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.
Shedding many of those trappings that make a James Bond movie well a James Bond movie Quantum of Solace is really the first sequel ever in the long-running series. While it’s always exciting something gets seriously shaken and stirred in the translation. Picking up exactly where the brilliant Casino Royale left off we see Bond (Daniel Craig) trying to get to the bottom of why his love Vesper Lynd had to die jumping right into the first of many MANY chases as he traverses six countries. Still on rogue patrol Bond then inadvertently meets the crafty and gorgeous Camille (Olga Kurylenko) who introduces Bond to the evil Dominic Green (Mathieu Amalric) the head of an eco-phony stealth operation angling for some prime desert land while financing a crooked Bolivian general’s planned coup. With the ever resourceful M (Judi Dench) trying to keep him in line at all times Bond must put his revenge plans on hold as he crosses paths not only with Greene and his fake pro-environment front but also the intriguing and mysterious group known as Quantum. In this outing Daniel Craig -- leaner and meaner than any previous Bond -- really becomes a man of single-minded determination and grit. He’s less like the James Bond we know and love and more a humorless killing machine like Jason Bourne (those two should really get together). Still Craig is such a compelling actor that we are with him all the way even if he doesn’t go for the suave Bond moves. Olga Kurylenko is a great foil but not totally in the tradition of a Bond girl. A later encounter with Gemma Arterton as a British agent in Bolivia does however briefly recall the heyday of Goldfinger. Judi Dench has taken the perfunctory role of M and turned it into a full-blown supporting role. Her dry wit and take-no-prisoners attitude is welcomed every time she shows up on screen. French star Mathieu Amalric (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) doesn’t really pull off his villainous alter-ego ecologist while Jeffrey Wright is pretty much wasted as U.S. agent Felix Leiter. At least Giancarlo Giannini returns for some nice moments with his Craig. Although they usually leave the challenging job of steering the Bond ship to an English director oddly this time the baton was handed to Marc Forster known more for his intimate dramas such as Finding Neverland and Monster's Ball. His grip on the action sequences is secure but he never really seems to have a handle on what distinguishes this legendary movie spy from everyone else. There’s a reason Bond has survived as a screen icon for almost half a century but the sort of workman-like filmmaking Forster displays here does not represent 007’s finest hour. It’s almost like the producers had a checklist: car chase on winding roads; boat chase; airplane chase; rooftop chase -- all check. Quantum of Solace is definitely worth checking out however. I mean it IS Bond and we wait for these movies on bated breath. Just maybe next time a little less Bourne please.
Dealing with a bunch of small-time thugs shady London mobsters Russian millionaires junkie rock stars and assorted other members of the criminal underground director Guy Ritchie has thankfully returned to the beat he knows best--even if the accents are a bit thick and the action often confusing. In this version of contemporary London it’s real estate--and not drugs--that is attracting all brand of criminal with the dangling carrot of a multi-million dollar deal. Into this mix comes the scrappy One-Two (Gerard Butler) and his cohorts Mumbles (Idris Elba) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy) who manage to get a loan from the super-crooked old-timey crime boss Lenny Cole (Tom Wilkinson). He intends to nab the property for himself and demands the money owed him anyway. In order to get the money repaid One-Two hooks up with an attractive but shifty accountant (Thandie Newton) who works for a shady rich Russian dude. This is just the beginning as the plot thickens and the atmosphere gets loaded with all sorts of interweaving characters with distinct motivations of their own to get a piece of the pie in an ever-changing London. Guy Ritchie knows how to cast these things and RocknRolla is no exception--starting with Wilkinson almost recognizable as the vicious oily mob boss who knows how to work the system to get just what he wants. Wilkinson is deliciously fun to watch. So is Toby Kebbell as Lenny’s loopy and off-the-wall stepson--a junkie rock star named Johnny Quid who turns out to have the key to all the money. Butler is strong as the macho small-time thug out to conquer London real estate but gets stuck in a silly subplot when his partner (Hardy) suddenly admits he’s gay and has feelings for him. Mark Strong also impressive in this week’s Body of Lies is terrific as Lenny’s right-hand man Archie a guy who knows how these operations work. Karel Roden has nice moments as the billionaire Russian but we wished there was more to Newton’s role as she simply turns up every now and then without adding much to the proceedings. Elba (The Wire) is great as Mumbles One-Two’s best buddy and other partner in crime. And just for fun a couple of Americans get thrown into the stew: Jeremy Piven and Chris “Ludicris” Bridges playing rock promoters who are trying to make it in the London music biz. Guy Ritchie has had a rough patch lately what with the dreadful Swept Away and the mind bogglingly numbness of Revolver which sat on the shelf for two years before finally getting a nominal U.S. release. It’s no wonder the director wanted to return to the Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch turf in which he made his name. With RocknRolla he’s done just that and the results are encouraging. This flick is pure Guy Ritchie with his patented penchant for colorful low-life characters dense crime plotlines and a gang that can’t seem to shoot straight. Even though there are characters being dropped in at a steady pace and lots of stuff always going on Guy Ritchie manages to keep it all humming and visually arresting. Another big plus is the soundtrack which cranks. Overall RocknRolla really rocks and totally delivers. It’s a wild ride all the way. A promised sequel on the end credits can’t come too soon.