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One surprisingly enjoyable, the other surprisingly poor
on 25 February 2013
One of those really bad ideas that surprisingly turned out rather well, Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes doesn't entirely work but offers enough fun along the way for that not to matter that much. Feeling at times like one of producer Joe Silver's projects for his Dark Castle horror label before the budget escalated, it pits a two-fisted Holmes against a supernatural adversary who has risen from the grave (not the first project to have the idea: Holmes was due to take on Dracula in a rival project at Columbia, and it's perhaps not accidental that Mark Strong's Satanic villain is played as a cross between Dracula and Himmler). The emphasis is on action and comedy rather than sleuthing and intellect, but when a film includes a spectacular setpiece where a giant henchman destroys a shipyard and knocks down a ship (not a boat, a full-sized ship!) in an attempt to crush the world's greatest consulting detective it's hard to complain that you're not getting your money's worth. It's certainly no surprise that while the slew of Homes films over the past century have usually been reliable but modestly financially successful earners, this is the first to do real blockbuster business: it's a crowd-please and no mistake.
While it's good to see the trend of giving Watson his due as a man of action and intelligence continuing here, Holmes doesn't come over quite so well despite Robert Downey Jr's best efforts, the script generally limiting his deductive reasoning to evaluating the most effective way to beat an opponent (not entirely out of keeping with Doyle's stories) with too many of his other conclusions rather too elementary to convince us of his genius. Even a scene where he improvises one of his disguises from items he finds on the street doesn't work as well on screen as it probably did on paper. Instead the emphasis seems more on a Withnail and Watson approach to the mismatched flatmates that offers some amusement but never really takes hold as well as the BBC's engagingly ingenious modern-day updating in Sherlock. Nor does Rachel McAdams' Irene Adler really work here, never given a real chance to demonstrate the genius that made her the only adversary to beat Holmes in favor of a bit on Unresolved Sexual Tension bickering rivalry.
The real star of the film is the city of London itself in the age of Empire, which assumes centre stage as setpieces are set around shipyards, a half-built Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament and London's Docklands when they still were docks, and very vividly realised it is too on a scale previously undreamt of. The CGI may not always be 100% convincing and its flaws are magnified on the small screen, but if it had been attempted in an earlier age it would have required model shots and matte paintings that would have required a similar suspension of disbelief. Best of all is the was the film manages to weave the director's love of London lore into the fabric of the action, setting in the most vividly realised depiction of the disparity between the Empire's corridors of power and it's barely working class underbelly since Tony Richardson's The Charge of the Light Brigade.
A great Holmes film? Certainly not. But for the couple of hours it's on it's far more entertaining one than we probably had any right to expect.
As usual DVD buyers are left with shortv shrift on extras - just a single featurette, with the bulk of the extras - additional 'focus point' featurettes and picture-in-picture mode - reserved for the Blu-ray release only.
While Sherlock Holmes was an enjoyable Victorian adventure that at times owed more to an action movie version of The Odd Couple than Arthur Conan Doyle, the bloated custard pie of a sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows at times is uncannily reminiscent of those messy self-indulgent latter Burt Reynolds-Hal Needham films where everyone was having a good time except the audience. The shift in power from producers and director to star is almost instantly apparent with the horribly overindulged Robert Downey Jr. using the sloppily constructed shadow of a plot as an excuse to dress up in bad disguises - Chinamen, women, pensioners, gypsies, various items of furniture - and indulge in supposedly hilariously slovenly slapstick antics and Jack Sparrow-like eccentricity, so much so that it really should be retitled The Robert Downey Jr. Drunkenly Pissing About for his Mates Show. And what a tiresome show it is too, resembling nothing so much as a bunch of very loud drunks in a curry house after the pubs have shut confusing volume with wit. The main objective here seems to be to engineer situations that will allow Holmes to look ridiculous, which is a joke that outstays its welcome but constantly gets repeated in louder variations in a ragbag of barely connected scenes until you start wondering if you're not watching a sequel to Dudley Moore and Peter Cooke's dire version of The Hound of the Baskervilles (it even shares that film's joke of having Holmes referred to as `Shirley'). On the few occasions he does use his smarts, it tends to be something so ridiculously prescient like predicting exactly which bullet to replace in which rifle to save his life ten minutes later that there's little doubt Ritchie and co. are just extracting the urine at Holmes' expense.
Sherlock isn't the only one of Doyle's giant intellects to get the dumbing down treatment. Jared Harris at least tries to make something of Moriarty, but after his effectively shadowy introduction in the first film he's revealed too soon here and remains in plain sight for much of the movie as an unthreatening presence because the script can't really come up with any evidence of his criminal genius. Only in his last scenes do you get any sense of him as a real danger not just to Holmes but humanity in general. Stephen Fry makes a complete dog's dinner of a now flagrantly gay Mycroft Holmes (no mystery or humorlessness here to Sherlock's indolent but intuitively smarter brother), even throwing in an unwelcome nude scene for no good reason other than to try to get a cheap laugh. But the film is constantly trying too hard to get big laughs out of how ridiculous the Holmes brothers are to ever be genuinely funny, and in the process it completely undermines them as the good guys, let alone a pair of geniuses. Only Watson emerges with dignity intact, albeit reduced to straight man and occasional armed backup for Downey's clowning. As for the women in the film, they're simply a distraction from the boys' night out to be disposed of as quickly as possible (Rachel McAdams), sidelined (Kelly Reilly), worm the goat (Geraldine James) or just there to hold the horses (Noomi Rapace) in thankless roles.
Despite hopping between England, France and Germany, it doesn't even have the strong sense of time and place that was such an impressive feature of the first film, which set the adventure right in the heart of a lavishly recreated industrious London at the height of the era of Empire. Although crying out for a similar treatment with a story hinging on the world rushing prematurely to industrialised world war but which never feels like there's anything real at stake, this just has the odd rather grotty looking master shot of a big building or street before launching into another scattershot comic action scene with the maximum amount of destruction. Even these are pretty tediously executed, with only a standout chase through the woods playing in slow motion and freeze frame to emphasise the firepower and destruction raining down on our heroes really working.
Finally the film finds some sort of shape and plot in the last third as it catches its breath and decides to get round to a genuine battle of wits that depends on some genuine deductions and countermoves. It's not a terribly memorable resolution even if it does pay homage in its own way to Holmes and Moriarty's sightseeing trip to Reichenbach, but in a film as clumsily frenetic as this it's a welcome relief that you can finally find something to mildly enjoy. But ultimately, despite outgrossing its predecessor worldwide, this is the kind of wildly misjudged, joyless and relentlessly in-your-face sequel that not only loses all the gains of the original film but leaves you with no desire for any further adventures from this particular incarnation of Holmes and Watson
Once again DVD buyers are poorly served, with the bulk of the featurettes and maximum movie mode option only available on the Blu-ray, but this time Blu-ray buyers get stuffed as well - many extras are only available via a Movie App, which adds inconvenience (not to mention allows the studio to remove them at any time) to content that should have been on the disc. Poor show all round.