The original brilliant, antisocial, probably insane detective returns to save the world, outwit the bad guys and make smoldering glances at his best friend in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
WARNING: YOU MAY DEDUCE THAT THIS CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS!
Brilliant London detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has finally met his match in the equally genius but morally opposite Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). During a stag party for his partner Watson (Jude Law), Holmes comes across a gypsy fortune-teller named Sim (Noomi Rapace) targeted by Moriarty as a loose end due to her brother’s involvement in the mastermind’s plans. Following the clues, and with the assistance of his brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), Holmes has to unravel Moriarty’s plans before they ignite the tensions in Europe and set off a world war.
When Guy Richie did his first Sherlock Holmes film in 2009, it was impossible to know what to expect. The man who pretty much created an entire subgenre of hyper-stylized, Tarantino-esque British action films tasked with rebooting a film franchise known for twill caps and pipes? However, the combination worked extremely well, re-imagining Holmes as a borderline sociopath bare-knuckle brawler who nonetheless feels compelled to use his freakishly developed deductive powers to prevent threats to the social order. Add in some steampunk elements, 19th-century explosions and a Holmes/Watson subtext seemingly designed to alight the minds of slash fiction writers, and the result was a kinetic, breathlessly invigorating jolt to the Basil Rathbone Holmes that had become the cinematic standard.
Guns at the ready, our heroes await service.
Richie delivers more of that same energy with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, even if the results aren’t quite as novel as they were the first time around. The look is still Victorian slate, and the steampunk elements have been dialed back a bit, but this is still the same rollicking, adventurous Holmes as before, if a bit louder and with much bigger guns. Richie has the visuals down to a science, and he starts the film out with a literal bang. By the two-minute mark, we’ve already gotten our first explosion and our first fistfight. Thankfully, there are plenty of relatively quiet moments in-between the bombastic and often-inventive set pieces, but while this prevents the film from becoming a slave to a gunpowder rhythm, it also highlights the inadequacies in Kieran and Michele Mulroney’s script. The dialogue is crisp and clever and genuinely funny, so no problems there, but the overall plot is virtually nonexistent. While the story abandons the quasi-supernatural hokum of the first film, it’s replaced by 100% pure nonsense of a different variety. While Holmes, Watson and Sim bound from England to France to Germany to Switzerland, the finale they’re chasing seems almost irrelevant to the overall nature of the movie.
Luckily, the cast is there to buoy the material when the script lets it down. Robert Downey Jr. has made himself a healthy career comeback playing men too intelligent for their own good, making signature roles out of both Tony Stark in Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is a role he inhabits almost too well. There’s never a doubt that Holmes’ preternatural deductive powers make it impossible for him to lead a normal life, and despite his impressive mental and physical prowess, he’s a highly flawed individual who can’t possibly approach life’s challenges in any way but his own. He literally approaches his fight strategies with all the disconnect of preparing an egg breakfast. Jude Law’s Watson is almost like a manifestation of Holmes’ lost (or purposely hidden) empathy and social conscience, someone who may not be as clever as Holmes, but who at least is aware of the whole of the world, and not just his part of it.
A meeting of the minds.
Downey, Jr. and Law work beautifully off of each other, just as they did in the first film, and if anything, the bromantic subtext is many times stronger here than it was before. Part of that is due to the removal of the obligatory love interest. One thing the Mulroneys do perfectly is to get Holmes’ previous romantic foil Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams in a glorified cameo) out of the picture before the title card appears. Nobody ever appears to take her place, either, as Sim is never once positioned as anything other than a fellow adventurer. More than ever it’s clear that Holmes’ true romantic partner, at least as much as Holmes is even capable of human romantic feelings, is one Dr. John Watson. Never mind Watson’s feisty and fiery new wife Mary (a sadly underused Kelly Reilly), Holmes and Watson were meant to exchange barbed but affectionate quips while constantly getting into compromising positions and diving headfirst into innuendo.
The dark ages before marriage equality. Oh, wait…
The tension between Holmes and Watson often threatens to distract from the mostly excellent supporting cast. Noomi Rapace makes a great addition to the series as a capable, resourceful woman who’s never a damsel in distress. Rapace is best known for portraying Lisbeth Sander in the original Swedish Girl With the… movies, and that attitude combines with Rapace’s striking features to make a female protagonist who only highlights the deficiencies in the films’ depiction of Irene Adler (although McAdams definitely makes the most of her time on screen). Stephen Fry is both an obvious and inspired choice for Mycroft Holmes, his effortless dry wit and charm easily a match for Downey, Jr.‘s earthier Sherlock. He completely owns the role, and it’s a shame that there are so few scenes in the film where he shares dialogue with Holmes.
Men and women of action.
The biggest disappointment is Jared Harris’ Moriarty. Moriarty is generally cited as literature’s first true supervillain. He’s the Magneto to Holmes’ Professor X, both men existing on opposite sides of the same coin, inhabiting personal universes that overlap more than they differ. In Harris’ defense, it’s an extremely tall order for anyone to approach Robert Downey Jr.‘s total commitment and devotion to the role, but Harris only ever seems like he’s half-trying to match wits. His Moriarty is perfectly adequate, but perfectly adequate doesn’t cut it in a film so outsized and pulpy. Granted, making Moriarty a sneering Snidely Whiplash isn’t the solution either, but a bit more personality would have made him seem more like Holmes’ true equal. He’s definitely not as effective as Mark Strong’s villain in the first film, even if he’s better written.
The film is much less of a mystery and much more of an action thrill-ride, as the film’s central conflict is impossible to solve with the clues presented over the course of the film’s two hours. While a number of clues do appear on screen, albeit very briefly, Holmes solves the plot using the most beloved trick of the lazy screenwriter: the flashback to events that were never hinted at, alluded to or suggested anywhere else in the screenplay. Too many mystery stories have relied on the, “Oh, but you didn’t realize that I did this” trope, which was only ever appreciatively used when it was deconstructed in the comedy Murder By Death. Here, it feels like a total cheat, a deus ex machina where said machina is Holmes’ brain.
Ain’t I a stinker?
Overlooking that, Game of Shadows is a smashing good time, a film that may not be as intelligent as it thinks it is, but is nonetheless wickedly entertaining. Richie’s Holmes and Watson are one of the most chemistry-rich couplings of 2011, and it has some of the most appropriately meticulous action sequences of the year. And it’s all the more impressive because it never once relies on 3D gimmickry to get its energy across. On top of that, you have Robert Downey Jr. shirtless, in tight bodysuits AND in a dress. It’s truly something for everyone.
Rating: 7 out of 10 / B
Would you like me to seduce you? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?
JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and will be your Watson if he can call you Al.