'Holmes' sees all in Ritchie thriller

There are two elements to director Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," one more interesting than the other.

First, enjoy what is destined to be a successful franchise, not unlike the adventures of Captain Jack Sparrow in "Pirates of the Caribbean." Robert Downey, clearly enjoying himself, once again portrays Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes, and Jude Law is the nicely reticent Dr. John Watson. They are an unmatched pair, and their relationship gives the film an engaging panache, as do their combined efforts at deductive reasoning.

Of course, there is the Gordian Knot, aka the mystery, that the two must either unravel or cleave. In "A Game of Shadows," European leaders, meeting to forestall a possible war, are assassinated in a series of explosions. The question is, why? Are the perpetrators wild anarchists, the enemy of all organized governments? Or is there a nefarious plot at work that is far more complex than it first appears? It's up to Holmes and Watson to sort out.

Of course, Downey's Holmes is not the crisp, formal, staid character — ever-present dear stalker cap and signature pipe — created by Doyle. This Holmes is manic, dissolute, brilliant, a bit of a druggie and unexpectedly athletic. He is also vigilant in the extreme, his genius best expressed when a gypsy, Simza (Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actor from "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo"), asks him, "What do you see?" Holmes replies, "Everything. It's my curse." Indeed.

How Watson and Holmes deduce that behind the assassinations of prime ministers and ambassadors is Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), a familiar nemesis from Doyle's books, drives the narrative.

But there is a second aspect to this film that is equally compelling. In a short essay published recently in the N.Y. Times Magazine, Alex Pappademas asks an irresistible question: "Does the assaultive approach to action-film-making signal the coming annihilation of narrative logic?" He calls it chaos cinema. Has the story, meaning the well-crafted plot, become a subsidiary to the amped-up set pieces? One has only to examine, say, the "Transformer" movies to realize that perhaps even more important than the "narrative logic" is the frenetic pace, steeped in action, enhanced by the technology of CGI that enables filmmakers to create a level of intensity and verisimilitude heretofore unknown in films. Combine this technology with fast cuts that last mere seconds, the camera (often a Steadicam) offering different angles, and the medium becomes the message.

"A Game of Shadows" is a fine response to Pappademas' question: Ritchie using slow-motion, combined with anticipatory scenes, wherein Holmes visualizes an event before it takes place, are visually stunning. There is a prolonged chase that begins on a train and ends with Holmes and Watson and Simza running through a dense forest, peppered by bullets, massive shells exploding trees, the camera holding them motionless for mere seconds, then re-engaging; it's astonishing footage.

And it's scenes such as those, so perfectly crafted, that can render the logic of the narrative almost incidental. Pappademas refers to such cumulative moments in a film as possessing a visual grammar. Call it the gestalt of filmmaking. Or a visual zeitgeist. Experientially, it's profoundly seductive.

Audiences that grew up with the "Transformers" films and video games have most likely never read a Doyle mystery (the equivalent of snail mail). But they are comfortable with chaos cinema and will find themselves very much at home with Holmes.

Share This Story