Movie Review – Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

I wanted to re-watch this movie because of the climatic chess scene at the end. When I first watched this movie in the theatre I remember being completely absorbed by that sequence, what with making chess look badass, and Moriarty surprising everyone in the audience during the final fight. The scene is beautifully executed, and I suspect I’ll devote at least a paragraph to it later in this review, but we might as well talk about the entire movie, right? Right. Crack on then.

To me the entire movie captured the essence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. Although action and comedy are at the forefront of this film’s identity, it is remarkable how well they incorporated mystery for the story on top of it all. No surprise, then, that it might be difficult on an initial viewing for audiences to keep up with the plot. I remember being a little confused at why certain things happened when I first watched it, but on this repeat viewing everything seems to hold together, and Moriarty’s actions make sense in his grand scheme of obtaining the supplies of and creating the demand for war.

I highlight the fact that Game of Shadows captures the mystery-essence because right at the beginning of the film (gold star for not forcing us to watch credits btw) the movie defines itself as a mystery before all else. We are told a series of seemingly unrelated explosions have occurred, and then Rachel McAdams’ character is immediately shown holding a package. We are given the crime, and a potential suspect, all within the first few minutes of the film, and we know McAdams’ character isn’t the villain, so we wonder why and how she is involved with all this, and it matters because she has a special connection to the character of Sherlock Holmes.

The first act of the film is spent setting up the intrigue and Holmes’ stake in everything, but the two most important things that happen are the introduction of Moriarty and the (re)establishment of the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Right away Moriarty is shown as formidable and merciless, as the first action he makes on screen is the killing of an important character. The time spent between Holmes and Watson is critical for character development, and making the audience invested in the events of the film. There are many ways films can make us love its protagonists, and Game of Shadows does it with wit and sarcasm. They’re just plain funny, both individually and when they’re together. Insulting each other and squabbling while at the same time fending off a squadron of killers on a moving train shows that they’re resourceful and share a close bond. We not only want them to triumph, but we believe they deserve to as well.

The movie rolls along as Holmes follows the clues. He makes a tragic mistake at one point, which is vital because the audience doesn’t want Sherlock to be an infallible god. He is still human (and his emotional reaction to Watson’s marriage also helps demonstrate this) and thus relatable. No scene seems superfluous, they either give us a critical piece of information or they entertain us, either by making us laugh or having an awesome action sequence. The most noteworthy one is the forest scene.

This beautifully shot set piece alternates between slow and fast motion shooting, ending with a sequence of Holmes and Watson taking down a group of soldiers that is quick-paced but normal speed. Interjections of the mechanical weaponry at work and the exploding wood chips all heighten the frantic danger of what’s going on on screen. This is edge-of-your-seat material right here! There’s a lot going on, but it’s slowed down so we can grasp it conceptually. It’s also vaguely artistic, as the explosions, the bullets, the mortars, all create mishmash of objects and colours to look at. The director, special effects team, and CG team all deserve to be commended for this sequence alone.

This scene ends with the henchman, an ex-military sniper, taking out one of Holmes’ allies. I wanted to mention this character, even though I can’t remember his name. He stands out to me as a perfect henchman, that guy who is the right hand of the head honcho. Throughout the movie we’ve seen him execute a political figure, stand up to Holmes, and show off his efficiency as a killing machine. That is how a henchman should be: ruthless, loyal, and efficient, like an extension of the main antagonist. The Bond franchise would do well in noting this character. Not that it’s a staple, but there seems to have been a tradition of strong henchmen in past Bond movies, but the modern ones with Daniel Craig all seem lacking.

Anyway, we finally arrive at the Chess Scene (capitalized for emphasis). I held it in high regard when I first saw the movie, but after all these years, reflecting on the different films I’ve seen, I now hold the opinion that this scene is genuinely brilliant.

What should a climatic scene do in an action/mystery film? Reveal the solution and have the protagonist win over the antagonist. Game of Shadows not only accomplishes this, but does it on multiple levels. Revealing the solution: Moriarty’s involvement in all the previous crimes of the film are explained, Rene’s identity is deduced, and Moriarty’s reasons for doing what he did are revealed. That’s three major things this scene does before a punch is even thrown. This is refreshing considering that most action flicks have the bad guy explain everything right when he thinks he’s got the good guy on the ropes (usually before the tables turn dramatically). Winning over the antagonist: Holmes’ actions throughout the film culminate in the seizure of Moriarty’s assets and wealth, portrayed effectively with flashbacks to previous critical scenes, he engages in a fist fight with Moriarty and “wins” not with brute strength but by quick thinking, and in doing both these things he wins the literal and figurative chess match simultaneously. This scene wraps up the plot elegantly with a bow on top, but that’s only one half of its accomplishment.

The second half of the brilliance is the fact that this all occurs during a chess match itself. By doing it this way, the film stays true to its character: this is a movie about two intellectuals going head to head. I can think of no better way to symbolize this than to have them engage in a game of chess. The game itself is representative of logic, and requires thinking two steps ahead of your opponent, which has been happening all along, and how Holmes eventually triumphs over Moriarty. In addition, a very important moment, in my opinion, is when Moriarty begins his “Hidden within the unconscious…” speech during the chess game. What this does is explain his character at its core, which is in stark contrast to Holmes. It impresses upon the audience that this is not just a battle between two people, but a battle of ideals. Here are two men of logic and of great intelligence, but one has placed his faith in humankind’s evilness, while the other stands for the law and human good, like black and white. Like in chess.

Continuing with the chess theme, the fist fight afterward is performed in Holmes’ trademark slow-mo accompanied with a detailed analysis, and Moriarty is more than equal to the method. This scene is genius because the step-by-step dialogue of their moves (trap arm, target weakness; adjust strategy; and so on) mirrors the chess match they just had, where they were vocalizing the movements of their pieces. In interacting with Holmes’ in his own style, the film also shows that Moriarty is truly Holmes’ equal in terms of strength, intellect, and methodology. It’s a beautiful scene, simply put.

I do not foresee myself every getting bored with this movie. I can probably watch it once or twice a year and still enjoy it every time. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s performances are great, and their characters and lines are thoroughly entertaining. Jared Harris’ performance as Moriarty is impeccable. The calculating intelligence, the silent rage, and the cold indifference to morality and human life are shown vividly through his acting. Watch this movie if you like action, comedy, or mystery. It’s a wonder of a film that manages to combine all three of these genres and produces a story that is engaging and beautiful to look at.

This has been a gamobo review.

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