The pair of mystery-action films directed by Guy Ritchie make their way to Ultra HD Blu-ray
Screen images in this article are illustrative only and not representative of 4K presentation.
This week sees the release of 2009’s Sherlock Holmes and its 2011 sequel A Game of Shadows on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray.
The films were part of a unique revival of literature’s greatest detective, arriving alongside two contemporary television adaptations: BBC’s immensely popular Sherlock series made stars of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in 2010, while the US-set Elementary closely followed in 2012, treading new ground with a gender-flipped Dr. Watson as portrayed by Lucy Liu.
In the larger scope of Holmes lore and adaptations, Warner’s pair of films, directed by gangster-action maven Guy Ritchie, are much more modern in style and tone (furiously choreographed and action-packed) than the traditional depictions created over the last century. But thanks to the contemporary settings of the concurrent television adaptations, the Victorian-set films became by comparison the most traditional of these modern takes.
Brilliantly cast and scripted, and full of action and laughs, both films are a triumph even among the storied annals of Holmes adaptations, and fans eagerly await the long-delayed third entry in the franchise.
Sherlock Homes (2009)
Aside from stylistic choices, this new take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos makes a couple key decisions which helped to differentiate it from the many other adaptations we’ve seen before: setting an advanced timeline as a seasoned Holmes and Watson have most of their adventures behind them, and casting the duo very differently from their depictions in previous adaptations.
The unusual casting of Holmes and Watson in particular is certainly a major element to these films’ success. Quippy American Robert Downey, Jr. is not at all the sort of actor most fans would ever consider to assume the role of Holmes, but his (surprisingly well accented) take on the character ably accentuates the character’s more eccentric and misanthropic characteristics. Meanwhile, his sidekick Dr. John Watson has generally been portrayed on screen as the beta to Holmes’s alpha: often portly, or even nebbish or bumbling. Jude Law’s version of the character is none of those, but lean, dashing, and athletic (as in his literary descriptions), and a hipper foil for a more erratic Holmes. Their banterous and sometimes tempestuous relationship remains rooted in affection and mutual respect, and is certainly one of the film’s most enjoyable aspects.
Without adapting a particular tale, the film’s original story still addresses one of Holmes canon’s most interesting themes: the application of science against superstition. The adversary of this tale, Lord Blackwood, is an occult figure who leads a secret society in murderous rites of purported black magic, even rising from the grave after being arrested and executed, to continue his killing spree. Holmes doesn’t buy it, instead trying to deduce the assumed trickery behind Blackwood’s unholy miracles — to the film’s credit, it’s actually rather spooky, and there’s a genuine mystery to whether the supernatural elements are legitimate or a clever ruse.
Joining our detectives in the tale is Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) in a greatly expanded role from her literary iteration, serving a particularly interesting crux as both friend and foe — an old companion and love interest to Holmes who still maintains her inextricable criminal ties, employed by the bad guys. Her character represents the biggest deviation from the Doyle’s model of Holmes (who is uninterested in romance), but a worthwhile one — not only is she a complex and interesting character of her own, she also adds one of the most compelling folds to Holmes’ layered personality.
Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
For their sequel, the filmmakers behind the franchise went bigger but also closer to the source with a loose adaptation of The Final Problem, one of the most important tales in Holmes’ literary canon. The tale is notable for several elements which make it a fan favorite: the emergence of arch-nemesis Moriarty, an appearance by Sherlock’s even smarter but indolent brother Mycroft, and… the demise of one Sherlock Holmes.
Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) is referenced in the first film as a shadowy background threat pulling all the strings, but the secret criminal mastermind comes to the forefront for the sequel. Harris performs the role splendidly, giving Moriarty both the outward pleasantness and unmistakable menacing threat that make him so covertly dangerous: an upstanding community leader who also happens to be the secret boss behind London’s criminal underground — not to mention Sherlock’s equal in intelligence and cunning. Throughout his tales, Sherlock often muses that in a different life he would have made an excellent criminal — Moriarty is the realization of that concept.
The sequel finds a retired and newlywed Watson dragged back into Holmes’ schemes when he and his wife are targeted for assassination on their honeymoon. The reunited detectives trek across Europe to prevent a world war catalyzed by the efforts of Moriarty. The professor has devoted his efforts to the manufacture of artillery, and having created the supply, now seeks to ignite the demand by tricking the nations of Europe into attacking each other. Joining them are new allies: the mysterious Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), who has inside knowledge critical to their mission, and Sherlock’s lazy but brilliant older brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), who dislikes detective work despite his natural talent for it.
Without the supernatural bent of the prior film, A Game of Shadows plays more straightforwardly as a straight-up spectacle of action, espionage, and intrigue, and faithfully adapts to the screen much of what makes The Final Problem one of the best Holmes tales — including its surprising finale.
Both films arrive on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray in new combo packs which include Blu-ray discs and digital Movies Anywhere code. My copies came with metallic slipcovers.
The films look spectacular in these new editions, though in fairness they’ve always looked pretty stunning on Blu-ray as well. Of particular note are the “Holmesavision” sequences — crisply detailed, stylized slow-motion sequences which are a series trademark, seen whenever Holmes strategically maps out his physical attacks several moves in advance, or in action sequences such as a giant cannon firing massively powerful artillery through a forest, disintegrating trees left and right.
Visually, the films often employ desaturated or specifically tuned color palettes designed to suggest a vintage appearance or the drabness of London, so HDR is less of a factor here than on more colorful films. But being what they are by design, the colors are represented accurately.
The 4K discs are movie only, while the Blu-rays are identical in content to prior versions, retaining the full set of Special Features (and outdated ads).
Special Features and Extras — Sherlock Holmes (on Blu-ray disc)
- Maximum Movie Mode
- Focus Points (31:17)
Drawbridges and Doilies: Designing a Late Victorian London (5:00)
Not A Deerstalker Cap in Sight (4:15)
Ba-ritsu: A Tutorial (3:58)
Elementary English: Perfecting Sherlock’s Accent (4:04)
The One That Got Away (3:44)
Powers of Observation and Deduction (4:01)
The Sherlockians (3:03)
Future Past (3:08)
- Sherlock Holmes: Reinvented (14:06)
Special Features and Extras — A Game of Shadows (on Blu-ray disc)
- Maximum Movie Mode: Inside the Mind of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr
- Focus Points
Holmesavision on Steroids (4:02)
Moriarty’s Master Plan Unleashed (7:09)
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson : A Perfect Chemistry (5:18)
Meet Mycroft Holmes (5:30)
Sherlock Holmes: Under the Gypsy Spell (4:02)
Guy Ritchie’s Well-Oiled Machine (3:04)
Holmes Without Borders (5:51)
- Movie App (mobile app required)
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All 16:9 screen images in this review are for illustrative purposes only and not representative of 4K or Blu-ray editions. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.