If you missed the previous installment, this one comes as even more of a shock as Ritchie gets the big budget to blow stuff up and whizz cameras around at breakneck speed, as Robert Downey Jr. pre-analyses his many fights in epic slow-motion and the dialog is never more than a pretext for the next fight or chase. There are layers of CGI holding the locations and set-pieces together, some work, some fail spectacularly.
Any time there’s a spot of bother, we get an unhealthy gun fetish; so many slow-motion close-ups of ammunition loading into pistols, rifles, machine guns, mortars, howitzers; slow motion explosions, bullet hits, kicks, punches, falls and gruesome torture of Holmes. It’s all rather violent with a pornographers’ sensibility.
Ritchie claimed never to have read any Holmes novels, that doesn’t stop screen-writers Michele and Kieran Mulroney plundering the portfolio for characters and incidents, with the climax at Reichenbach. The three of them have taken Holmes turned him into a bohemian egotist with a trunkful of snappy one-liners and added pre-WWI conspiracy in the shape of arch-villain and Holmes nemesis, Prof. James Moriarty (Jared Harris).
Once Holmes former lover Irene Adler (Rachel MacAdams) is killed off in short order, the movie dashes hap-hazardly around Europe, a loose string of incidents pretending to be a detective plot, Holmes and Watson alternately detecting, fighting and blowing stuff up in the company of Noomi Rapace, rather wasted as gypsy Simza, her unconventional looks accompanied by some serious acting and bags of charisma. Sadly Rapace and Kelly Reilly are little more than tolerated in this Boys’ Own Adventure stuff. Stephen Fry in an embarrassingly camp British upper class twit cameo, gets better screen time to little purpose. Jared Harris under-plays Moriarty as a devious, scheming fox, only to have a Dr Evil style plot foisted on him that doesn’t even seek world domination.
Even more than the first film, Downey Jr. is an action man, part Bond, part Indiana Jones, part Jackie Chan, the ridiculous excesses never entirely excused by the light comedy banter with Watson (Jude Law).
If the above sounds like damning criticism, that’s because there’s a lot to dislike. And guiltily I have to admit also a lot to like. Although Ritchie keeps asking you to engage your brain, then turn it off again every ten minutes or so and it may be ‘Schlock Holmes,’ it’s a rattling adventure yarn with a good cast.
Robert Downey Jr is at his best when he has another fine actor to play off; he’s good with Law, best with Jared Harris, whose cold-eyed and very British underplaying constrains Downey Jr’s American leaning toward excessive showing off. Holmes and Watson sparkle with affection, a latter-day Butch and Sundance. But it is when Holmes and Moriarty come together the sparks fly, two intellectual giants in combat. Their climactic chess game at the Reichenbach ‘peace conference,’ contested on so many levels, supplants the crash-bang, all guns blazing escape sequence that would normally end this kind of film. You entirely understand Holmes decision, that mutual destruction is the only way to stop a man without conscience such as Moriarty.
It’s a shame that a limp final ending is tacked on to make it blindingly obvious that the door is open for a third film. Most of us were won over already. We’ve got the Holmes for our time, just like the Bond of our time, Western of our time, or sci-fi of our time. It’s Holmes, Watson, but not as we know it: no bad thing. RC
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writers: Michele and Kieran Mulroney
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jared Harris, Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Paul Anderson, Kelly Reilly, Rachel McAdams