2009’s Sherlock Holmes found unexpected synergy in the pairing of Robert Downey Jr.’s impish charm and Guy Ritchie’s macho kinetic visual style reinventing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s master detective for a modern blockbuster audience. The follow-up Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows employs the same winning formula while adhering judiciously to the Law of Sequels and its more-more-more dictates: more action bigger set pieces higher stakes and a darker more convoluted plot. But more as so many past sequels have taught us is rarely better.
Game of Shadows marks the emergence of Doyle’s most famous villain James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Glimpsed only in darkness in the first film Moriarty takes center stage in the sequel as Holmes’s foremost criminal foil a genius-level university professor whose extracurricular interests range from horticulture to homicide. Holmes has deduced him to be at the center of a wave of terrorist bombings as well as the seemingly unrelated deaths of various titans of industry but can’t quite discern just what the professor’s endgame might be. Composed and calculating to a menacing degree Harris makes for a promising counterweight to Downey’s manic verbosity. But as in the first film Game of Shadows’ best moments are found in the comic interplay between Holmes and his reluctant sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) who is plucked from his honeymoon to accompany the detective on a trans-continental trip in search of clues to Moriarty’s machinations.
And it’s very much a boys-only trip. The female leads from the first film Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly are tossed aside – literally in the case of the latter – in Game of Shadows while the cast’s highest-profile new addition Swedish star Noomi Rapace (best known as the original non-emaciated Lisbeth Salander) is a curious non-factor in the role of a Gypsy (or Roma if you prefer) fortune-teller. The film maintains only the slimmest pretense of a romantic subplot between her and Downey. Rapace looking perhaps a bit lost in her first English-speaking role can’t hope to eclipse the Holmes-Watson traveling road show.
Ritchie’s technique with its signature blend of rapid cutting and slow-mo and super-high frame-rates – perfect for admiring the odd apple tossed in the air or a piece of bark shot off a tree – is once again evident in the film’s awe-inspiring (and occasionally coherence-defying) set pieces the most memorable of which is set in a munitions factory with Watson wielding a gatling gun like an early T-600 prototype. But some of the novelty of the stylistic juxtaposition has faded since the first film. Ritchie tries to compensate by ramping up the firepower to limited effect. Absent amid the hail of mortar blasts and automatic weapons fire is any real sense of intrigue or suspense which proves to be Game of Shadows’ most vexing mystery.
In Unknown a generic conspiracy thriller from director Jaume Collet-Serra (Orphan House of Wax) the protagonist played by Liam Neeson emerges from a four-day coma to find himself in the midst of a kind of reverse-identity crisis: He’s fairly certain who he is but everyone else around him seems to have forgotten as if they’ve contracted a kind of collective amnesia. The filmmakers hope dearly that this amnesia will extend to the audience that you won’t remember the Bourne trilogy The Fugitive or any number of other thrillers from which Unknown borrows heavily. Its main strategy for achieving this is to churn out action-thriller clichés at such a breathless pace that you won’t pause to ponder the film’s unoriginality.
Moments after arriving in Berlin for a biotech conference world-class botanist Martin Harris (Neeson) nearly dies in a traffic accident. Stranded in a foreign country without any form of identification he angrily asserts to everyone he encounters he is “Martin Harris Doctor Martin Harris ” to which he mainly receives puzzled looks from confused Teutons. Events take a more sinister turn when even his wife Elizabeth (Mad Men’s January Jones)* claims not to recognize him and another man purporting to be Martin Harris takes his place by her side.
Is this all some elaborate ruse or just the after-effects of the car accident? As Martin (Neeson’s version) probes the mystery of his lost identity he becomes enveloped in a grand conspiracy involving agribusiness conglomerates Arab sheiks a beautiful Bosnian immigrant (Diane Kruger) a sickly ex-Stasi member (Bruno Ganz) and a pair of stereotypically menacing German hitmen. The film’s setup is intriguing and its plot features a few clever twists but for the most part it's a predictable affair and one which gradually loses its grip on reality. As a piece of mindless entertainment Unknown has its moments – there are a handful of well-choreographed action sequences including the obligatory urban car chase – just don’t try to engage it on a logical level or you might end up in a coma yourself.
