bicker and jostle and tease each other so easily one can accept these two characters have been friends for years.  All the parts are in place for a nearly perfect holiday action movie.  Then why am I so put off by this incarnation of the Master Detective?
The simple answer is I’m inflexible.  As a fan of the stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and of their adaptions on British TV in the 1980’s and 1990’s starring Jeremy Brett, my view of Holmes is of a quiet, thoughtful, intense man who values intellect over muscle.  The movie Holmes is proud of his intellect by doesn’t mind throwing a punch.  I see Holmes as a man who sits quietly contemplating the mystery at hand and going to the scene of the crime only to pick up on clues Inspector Lestrade and his officers missed.  The movie Holmes is constantly surrounded by noise, constantly drinking, yet still managing to find the clues the police overlooked.  Holmes would never regularly carry a gun unless he deduced he would need one.  The movie Holmes is constantly packing heat.  The excitement in a Holmes story isn’t how many explosions will occur or what the body count will be, it’s how Sherlock Holmes will notice the tiniest detail and add it to all the other seemingly insignificant bits of fact he’s accumulated to discover who the killer is or what the real point of the theft was or where the kidnapped diplomat is being held.  The movie Holmes is the antithesis of what I have in mind as Sherlock Holmes.  While the film does a good job of turning seemingly insignificant events into pivotal plot points, it also falls into the trap of its own cleverness.  If one aspect of one event didn’t play out perfectly, then Holmes would fail miserably and Moriarty would take over the world.  Everything working out Holmes way doesn’t seem very likely.  Another unlikely aspect of the film is a scene where Watson uses a large piece of artillery at a weapons plant to blow up a tower used by a sniper.  Perhaps I’m over thinking this point, but if you are building both artillery and the shells they fire, wouldn’t you store them very far apart?  It seems likely a spy from another country or a rival weapons maker would sneak in and destroy your operation if you kept the shells and the gun near each other.  It’s a minor quibble but for some reason it really struck me as silly.
“Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material.  There are numerous fist fights and several slow motion scenes of faces distorted by a punch.  Holmes is hauled up on a rope by a meat hook jammed in his shoulder.  Holmes is shown drinking embalming fluid and we are told by a secondary character that he chews coca leaves.
“Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows” is a fast-paced, action-filled thrill ride of a movie.  It rarely slows down long enough to let the audience catch its breath.  It is often humorous and is occasionally sweet.  What it is not, by any definition, is a true Sherlock Holmes mystery.  While I wish people would sit still and watch a true and faithful interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s genius detective, I also realize the average moviegoer has the attention span of a hyperactive goldfish.  I can always stream the British series on Netflix.
“Sherlock Holmes:  A Game of Shadows” gets five guitars.  But it still isn’t a Sherlock Holmes mystery.
The Christmas holiday means the release schedule for movies is somewhat scattered.  This will also be the last weekend of the year where new films will get wide releases.  The holiday will also affect the posting of my reviews so bear with me.  I’ll get something posted as close to schedule as possible.  Here are all the new films opening wide through Christmas Day.
The Adventures of Tintin—Director Steven Spielberg adapts the classic comic book about an intrepid young reporter, his dog and a world of high adventure.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—A journalist and a brilliant hacker get tangled up in a dangerous mystery when they delve into the history of a powerful family.
Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol—Tom Cruise is back in action as IMF operative Ethan Hunt, who must clear his agency's name and prevent a terrorist attack.
We Bought a Zoo—Matt Damon stars as a recently-widowed father who moves his family to a beautiful estate that happens to be a dilapidated zoo.
The Darkest Hour—Five young people find themselves stranded in Moscow, fighting to survive in the wake of a devastating alien attack.
War Horse—Steven Spielberg directs a tale of friendship between a boy and a horse whose fates intertwine over the course of World War I.
Young Adult—A writer of teen literature returns to her small hometown to relive her glory days and attempt to reclaim her happily married high school sweetheart.
No Stan’s Choice this week as there is plenty of variety to choose from.
Release dates are subject to change and not films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.
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