Saturday, September 15, 2012

A short, unqualified celebration of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I just saw Guy Ritchie's second Sherlock Holmes film, Game of Shadows, and I liked it way more than I was expecting. I think I found its wavelength, which consisted of... lots of texture, lots of chaos, lots of inky blue shadows, judo buffoonery, and dialogue that straddled the line between clownish and whip-smart. Unlike with some other, "better" movies -- Prometheus and The Dark Knight Rises, for instance -- I was only hung up on the wild implausibilities for about five minutes. Then the shockwave of the film's momentum picked me up and carried me all the way to the end, and I still feel it, here at 2 AM.

There were a few aspects that were integral to the feeling of the film, and this feeling -- its shape and offbeat tactile quality -- are part of what made it work so well. First of all, Guy Ritchie maintains his tone meticulously, coating everything in that gritty texture, firing off a barrage of visual references to that industrial revolution technology, knocking the audience around like machine gun shells. I think Guy Ritchie makes Zach Snyder's speed ramping work even better than Snyder does, because he uses it to exaggerate the effect: a moment of stillness in the midst of chaos, the skin and bone and fragments of debris, letting go of focus on the bodies and using the suspension to let us get lost in the chaos of pure sensation. When Snyder does it, he's so hung up on peoples' positions, their muscular bodies and spatial arrangements... it makes the whole thing feel more like a diorama, rather than a freeze-frame from an exploding camera.

Within this aesthetic, Game of Shadows was a mad burlesque of violence, played out by superhuman characters at the margins of European politics. This epic, elevated subterfuge worked wonderfully, too... reminiscent of James Bond, who was always sort of a peak-performance ubermensch, but who always seemed like the only true player in the games he was always winning. In Game of Shadows, on the other hand, there was a whole ensemble of these high-end superspies, all of whom possessed uncanny instinct, incredible technical abilities, elite fighting expertise, and incredible competence in intrigue and sabotage. There were at least 5 or 6 of them... Holmes himself, and Moriarty, his eternal enemy, are the twin peaks of the pyramid, but the supporting cast -- Watson, Simza, Irene Adler, and Colonel Sebastian -- were all mythic in their capabilities. Even the less physical of the side-characters, Mary Watson and Mycroft Holmes, seemed to take on a glow of incredible power.

There's something elegant and beautiful about these super-agents, all maneuvering within the volatile world of late Victorian politics in Europe. This was an age in the midst of revolutions, resistance movements, and subtle politics between rapidly-developing nations. It's the perfect place for intrigue and scheming, and a fertile field for the kind of violent game that Holmes and Moriarty are playing. I have doubts as to whether the original Holmes novels had quite this feeling of Mission Impossible-level international conspiracy. It's certainly not something I've ever seen before, at least in this pseudo-historical steampunk context.

Knowledge of the history of the period makes Moriarty's ominous remark about the inevitability of industrial warfare... a prophecy of the brutality of World War II... all the more potent.

Of course, this wouldn't matter if the individual moments had fallen flat, but they didn't. Both of the private meetings between Moriarty and Holmes -- first in Moriarty's office, and then on a balcony in Switzerland -- were brilliant, these moments of pure confrontation in the midst of all the machinations and evolving conspiracies. In each of these scenes, Moriarty reveals himself as a person who's dangerous not because he's super-intelligent (though he is that), but because he's perfectly devoid of morals. As the audience, we feel his threats toward Watson prick us like knives, and in these moments, we understand the rush of fear that even Sherlock Holmes must feel in facing this adversary.

There was also something magical and compelling about seeing Holmes and Moriarty work out their final battle in their heads, flawlessly anticipating each thrust and parry, like Deep Blue working out every move in a chess match according to a pattern of perfect optimization. The echoes of chess and computation, the feeling that we're immersed in a grand Difference Engine calculating every possible outcome, echoes throughout the film, giving it an additional dimension that makes it even better.

This is the first time in a while that I felt the need to write about a film immediately after seeing it... and it might be the first time that's ever happened with a movie I watched casually on Video On-Demand. Kudos, Guy Ritchie... I think this is some of your best work.

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