*I thought for sure Jones' character would at some point be revealed as an android but alas I was wrong.
You can’t blame Ritchie for returning to what he does best after almost committing career suicide remaking Swept Away with his missus Madonna. And as it begins Revolver seems very much like a crime caper in the manner of Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. Con man Jake Green (Ritchie regular Jason Statham) walks out of prison vowing to exact revenge upon the mobster responsible for putting him behind bars: Macha (Ray Liotta). Jake embarrasses Macha at the roulette table but before he can enjoy his spoils he’s diagnosed with an incurable disease that will kill him in three days. Help comes from an unexpected source: Two loan sharks (Andre Benjamin and Vincent Pastore) offer to keep Jake alive—but only if he gives them all his ill-gotten gains and does their every bidding. That includes stealing drugs and money from an increasing paranoid Macha. Jake thinks he’s being hustled. But he isn’t. We are. It’s at this point that Revolver sadly goes off on its philosophical and psychological tangents. Ritchie not only reveals that Jake possesses a mathematical formula to pulling off the ultimate con but he introduces an unseen boss of bosses whose presence hangs heavy over the proceedings. You cling to the faint hope that Ritchie’s doing his own spin on The Usual Suspects but as time crawls by it’s evident he’s trying to wreck his comeback bid by misguidedly playing amateur psychologist in much the same way David Fincher did with Fight Club. Five minutes into Revolver and you’re hoping Jake Green dies a swift death. And it’s not because Statham—who plays Jake like a more subdued version of Crank’s Chev Chelios minus the mid-Atlantic growl—is better suited to roles that require more brawl and less brains. It’s just that Statham never stops with his narration. He babbles on and on and on. Admittedly Statham’s narration allows us to make some sense of what’s going on in the murky and muddled Revolver. But Ritchie doesn’t use Statham judiciously. Everything that happens—big or small—must be addressed. And it wouldn’t be so bloody annoying if at least Ritchie made the narration colorful and engaging or if Statham delivered it without such weariness. At least our favorite Goodfella is around to break up the monotony. Just weeks after spoofing his volcanic screen image in Bee Movie Liotta threatens to erupt like Mount Vesuvius at the slightest provocation. He’s also something of a sight to behold when he’s holding court wearing nothing but bikini briefs and a tan that George Hamilton would kill for. The nattily Benjamin plays up the cooler-than-thou persona he’s perfected with OutKast which makes it easy to believe he always has the upper hand over everyone else in Revolver. On the other hand Pastore never makes his loan shark as smart as he’s supposed to be but at least he wisely tones down his Sopranos shtick. Crime once paid handsomely for Guy Ritchie. Not now though. The only true enemy is your own ego psychiatrists and psychologists put forth during the end credits. OK at least this explains a little why Revolver is the incoherent mess that is. But it also leads you to the inescapable conclusion that Ritchie was at war with himself when he plotted his gangland homecoming. It was inevitable that Ritchie’s ambitions would have gotten the best of him after his Swept Away public beating. Unfortunately Ritchie’s attempt to apply The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to his fun flashy and frenetic brand of crime capers backfires in his face. Ritchie simply doesn’t have the same insights into the criminal mind that say The Sopranos creator David Chase does. And the endless references to chess theory numerology and Kabbalic traditions prove to be more confusing than enlightening. Perhaps all this would be tolerable if Revolver was half the adrenaline rush that was Snatch. But Ritchie peels away at the film’s psychological layers at a plodding pace. Consequently this isn’t the triumph of substance over style that Ritchie desperately wants it to be. And even its current form which is reportedly 10 minutes shorter than the two-year-old U.K. version Revolver is pointless and impenetrable. There are the occasional flashes of vintage Ritchie especially during a brilliantly executed shootout involving a renegade hitman and an animated sequence right out of Kill Bill. This though leaves you wondering what Revolver would have been had Ritchie not put a gun to his own head.