A warning to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle purists: “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is probably not your cup of tea. This Sherlock is the invention of director Guy Ritchie and actor Robert Downey Jr.—an eccentric sleuth as skilled in the martial arts as he is in observation—just as he was in the 2009 prequel to this film.
And his relationship to Dr. John Watson, usually portrayed as the stodgy recorder of Holmes’ exploits, is more like that of Abbott to Costello or maybe Crosby to Hope in the old “Road” movies. Yes, even the tiresome Watson of earlier renditions was often called on to summon his military prowess to assist Holmes in his adventures, but the Watson conceived by Ritchie and actor Jude Law spends less time as biographer than he does as comrade-in-arms/ straightman. In fact, it’s the kind of Hope/Crosby banter between the pair that distinguishes Ritchie’s incarnation as much as Downey’s indulgently erratic behavior. And it’s definitely the key to sharing the fun the two leading men are obviously having in their roles.
Of course, there would be no Sherlock Holmes without crime afoot, and thanks to the muddled imaginations of screenwriters Michele and Kieran Mulroney, there is plot to spare—this time, set in motion by the evil plans of Holmes’ iconic foe, Prof. James Moriarty. Holmes, apparently separated from Watson since the last film, has become obsessed with the idea that Moriarty is responsible for a series of earth-shaking (literally and figuratively) events that threaten to bring the world to the brink of war. One of these—a bombing in Strasbourg—briefly reunites Sherlock with his would-be paramour, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), whose presence is happily not required for the remainder of the film. But she does set a plot in motion that endangers a Romany fortune teller, her anarchist brother and a planned assassination.
Meanwhile, back on Baker Street, Watson finds Holmes has transformed his digs into a jungle of exotic flora and fauna dedicated to developing the latest poisons and medicinal potions his craft might demand. Always a “master of disguise,” Holmes has also come up with the ultimate camouflage technique, a talent that will later deliver the film’s unforgettable visual punchline!
Watson’s visit has a purpose. On the eve of marriage to his beloved fiancée Mary, he finds Holmes has failed to plan the traditional stag party he expects. Instead, he is forced to spend the evening at a rowdy London club in the company of Sherlock’s stuffy older brother Mycroft and his best bud, “Shirlie,” as Mycroft patronizingly calls his younger brother. Played to perfection by the immediately recognizable British actor Stephen Fry, the misanthropic Mycroft holds an apparently powerful government post that will forever go unidentified, but often comes in handy.
Instead of a bachelor party, what Holmes has planned is the first of their adventurous moves in this “Game of Shadows”—a wildly acrobatic match between our hero and a Cossack thug hired to do away with the fortuneteller (nicely played by Noomi Rapace—the actress who starred in the Swedish film trilogy based on “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo)—who wisely decides to join forces with her defenders to rescue her brother from unwittingly executing Moriarty’s dastardly assassination plan.
But friendship is foremost, and Holmes must first prevent collateral damage to the newlywed Watsons, a threat Moriarty has nastily imposed at a formal meeting between the antagonists. It is here that Holmes realizes his status as the smartest man in the room doesn’t quite hold up when the other man in the room is Moriarty, played with consummate skill by Jared Harris.
On the surface, a respected citizen, perceived by the civilized world as a mild-mannered author and math professor, Moriarty is, of course, the sociopath bent on world domination that only Holmes sees through. This diabolical mastermind, with a coterie of henchmen led by Paul Anderson, turns out to be both a mental and physical match for Holmes—down to the device, introduced in Ritchie’s first film—of empowering Holmes’ with the ability to narrate his dazzlingly choreographed physical encounters in slow motion in the moments before they actually take place.
Repeating their collaboration with Ritchie on the first “Sherlock,” Director of Photography Philippe Rousselot and Production Designer Sarah Greenwood immerse us in the sights and sounds of Victorian London including an early horseless carriage, the elaborate passenger train that doesn’t quite manage to get the Watsons to their honeymoon in Brighton, and a Swiss peace conference where their fateful meeting culminates in the ultimate Holmes-Moriarty confrontation at Reichenbach Falls.
Yes, it’s a lot to take in—a lot of noise and a lot of testosterone. By the way, the buzz about a repressed homosexual relationship between Holmes and Watson that dogged Ritchie’s first film are put to rest with campy acknowledgement in the second. “Lie down with me,” a half-naked Holmes commands Watson—in order to save him from an explosion. And more than once, the well-tailored doctor—like a fussy wife—tells Holmes: “I’m not going out with you dressed that way—” particularly, a turn in Victorian drag that Holmes concedes is “not my best disguise.”
In short, if you can bear the poetic license Ritchie takes with Conan-Doyle’s originals, you may just have as much fun in the audience as Downey and Law are clearly having on screen.
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” opens Friday, Dec. 16.