REVIEW SUMMARY: Silly, with too many subplots and not quite enough brain, this follow-up to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes still manages the same level of energy and dynamism, helped in large part by Guy Ritchie’s energetic pace and Robert Downey, Jr.’s return as the iconic sleuth.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: On the eve of Dr. John Watson’s wedding night, Sherlock Holmes investigates the death of an Austrian prince, whom Holmes believes has been murdered by Professor James Moriarty.
PROS: The chemistry between Jude Law and Robert Downey, Jr., again; the fully-realized Victorian London; outstanding battle aboard a train hurtling through the English countryside as well as the Holmes-Moriarty fight over Reichenbach Falls.
CONS: Lack of memorable lines; emphasis on action over intellect; a screenplay that makes too little use of deductive reasoning and far too many subplots; Guy Ritchie occasionally losing control as director.
The game’s again afoot. Near the beginning of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), on the day before his wedding to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), visits his former colleague at 221B Baker Street, only to find him dosed to the eyeballs on coffee and adrenaline (and perhaps a solution of his favorite recreational substance), and thus in an even more frantic state than when audiences first saw him in Sherlock Holmes (2009)–not surprising, given Holmes’s diet or the studio necessity of cashing in on the title character’s (once again played by Robert Downey, Jr.) previous phenomenal success. The challenge this time comes in keeping Holmes’s restlessness from bleeding over into the picture’s other aspects, something that director Guy Ritchie managed to rein in well in the first movie but allows infecting here. It’s a mistake. Part of what made Sherlock Holmes work so well was allowing the character’s bohemian energy, so anathema to the period, and so often absent of even the best filmic interpretations, to run amok in the staid London streets. But when mania overtakes those streets in the wake of “anarchist” bombings, it dampens Holmes’s eccentricities.
Or perhaps not. Who is behind the bombings? As with most Hollywood blockbusters, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows takes no pains to occlude its antagonist. The end of the first movie all but telegraphs the involvement of Professor James Moriarty (an understated Jared Harris), whose collected and exacting air strike an interesting stylistic foil to the hyperactive Holmes, a dual of Jungian archetypes. Consider the scene in which, shortly after Holmes defuses a bomb in an auction house delivered by Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), Adler reports to Moriarty in a crowded restaurant. Adler chooses the location because she believes Moriarty will not kill her in a public place, yet with a simple clink of silverware on china the patrons and wait staff leave the restaurant with the order and precision of a Swiss watch. (Needless to say, the meeting does not end well for Ms. Adler.) Taking place early in the movie, it sets the tone between the two personalities seldom seen in any iteration: the calculating, Apollonian Moriarty versus the omniscient, Dionysian Holmes. Fans of the canon, especially contemporary ones used to the more respectable air of recent adaptations (a kind of bleed-through in reverse), might recoil in horror. Surely Arthur Conan Doyle must be barfing in his grave.
Or perhaps not, for the reversals actually serve the movie well, and work as a keen bit of misdirection, both in terms of narrative and worldbuilding. Though Holmes tracking of a bomb occupies the movie’s first fifteen minutes, it too abruptly shifts focus on Holmes’s investigation of the death of the Crown Prince of Austria, deemed a suicide by Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan). With Watson and Holmes’s brother Mycroft (a droll Stephen Fry) in tow, Holmes follows clues to an underground gentleman’s club (another bit of misdirection; Holmes lures Watson there on the pretense of a bachelor party), where he meets the gypsy Sim (Noomi Rapace) who has a link to the Austrian prince’s death. After rescuing her from an assassination attempt at the club (in a fight-and-chase sequence that lasts a bit too long), she disappears. A dead end? No, though a rather odd detour, as Holmes must get Watson to his wedding and bid farewell to their great partnership.
Or perhaps not, for Holmes interrupts Watson’s and Mary’s honeymoon on board a train bound for Brighton, where an attempt is made on their lives (in a great scene that lays waste to the train), leading the duo to Paris and Switzerland and among gypsies (yet another reversal; despite previous iterations, this Holmes is very much at one with the Romany), with Holmes following clues to Moriarty’s plot. Or at least screenwriters Kieran Mulroney and Michele Mulroney think they lead there. By focusing on the more physical aspects of the Holmes character (and Holmes was a very physical chap: readers learn in Sign of Four that he was a bare-knuckle amateur boxer, and had extensive knowledge of jujitsu and Japanese wrestling), they often sacrifice some of Holmes’s great intellect. They and Ritchie get the chaos of his lifestyle right, but ask the audience to take several of his leaps of reason on faith. Calling what Downey’s Holmes considers deduction is at times charitable, and it causes the movie to feel jagged and uneven. Forget the scattershot subplots: for some, this might be Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows‘s most unforgivable sin.
Others may balk Ritchie’s style of direction. Understandable, because Ritchie’s kinetic pace seems an odd fit with the material, and in this second outing becomes more familiar; it doesn’t have the shock of the new. And while Ritchie’s use of slow-motion still works generally well when Holmes attempts to deduce the actions of would-be muggers in a London alley, of the assassins on the Brighton-bound train, and in his final battle with Moriarty over Reichenbach Falls (an exceptional moment; to say more would be to say too much), but hinders a key action sequence. Fortunately, Ritchie keeps it from degenerating by getting solid (if not exceptional) performances, making even the most obviously outlandish sequence far more engaging than it might otherwise be. This is especially true of the chemistry between Downey and Law, who played so well off each other previously, though at times their banter degenerates into shrill bickering.
It’s Downey, though, who carries it all off. Though his Holmes lacks the debonair arrogance of Basil Rathbone, the almost suffocating personification of Jeremy Brett, or the detached cool of Benedict Cumberbatch, he matches them with an infectious energy and bohemian chic that often makes up for his specious reasoning. Through all of the explosions, the well-executed CGI renderings of Victorian London (as well as Paris and Geneva), and the captivating Rapace, Downey’s command of the camera in each scene, his sheer Homeric physicality as Holmes, make him far more watchable than dedicated Baker’s Street Irregulars might expect. Chaotic though things might often be, he still maintains control. (And yes, that’s another reversal.)