Aria’s Review of Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows

Fun, though I can’t say I saw the point.

Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows are 2009 and 2011 movies featuring the public domain characters of Arthur Conon Doyle’s novels, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson as they solve crimes but mostly fight people for reasons that somewhat elude me. They’re not bad movies, but they are ultimately kind of pointless.

The first film follows Holmes as he combats Mark Strong’s Henry Blackwood, a magician who uses supposed dark magic to kill people so he can take over the world, seemingly because he’s mad about America existing. Of course, that is a very fair thing to feel, as is wanting to kill everyone in British parliament with cyanide gas, but he’s the villain, so Sherlock Holmes stops him by fighting a considerable number of people and causing a lot of property damage, revealing that of course magic isn’t real and disguising that classism is. The second film has a terrible title and follows Holmes and Watson on a trip to Switzerland to face off against the famous Professor Moriarty, played by Jared Harris, who is trying to start World War I twenty years early.

This review will have some spoilers for both Sherlock Holmes and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, the latter of which is ten years old, so if you’re concerned about that it’s really on you at this point.

Some things I liked about the films. The dialogue is snappy, the characters are well developed, and the villains are interesting. I particularly enjoyed Paul Anderson as Sebastian Moran, who despite being hitman/sharpshooter in Moriarty’s employ is framed as though he’s Moriarty’s grad student, which I personally thought was hilarious and also explained his motivations much better than “likes money and shooting people.” If his dissertation defense rested on doing Moriarty’s bidding, that would explain why he kept doing it even after it was no longer profitable or good for him. That’s kind of just what being in grad school is like, I’m told. I also enjoyed Irene Adler as played by Rachel McAdams in the first movie, and it was too bad they killed her in the second one.

On that subject, apparently Guy Ritchie specifically wanted a “Bond girl” style situation with the female characters in the movies, with a different one in each film. I have many problems with this, the first being that the first film only has two female characters and one of them is Watson’s girlfriend who has two scenes, and the second film only has two female characters and one of them is Watson’s wife who only has four scenes. Irene Adler’s character is replaced Noomi Rapace playing a Roma woman named Simza Heron, an original character created for the film. She’s not a well written or interesting character, has barely any scenes or lines, and honestly the whole film could have happened without her, which is disappointing. The lack of female characters of any substance in the second movie is a very notable problem, exacerbated by them killing the main female character from the first movie for no real reason (she’s not really dead, but that’s a different discussion). This attitude about having a “Bond girl” style rotation of female characters feels like an excuse not to have any substantial female characters and also to pay the female actors less, and I’m not happy about that.

The relationship between Holmes and Watson definitely comprises the core of both films, and that’s very well done. Rather than establishing them and spending a lot of time watching them develop, the films take place near the end of their working relationship, with the first film ostensibly being their “last case together,” and the second one being them thrust together after not working together for some time. There are minor shades of Watson’s wife “being in the way” of their relationship, which isn’t a very good look. It was 2010 and media was at the height of wanting to queerbait audiences by vaguely suggesting there might be a queer relationship in something without actually having two men kiss. Downey Jr. plays Sherlock as though he’s in love with Watson, despite his romance with Adler, but the script never lets him say that aloud.

There was supposed to be a third film, which was railroaded by Downey Jr. being owned by Marvel for a decade. They’re still talking about making it, which now that he’s (mostly) free of the Iron Man costume might actually happen, despite its still ever shifting release dates. I’m very curious if the decade that passed will have changed sensibilities enough to let them be more open about the kind of relationship that they’re hinting at. Even if Sherlock and Watson don’t get together, which I don’t expect they will, admitting a romantic interest was what Sherlock wanted would be nice. But at the same time, the script has been rewritten a number of times and the supposed third film has a different director attached, so I’m concerned.

Also concerning is that the second film is less good than the first one. The tension between Holmes and Moriarty is interesting and well done, but the second movie repeats a lot of the jokes and story beats from the first one but with less heart, and it’s also overlong by about twenty minutes of unnecessary action scenes in the third quarter. Because it’s meant to be about a character who is smart and solves his problems with his intellect, the amount of hand-to-hand combat scenes and the amount of gunfire and explosions are a bit strange. I worry because the second film started to give into some of the worse impulses of the first one that a third film would continue down that trend.

In the end, I’m not sure these two movies are really Sherlock Holmes movies. The characters are in the public domain so anyone can do anything with them, and that’s definitely what the people making these movies did. They’re fun action-adventure films, but they certainly weren’t necessary or particularly faithful to their source material—which is of course fine, because that’s what an adaptation is for. But all in all after watching both of these films, I walked away from them having enjoyed them but having felt that they were completely unnecessary.

Your mileage may vary, I suppose. I wasn’t enriched by watching them, but it wasn’t detrimental, either. They were fun.

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