By Myriam Ghattas
The second installment of the Sherlock Holmes franchise sees Guy Ritchie treat us to the much anticipated face-off between Scotland Yard’s notoriously astute detective and his brilliantly immoral arch-nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011) follows Holmes’ deductive reasoning as he connects the dots between a series of small-scale seemingly unrelated yet unexplained scandalous or otherwise catastrophic events happening around the world and traces them back to the criminal mastermind of Professor Moriarty. As the ill-intentioned Professor weaves the strings of what would in time turn into tensions of world war magnitude, endowing him with formidable power and riches, he resents Holmes’ disturbance of his plans. A pursuit that spans a hellish train ride and several countries across Europe ensues, drawing Holmes and Moriarty into revolving life-endangering roles of hunter and hunted ever closer to their inevitable final climactic confrontation. The outcome of the confrontation bears at stake nothing short of the evolutionary path of human history.
Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as Holmes and Doctor Watson respectively, delectably infusing their characters with the charm and wit which only their electrifying combined chemistries could achieve. The ever-dependable Jared Harris assumes the role of Professor Moriarty in a chillingly superb fashion. Stephen Fry playfully fills in the shoes of Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft Holmes. Rachel McAdams makes a brief appearance as Irene Adler, Holmes’ complicated love interest, but the female lead role lies in the alluring talent of Swedish actress Noomi Rapace of the original “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame,” figuring as Sim, a gypsy woman who assists Holmes and Watson in their crazed hunt.
Upholding the pattern and direction established by the first film, “Sherlock Holmes” (2009), the spectacular performances of this unconventional cast complement Ritchie’s modern vision of 19th century Europe swapping a credible and refreshingly light-mannered approach for the otherwise potentially weathered and dusty feats of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s star creation.
The antagonist in this overtly heroic genre of films is often more important than the protagonist himself; thus, it is only fitting that we take a closer look at our colorful investigator’s “problem.” The crux of the tension in “Sherlock Holmes” stems from Professor Moriarty’s careful anticipation of Holmes’ moves, setting him up at most intersections a handful of steps ahead of the famed detective, to the point where Homes finds himself oftentimes at great pains to keep up with his mighty opponent.
Professor Moriarty’s machiavellic character vividly recalls another mesmerizing dark figure in recent cinematic history, namely that of The Joker in Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” (2008). Both lacking the least bit of moral fiber in their schemes, The Joker’s unmatchable threat comes from his sheer adulation of anarchy and chaos while Professor Moriarty’s designs don themselves with motives of a far more worldly nature, with as yet similar stakes at hand if their plans were to succeed of putting the future of humanity at risk.
Despite the parallels between the two films, a tempting comparison would be quite unjust. If the Joker’s character is more existentially and profoundly evil, his superhero opponent, albeit fully human, benefits from the supportive structure of a genius running his advanced laboratory and gadgets that edge him closer to the boundaries of the superhuman. On the other hand, the Moriarty-Holmes pairing is suitably fitted to their decidedly more grounded human battle, where quick-wittedness, intelligence and earthly fitness are their only weapons in the war they wage against one another.
“Sherlock Holmes” is not without flaws, most prominently experienced in the throes of the occasional heavy-handedness of Ritchie’s direction, manifesting itself in sometimes unnecessarily overused snappy edits and slow-motion fight scenes that are now widely accepted for better or worse as trademarks of this filmmaker’s craft. However the self-same use of these techniques provides some of the most effectively captivating scenes in the film. A particularly good example that comes to mind sees Watson, Holmes and Rapace fleeing through the woods under heavy explosions and gunfire, a slow-motion scene that would arguably make Zack Snyder’s “300” (2006) seem like an amateur attempt in comparison.
Hans Zimmer (“The Dark Knight”, “Inception”) delivers the soundtrack in which he revisits many of the themes he had already introduced in “Sherlock Holmes.” Professor Moriarty receives due acknowledgement with a new theme composed especially for his character. Zimmer, in a commendable effort to capture the gypsy spirit, visited some of these mystical folks’ camps in Slovakia to study their lifestyle and musical habits, before scoring the lusciously musical scenes in which Sim and her people are featured. All in all, the composer was careful to refrain from overpowering the narrative and supports it soberly yet excitingly.
The film offers no more than a handful of innovations over its predecessor. The characters return stronger due to their increased vulnerability and exposure to danger. The storytelling is sharp, well-paced and suspenseful. Award winner Philippe Rousselot’s cinematography is truly impressive, artfully sealing together the elements of mise-en-scène and art direction in an immersive visual tableau.
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” offers the kind of action-packed Hollywood spectacle that will keep its audience riveted to the edge of their seats for all 129 minutes of it. In addition, for those fans of the series who simply cannot get enough of their favorite detective’s perilous adventures, they will be pleased to know that, preceding this second film’s release in theaters, Ritchie announced that Drew Pearce, currently involved in the pre-production of “Iron Man 3,” has signed on to pen the third yet untitled Sherlock Holmes project.
Guy Ritchie prepares Jared Harris and Robert Downey Jr for the pivotal scene between Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes.