A Stupid(ly Entertaining) Case
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
The 2009 Sherlock Holmes was not a good film. Stylish and slick, to be sure, the movie lost a lot of the magic of what made Sherlock Holmes so compelling: the crimes, and cases, and the mystery. All of that was swapped out for a loud and brash film that made Sherlock into a superhero, which makes sense when Robert "Iron ManBillionare Tony Stark has a secret: while he travels the world by day as a playboy philanthropist and head of Stark Industries, he combats the evils of the world as the armored Iron Man." Downey, Jr. is playing the lead character. Superheros are big business so, naturally, turning the world's greatest detective into a superhero made sense. Maybe not logical sense for the character but it certainly did boffo business at the Box Office, prompting immediate thoughts of a sequel.
That sequel arrived a two short years later, in 2011, and it certainly continued the progression of the first film. Audiences liked the first movie so the producers went about doubling down on everything that made that film unique, ditching more and more of the thoughtful detective aspects of the character to remake him fully into a superhero. It's a big, dumb movie and not at all what you'd expect from a Sherlock Holmes adaptation. That said, going back and watching this film again I had to admit that it was a gloriously cheesy, incredible stupid, absolutely fun adventure. It's probably the worst Sherlock Holmes film but it's a really delightful comedy along the lines of Dude, Where's My Car?. Something tells me, though, that wasn't what everyone involved was going for.
The film picks up sometimes after the events of the first movie, with Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) still doing deeds for her mysterious employer, Moriarty (Jared Harris), while Sherlock (Downey, Jr.) does all he can to thwart those plans. After yet another somewhat ruined scheme, Moriarty decides that Irene has become more liability than asset and has her killed, which makes Sherlock realize that they cold war between the two of them, consulting detective and consulting criminal mastermind, has suddenly become quite a hot war indeed.
When Watson (Jude Law) and his new wife, Mary (Kelly Reilly), head off on their honeymoon, Sherlock sneakily tags along, a wise move as Moriarty's men almost immediate try to kill the two lovebirds. This sends Sherlock and Watson on a jaunt around Europe, looking to figure out the evil professor's schemes and stop the criminal mastermind from realizing his vision. And it's quite the vision indeed, including arms, assassinations, and maybe even the start of a true world war. Only one man (well, a consulting duo) could possibly stop this mad man.
When viewed as just a fun, sloppy, superhero buddy adventure, it's hard to deny that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has its charms. This is a wild and imaginative romp that spins our heroes through various set-pieces loaded with action. There are laughs aplenty, and many a good time to be had even if, frankly, the film gets pretty stupid at times. Any time the movie can use Sherlock for a joke instead of relying on his not inconsiderable skills it will do so, and while that makes for quite an amusing series of scenes it doesn't feel remotely like a real Sherlock adventure.
There's nothing wrong with low-brow fare, and A Game of Shadows certainly makes the most of the conventions it plays within. The characters do let themselves get led down one silly path after another, having the adventure guide them instead of Sherlock guiding the adventure (like you'd expect). Oh, for sure, Downey, Jr. has his moments where he gets to tap into the pathos of the detective, letting some of his brilliance, and darkness, show through. More often, though, the film seems content as using his sillier abilities -- his fighting, his clever use of costumes and disguises -- so it can get a smirk, even a laugh, from, the audience. And it works a lot of the time.
This is aided, in no small part, by Guy Ritchie's direction. Having come up on films like Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, the director has a certain eye for action, comedy, and adventure. Where the first film it felt like Ritchie was trying to mold himself (however poorly) around the character of Sherlock and his mythos, here the director just lets loose, crafting his own kind of adventure that just so happens to slot Sherlock and Watson into the heroic roles of the film. It's a very Ritchie kind of film, and it certainly works better than the first movie in that regard as that film strained at the forces pulling it in multiple directions.
All that said, if what you're looking for is a proper Sherlock Holmes film then you;'re looking in the wrong place. While there is something of a case to be solved, it's minor at best and the mystery of it never really arises. Everything the detectives need to know comes just a scene or so before it's put to use, time and again, with none of the clever build up of clues, nor the puzzle solving, you'd expect from the lead character's adventures. This is a very basic adventure with a lot of action and carnage but none of the cerebral aspects of Sherlock Holmes.
Maybe that's okay, though, as there were two other adaptations already in the works by the time this second film came to theaters, each with their own focus on cases and mysteries: Sherlock and Elementary. With those two covering the "case of the week" nature of the character this film could tread a different path, finding a way to differentiate itself from the bog-standard Sherlock fare. It does that, quite well in fact, but I could see fans of the character being turned off by this film. I was the first time I watched it.
But then I guess that's the benefit of going back to a film with lowered expectations: you can see what works about the movie and learn to enjoy it in its own right. This isn't a smart film, and it's frankly not even a good movie -- at times it's brass, over the top, silly, and quite often doesn't make a lick of sense -- but it does have a way of getting you caught up in the moment, letting you enjoy its simple pleasures while it continues romping around. It's like a big, dumb dog just happily rolling around, doing it's thing, while you sit and watch.
In the end, then, I did find myself enjoying Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows despite myself. It think it's better than the first film (for a certain definition of "better") but in a way the two films are of-a-piece. If you want a proper Sherlock Holmes adaptation you absolutely need to look elsewhere. For a fun, silly movie with a lot of explosions and a fair bit of humor, though, you could do much worse than this very silly sequel.