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ReThink Review - Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Posted: 12/16/11 09:22 AM ET

As movies have become more expensive to make and market, big studios have become more risk averse, which is why more and more films are remakes, sequels, or are based on popular previous works. The thinking is that fans of the original work may see a film based on nostalgia and curiosity, and that potential viewers are more likely to see a movie if they are already familiar with the characters and know what to expect. However, there are also dangers, since making significant changes to beloved characters or stories can draw the ire of critics and devoted fans, and there are also risks in being too faithful to source material that was created for a different era with different sensibilities.

Director Guy Ritchie's take on Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous detective, attempts to have it both ways by emphasizing Holmes' many eccentricities, which are probably only known to those who read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original Sherlock Holmes stories. Yet it does it in a way that turns the cerebral Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) into a comedic action hero, with his partner, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), as the beleaguered straight man.

The franchise's second film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, opens with friction in the sleuthing odd couple as Watson prepares to get married and leave the detective business as Holmes attempts to crack his biggest case ever, which has something to do with a string of bombings, tensions between European nations, and professor/criminal mastermind James Moriarty (Jared Harris), the man who would emerge as Holmes' arch nemesis in later derivative works. Naturally, Watson agrees to one last case, and he and Holmes are soon bouncing across Europe, accompanied by a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace) whose search for her missing brother somehow holds the key to Moriarty's nefarious plot. Watch the trailer for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows below.

In Doyle's books, Holmes is described as an eccentric genius, a gifted fighter and a master of disguise who's sometimes prone to bouts of melancholy. In Richie's version, Holmes' powers of deduction and memory for details are attributed to a mental disorder Holmes describes as "his curse", which turns him into a near superhero when combined with his fighting skills, while his penchant for costumes makes him somewhat of a prankster. While this almost certainly isn't what Doyle had intended, it's a refreshing take on the character (especially with a talented actor like Downey), and some of the film's more interesting moments are when we are able to experience how Holmes' mind works while fighting or deducing. Law's portrayal of Watson as a competent former military man is more consistent with Doyle's Watson (despite the newly added bickering), and it's nice to see how Holmes and Watson are real partners whose contrasting strengths are necessary to take down Moriarty.

My problem with A Game of Shadows isn't the characters and actors in front of the camera, but with the man behind it. That's because Guy Ritchie is simply not a good director -- and arguably never has been. The pacing and dialogue are often too fast and the plot is jumbled and ultimately a bit silly, requiring long explanations that can be hard to follow. Some of the most interesting scenes are the quiet ones where the brilliant minds and begrudging admiration of Holmes and Moriarty face off. But Ritchie, who has never been good at directing actors, seems more interested in using them merely as springboards for fights, chases, and explosions, where Ritchie uses the same flashy techniques he used in his breakout (though wildly derivative) film Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels until they become tired.

Despite studios' hopes, fidelity and familiarity can be box office factors, but they're no replacement for quality. Which, as most viewers know, is elementary.


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