Re-Watching: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

As I thought watching the first one, this sequel is a better movie in all respects: a better villain, with a better plot, and with better companions for Watson and Holmes.

In particular, I think this movie handles Holmes’ sacrifice at the Falls perfectly. Using Holmes’ calculated-combat trick here is sheer mastery: we get a physical climax which is reflective of the combatant’s mental sparring — especially when Moriarty gets into the act — and we still get the proper climax of Holmes throwing himself off the falls, legs wrapped around Moriarty, sacrificing himself for the greater good. The fact that we haven’t seen Holmes’ calculated combat since the start of the movie lends this scene extra weight; we’ve been waiting for them to repeat the gimmick from the first movie, so this is a payoff on multiple levels.

Altogether I think Jared Harris makes a brilliant Moriarty, easily my favorite on film, and second only to the portrayal of Moriarty in tv’s Elementary. He’s threatening and clever and cultured, all at once, with a calm exterior that belies a rage bubbling up underneath. He’s not surrounded by stupid minions that have to be cursed every five minutes, he’s surrounded himself with other master criminals, all working to implement his well-thought-out schemes. I don’t think he raises his voice once in the movie, and yet everything he says feels like the important words of a powerful man.

As for the other rough edges from the first movie — the extended action sequences and Irene Adler — those have been polished out.

Adler’s death early on removes a weak actor while lending Holmes’ character more depth and giving him — and therefore us — a personal stake in what had been, till then, a very abstract criminal plot.

The extended mass fight pieces have been entirely cut. We get one acrobatic sequence with Holmes, Madam Simza, and the Cossack, and then the flight sequence where everyone is fleeing the factory. But neither of these degenerate into the general face-punch-kick-ouch-hold-turn-kick tedium from the first movie. The flight sequence in particular is a fantastic use of slow-down effects and running the actors at a different speed from their surroundings to give us a good sense of what’s happening and convey some of the otherwordliness of being on the receiving end of an artillery barrage in that era.

Re-watching: Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Recently re-watched Sherlock Holmes, the first of the two Guy Ritchie movies with Robert Downey, Jr as the famous fictional detective. I’ve seen both movies multiple times, but on this re-watch several things struck me that I hadn’t noticed before:

  • Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler is the weakest part of the movie. Her acting doesn’t hold up very well – especially compared to the actress who played Irene Adler for the recent Sherlock TV series – but within the film itself she seems stiff and dull compared to the performers around her. I came away with a greater feel for Mary – Watson’s fiancĂ©e – as a character than Adler, which is perhaps why McAdams was dropped so early in the sequel, while Kelly Reilly’s Mary got a larger role.
  • The villain is entirely wrong. He was cast incorrectly, coming off as cartoonish and silly rather than threatening. The whole occult mis-drection angle is outside the mood of a Sherlock mystery, and clashes with the otherwise steampunk-lite industrial trappings of the movie. It’s a constant distraction to be rolling my eyes every time the villain shows up and starts mumbling about hexes and spells.
  • The action sequences where we see Holmes calculate each move in advance are still amazing. They make what would be standard – and therefore boring – fight sequences interesting again, giving us insight into how much calculation Holmes puts into every part of his life, and completely justifying the film’s emphasis on more physical roles for both Holmes and Watson.
  • In comparison, the extended action scenes toward the end of the movie – shots fired, martial arts employed, multiple fights going on at once – just seem busy, and not that interesting. They don’t have any of the comedy or setting interest that the first fight sequence between Holmes and Dredger has, nor do they use the Holmes-fight-calculation technique that made the other fights interesting to watch (would it have been so bad to show Adler or Watson trying to do the same fight planning during this sequence?).

Overall, still a good movie, and an interesting take on the Holmesian mythos, but with some glaring flaws. As I recall it, the second movie fixed these mistakes and kept what worked from the first film, making it the better movie. I’ll have to re-watch it soon to check if that still holds true.