Game of Shadows closes on a chess game, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Professor Moriarty (James Harris) locked in a mental struggles over an ancillary game. The tight focus shows their intelligence, not their fists, a sequence punctuated by tension as stress levels rise. Neither side will back down.
That sensibility runs through all of Game of Shadows, but in the background. A closing flashback montage pieces together the subtle camera motions and clues to deliver a cliff notes version of what Holmes was doing the entire movie. That sixth sense of his to spot the minutiae is extravagantly laid out, but a “shadowed” event.
What that does is push the mystery into the backdrop of the film, the forefront a series flashy fights reminiscent of a Jackie Chan rumble. The opening scuffle recalls any number of Chan’s playful romps, thrown objects and comedic pratfalls encouraged. Therein lies the problem: The audience has no idea what the connection is to this expansive, country-wide deviant plot, concentrated down to an eventual assassination attempt.
There are no rewards for paying attention. You might as well look away between the flashy, bold action scenes because Game of Shadows has to explain itself in its entirety. Holmes mannerisms -which are certainly locked into a pit of pop culture related to Hugh Laurie’s House character- and deep, inviting Victorian set design aren’t enough to alleviate the story which languishes.
Most of the plot devices exist to insert a now familiar (even typecast) Downey into goofy scenarios to play on his eccentricities. Shadows’ ultimate goal is to make him out to be a wild, unrestrained, goofball with the gift of investigative perseverance, and it does that… too much. Holmes is not so much an eager opportunist as he is an infinitely loopy genius, except the genius doesn’t feel important until the need for closure arises.
Shadows is in no rush to one-up its predecessor either, now a smaller film weened on the vintage than an eclectic mix of destructive action. Most of the shoot-outs are kept to a human scale sans a late forest run involving artillery, and despite the narrative swirling around a series of bombs, explosions feel puny in scale. There’s a deeper pit of anguish over Holmes and Watson’s (Jude Law) straining relationship than the hundreds who perish in the blasts. In other words, Shadows feels as if it’s doing anything it can to avoid dealing with the crux of the mystery. How mundane.
Most of Shadows was captured with film, a handful of slow motion sequences given a digital edge purely for their visual pop. While those digital moments may lack a total clarity, they match the film footage well, which isn’t saying much. Shadows feels as if it’s been sucked into a time warp to a moment when Warner’s new releases sluggishly chugged to a sloppily encoded finish, glazed with compression.
Much of the damage is contained to the medium shots; you won’t see much go awry with the sharply focused close-ups. Softening isn’t an effect of the lens so much as it is a dwindling encode that fails to keep a steady hand. Shots can appear filtered or covered with artifacts which considering this light grain structure, should not be concerning. There are shots of cloudy skylines rife with noise when only the grain should be highlighted.
It doesn’t help when Shadows is already visually unappealing, draped with faded blues that allow few primaries to escape. Most of the dazzling scenery is diluted by a digital intermediate decision that saps the colorful energy. London consistently feels gray and overcast, which is probably appropriate for tone (and for London) but the lack of zest to this look is remarkable. There are more games played with the black levels then there are within the story itself. They’re murky, lifeless, and flat.
Shadows is one of those you grade on a curve. Dismissing the compression issues which lie squarely on Warner’s home video team, the rest feels purposeful. Rarely does Shadows present hefty, “wow” worthy sequences, no matter how it tries. It certainly gives a valiant effort with large scale CG vistas and sharply rendered establishing shots, but they will forever lack the forceful depth they could carry.
The dock/boat sequence from the first Sherlock Holmes was spectacular, or rather enough to remembered three years out from its initial home video release. Nothing in Shadows will carry that much weight. A lot of Shadows has lost the summer bustle, a quieter, more restrained film, and thus by default, a lighter design too.
A tower collapse is probably the sensory highlight, dropping through a glass window that shatters as the crushing concrete devastates the structure, enough to be picked up by the LFE and then some. Artillery fire, despite being brief, will leave a mark on the low-end, while the slow motion photography will allow the mix to track the shell. That sequence immediately follows the collapse, so it’s a few minutes of showcase material in a movie with so little.
What this DTS-HD mix will do better than anything is set up the historical look at London, steam engines actively hissing in specific channels during a train station visit, and glassware clanking during fancy dinners. A deep, guttural score will pour on the weight too, rich highs creating more contrast than the visuals. Still, there’s a constant sense of there never being enough power to this track, lacking in superior subwoofer action to match the scale.
Warner makes a heavy push for their Maximum Movie Mode, this one hosted by Robert Downey Jr. If you’re not willing to sit through the entire film to see these featurettes (although you can skip to each section using chapter search; kudos), seven focus points on the main menu will take you to the important stuff for 35-minutes worth of content. The only other feature? An app for your phone or tablet that syncs with the movie for script comparison or other such time wasters. It’s as if they don’t want you to pay attention to the movie either.
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