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.
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.
If you thought the Viking Age was uninteresting in that old history textbook Pathfinder does it one better by actually upping the boring ante. In fact even ye Old World buffs out there will be disoriented. It’s set “600 years before Columbus ” when “people had to guard America’s shores from marauders.” One of those most noble guardsmen was Ghost (Karl Urban). Native Americans happened upon him as a young orphan boy and decided to raise him as one of their own--even though he was never truly accepted due to his unknown ancestry. Fifteen years pass and Ghost once a frail child has blossomed into a beast-sized man capable of warding off almost anyone. His size and skill set come in handy when Norse invaders look to raise hell in his village. Armed with horses swords and thorny helmets they kill and maim everyone in sight and mostly get away with it. That is until they mess with the object of Ghost’s affection Starfire (Moon Bloodgood) thereby seriously messing with Ghost. You don’t put Ghost in a corner! Beefcake actors are apparently a dime a dozen these days and Pathfinder lead Urban does nothing to separate himself from the supporting actors of his own movie let alone from the aforementioned Hollywood stereotype. Looking like a runway model on steroids the Lord of the Rings and Bourne Ultimatum star only stands out aesthetically here and is in danger of being pigeonholed and typecast for a long time to come. Unless he can somehow show a different side Urban will wind up on a long list with the likes of wrestlers-turned-actors who can’t act. Thing is in Pathfinder he can’t even manage the uber-virility his character is meant to project. Bloodgood (Eight Below) meanwhile owner of the best non-porn name in showbiz holds her own and softens things up in a movie otherwise completely dominated by males. And finally there's veteran Native American actor Russell Means (Natural Born Killers) who as the Pathfinder himself at least lends some desperately needed credibility. Looking up a director’s name and past work isn’t a fair way to pre-judge his or her movie but it may sometimes hint at what you’re in for. Take Pathfinder for example: Director Marcus Nispel's past work includes Texas Chainsaw Massacre and music videos. Massacre was terrible and music videos are stylized; thus we arrive upon Pathfinder which is terrible and stylized. When parents complain about violence in the movies this should be their focal point. Nispel like other offenders is unable to ever refrain and beheadings and such in all their slow-motion glory resemble fun video games. Not that his lack of morality makes Pathfinder the crap it is however. That blame rests on his apparent decision that such violence is all moviegoers want to see. And it is perhaps the sheer lack of a story that accentuates how mediocre the violent scenes really are--scenes that are meant to leave us agape in amazement as if we’ve never seen a loose eyeball on the screen before. On a (lone) positive note though the set design seems up-to-snuff.
Casino Royale starts at the beginning as James Bond (Craig) takes his first baby steps as a Double O agent. His first assignment is to track down a terrorist cell in Madagascar but he’s a bit of a loose cannon and things quickly go awry. Bond’s superior M (Judi Dench) is soon regretting giving the arrogant Bond the promotion. Nonetheless Agent 007 takes it upon himself to follow a lead to the Bahamas and discovers that all nefarious dealings point to Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen) a nasty fellow who has money ties to terrorist organizations. Le Chiffre is planning to raise money in a high-stakes poker game at the Le Casino Royale in Montenegro—and Bond gets in to beat him at his own game. Along with a hefty bankroll M also sends the beguiling accountant Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) to keep Bond in check. They are skeptical of each other at first but as the danger escalates it becomes apparent there is a growing attraction—and affection—between them. Natch. Can these two crazy kids make it work immersed in the cutthroat world of international intrigue? Well this is Bond after all—and we know how he ends up. Craig absolutely gets it. Whatever doubts people may have had when Craig was first announced as the new Bond are washed away in the first few minutes of the film. Sure if Casino Royale was anything like the last few Bond movies then maybe the understated Craig wouldn’t have fit in as well. But this is a different Bond. The British actor plays him not as the icon we’ve come to know but as a flawed man warts and all who flies by the seat of his pants isn’t necessarily refined and yes can even fall in love. Craig also raises the acting bar. His brief scenes with the impeccable Dench for example simmer and pop unlike anything we’ve seen before in a Bond film. Danish film star Mikkelsen (Pusher) is quite effective as the main baddie with a particularly gruesome physical malady while the always good Jeffrey Wright (Syriana) shows up as CIA Agent Felix Leiter. The one weak link unfortunately is Green (The Dreamers). She certainly looks the part of a “Bond girl ” but her Vesper is supposed to be whip-smart able to engage in witty banter with 007 and the French actress can’t quite pull it off. Craig needs more of a challenge. Too bad Judi Dench isn’t 30 years younger; she would have been perfect. Casino Royale the first book in the Ian Fleming series is basic Bond 101. Director Martin Campbell--who helmed Goldeneye Pierce Brosnan’s first and probably best foray into the franchise--strips it of all the far-fetched gadgets (save for a few new-fangled PDAs) and over-the-top action sequences leaving just good clean action devoid of any invisible cars armored Russian tanks and the such. Oh wait Bond does use a bulldozer at one point but that comes briefly in the middle of a rather extensive and hair-raising foot chase. It just proves action can be just as riveting without having to completely suspend your disbelief. Casino Royale is also rare in that it shows how Bond became THE James Bond the one we’ve seen in countless movies over the years in the stylish tuxes drinking the martinis driving the Aston-Martins and bedding all the beautiful women. Casino Royale breathes new life into the franchise and one can only hope they can keep up the good work without once again lapsing into the ridiculous.