2011 // USA // Guy Ritchie // December 12, 2011 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Wehrenberg Chesterfield Galaxy 14)
Guy Ritchie’s 2009 re-imagining of the Great Detective and his adventures in Victorian London proved to be a luscious guilty pleasure. To be sure, Sherlock Holmes is overstuffed with garishly rendered action sequences and rushed-over plot twists, but the past two years have been unexpectedly kind to the film. Robert Downey, Jr.’s portrayal of Holmes is fittingly charming, while also conveying a man who is supercilious, unpredictable, and deeply unhappy. It’s a performance that never fails to elicit a smile, while revealing the actor’s ability to convey nuanced characterization beneath his trademark rapid-fire witticisms. Moreover, repeat viewings have strengthened the triumph of Sherlock Holmes’ other pleasures: the staggeringly rich production design, the cunning nods to the Holmes Canon, and the sneaky strength of the performances from Jude Law as John Watson and—yes—Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler.
Unfortunately, the new sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, doesn’t possess the same spark as its predecessor, for reasons that are somewhat slippery. The banter between Holmes and Watson is a little slacker, the humor is a little more cartoonish, and returning director Ritchie doubles down on the over-long action sequences that groan under his heedless employment of showy techniques. These include stuttering shifts in speed, smudged and distorted images, CGI zooms on slamming firing pins, and the like. Such flourishes aren’t irksome in isolation, but A Game of Shadows employs them with wearisome consistency. The whole film feels somewhat undernourished and ungainly, especially the script, which is surprising given that Sherlock Holmes’ gaggle of writers (usually an ill omen) has been replaced by a mere duo for A Game of Shadows (Michele and Kieran Mulroney). None of these flaws is glaring, but together they make for a film that doesn't live up to its potential.
Despite this catalog of gripes, A Game of Shadows works gratifyingly well as an honest-to-goodness sequel. It advances its predecessor’s story in appealing ways, changing the stakes while mostly preserving the inimitable snap-and-crackle tone. (In this, the film recalls, of all things, this year’s Kung Fu Panda 2.) Like the first Sherlock Holmes film, A Game of Shadows takes a peculiar approach to its source material. It cheerfully disregards the Canon while also weaving in a dizzying number of references and allusions to Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. In particular, the film borrows some of its narrative turns and window dressing from the Holmes tale "The Final Problem". (If you’re a Holmes purist, it’s probably appalling. If you’re a fan of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it will seem familiar.) The new film likewise recreates the style and ground rules of its predecessor. Although it is set in an anachronism-laden and steampunk-tinged England in 1891, A Game of Shadows is nonetheless firmly rooted in the twisted, secular world of cold-blooded criminality. Ghosts and goblins need not apply.
Indeed, the first Sherlock Holmes succeeded in part due to its nimble treatment of the villainous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong). That film plays Blackwood’s B-movie menace for maximum effect, while also allowing the Great Detective to scoff at the man’s occult-draped theatrics and promise a rational explanation for everything (dutifully delivered by the end). In contrast, A Game of Shadows dispenses with the supernatural trappings altogether, presenting a grim tale of diplomacy, terrorism, and global conflict. It’s almost prosaic stuff compared to black magic and diabolic scions, but fortunately A Game of Shadows features the Canon’s most notorious villain, the esteemed mathematics professor and secret criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, an inspired choice). Moriarty makes a brief appearance in the first film, but for this outing the man Holmes calls the "Napoleon of Crime" is front-and-center.
A Game of Shadows presents Moriarty as a dark reflection of Holmes, an intellectual equal who possesses the respected public persona and daunting political clout that the Great Detective lacks. Moriarty's reach is seemingly limitless. In one of the film’s most chilling moments, the fiendish professor clears a crowded restaurant simply by clinking his glass. (How does that work? Is every Londoner but Holmes and his allies on the underworld payroll?) A Game of Shadows opens with Holmes and Moriarty already locked in conflict, despite the fact that they have not met face-to-face. Taking place several months after the events of the first film, the sequel finds Holmes more unbalanced than ever, obsessed with the web of crime that he sees radiating out from the professor. Moriarty’s master plan alights on simmering Franco-German antagonism, Continental anarchist plots, and a caravan of French gypsies—including Noomi Rapace as a fortune-teller in search of her missing brother—but the details matter less than the archvillain’s persona.
Harris portrays the professor as unassuming and unflappable on the outside, but vain and sadistic within. It's no mistake that Moriarty emerges just as Holmes’ loneliness begins to prick him, nor that the professor seems to take pleasure in his crimes on a visceral level, much as Holmes views each case as a personal challenge. Both men seem self-aware that their rivalry is one for the ages, which allows the film to set up some delicious scenes between Downey and Harris. Most memorably, the crescendo of Moriarty’s plot takes place off-screen as he and the Great Detective play chess, with each man narrating the events in the adjacent room. (This also permits Watson, bless his mustache, to play the part of both sleuth and man of action as he unravels Moriarty’s scheme without Holmes’ lead.) It’s a gripping scene, crisply edited and directed by Ritchie with more restraint than elsewhere. And it ends bleakly, in a manner that echoes Yimou Zhang’s martial arts epic Hero. Even as Holmes’ ability to peer into the future with his vaunted logic sidesteps the need for a brawl, it ultimately leads him to one final, inescapable conclusion. It’s a good thing that Ritchie’s playfulness wins out before the credits roll, lest the film be saddled with a discordantly glum ending.