The tale of the superior sequel is seldom told, especially when it comes to action films, and when it comes to something as visually striking and gimmick-heavy as Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes film, the conditions for failure are extrapolated even further. But to his credit, the director who has made a career out of sticking to what he knows with Lock, Stock, Snatch, Revolver and RockNRolla has made in A Game of Shadows a strong sequel that enriches the franchise.
The sequel offers new opportunities to a film-maker – character development takes a backseat for relationship development, which spells good news for the on-screen chemistry between Jude Law’s Watson and Robert Downey Junior’s Holmes and it is obvious the actors are having fun in their roles. It helps that the script has been tailored to bring more fun and humour to proceedings, a sign of confidence alongside the bigger effects budget and bigger explosions.
A Game of Shadows takes every facet from the original and squeezes more out of them – the striking Holmesavision (an awful Ritchian term for the protagonist’s “detective vision”), the stylised Victorian art design, the fight choreography and the bubbling homoeroticism between Holmes and Watson are all played through a magnifying glass. And luckily for Ritchie, it is those elements which made Sherlock Holmes so surprisingly watchable. The BBC3 version with Benedict Cumberbatch might be the superior (as everyone insists on saying to the point of ennui) with its subtler artistry and intellect, but this Hollywood version has the sparkle needed to blow the stuffier cobwebs off Conan Doyle’s universe and make it more accessible than even the BBC creation.
This sequel of course also introduces us to the archetypal villain Professor James Moriarty, and in the process opens itself to a world of potential pitfalls: Moriarty requires hyper-real presence, and almost every over-blown villain from the history of cinema would find their roots in his original characterisation. Thankfully in Jared Harris, Ritchie has found an actor more than capable of shouldering the burden without disappearing up into the realms of self-indulgence: his performance is measured and menacing, and he brings the kind of hateful charisma all super-villains need.
The other new main actors on show are not quite as impressive, but then they aren’t given as generous an opportunity to show off as Harris: Noomi Rapace adds an exotic intrigue as gypsy princess Madam Simza Heron, taking on the key narrative lynchpin role with appropriate understatement, and Stephen Fry is a joy. As Mycroft Holmes, Fry fits like a glove, bringing his usual quirky charisma to the character with such success that you imagine Conan Doyle glanced into the future to lift his Mycroft right out of a rerun of QI.
The film looks great: the Victorian setting allows for some seriously eye-catching set design, and the worlds created for the film have a wonderful visual texture that makes them appear realistic at the same time as retaining a fantastical manufactured quality that adds textural depth and an idiosyncratic identity to the image.
For all of its spectacular flourishes, the visual grandeur and indeed the attempts to pay homage to the source, A Game of Shadows is fundamentally a Guy Ritchie project, and though it might not immediately appear to be a close sibling to Ritchie’s earlier Brit crime offerings, if you look a little deeper, there are some obvious pointers. Though the sign-posts read Victorian Europe, some of the actors chosen to populate the world scream Ritchie, and the film has the same immediately identifiable swagger that the director’s other projects showed.
The overall effect is of sort of Steam Punk Toulouse Lautrec portrait, intricately designed, occasionally visually dazzling, and well-acted throughout – if the final evaluation of film comes down to the simple pleasure of entertainment, then A Game of Shadows scores very highly. It is a film made with confidence, and it is hugely engaging as a result.
Detail levels and textures are great for the most part, though somewhat inevitably there is some compromise when the scenes head towards darkness (which is often), with faces appearing a lot softer in shadow and some texture details dropping noticeably. Black tones are deep and inky, but the chosen visual style wipes out a lot of deep shadow detail, creating a light and dark dynamic that is almost chiaroscuro-like in its boldness. In places that means image depth is wiped out, but it does make for a fine looking image for those sequences, and compositional and design choices make the problem only minimally invasive.
Typically for a Guy Ritchie film, music plays a massive part of A Game of Shadows, and the excellent soundtrack is allowed strong precedence without blitzing out atmospherics or aural details. Sound effects are very well presented (in action scenes in particular), as is dialogue, which helps when Downey Junior’s delivery is muffled by his occasional self-indulgent vocal acrobatics. All in all, a strong, striking presentation.
Not a great deal, but the Maximum Movie Mode does give Downey Junior fans the opportunity to watch the movie in a different, Extras enriched way, with the Sherlock Holmes actor hosting the mode and talking through choice scenes. The mode features production stills and behind the scenes detail, but the real sell is watching the host banter to his audience: the substance of his musings might not be particularly helpful to those film fans who avidly seek to discover the Magic and Method of film-making. There isn’t a lot of meat, but you do get to hear about Downey Junior’s experiences of making the film, which is effortlessly enjoyable to watch.
The Focus Points featurettes, of which there are seven, offer more technical behind the scenes focus, but some do tend to stray towards fluff. Still, they offer some insight into the on-set experience, which gives the film some context even when it’s missing the analytical balance.
Then there’s an app, which is a pretty neat inclusion. It works as a visual companion to the film, offering information and stills from the film which can be enjoyed alone or alongside the film, adding detail to the Maximum Movie Mode and able to sync, via Wifi connection with the film itself. You will need an iPad to enjoy it, but id you have it brings a new dimension to the film experience, and one which will no doubt become a regular feature for home releases going forward.
- Maximum Movie Mode
- Focus Points
- Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Movie App
- WB Live
- Digital Copy
- DVD Version
Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows is available on Blu-ray Triple play, DVD and digital download 14th May. Pre-order here
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