No wit, 'Sherlock'
'Game of Shadows' trades brains for brawn
By Mark Jenkins
Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011
Victoriana buffs will not be amused by "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," but it's a modest improvement on bad-boy director Guy Ritchie's first tweaking of Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic detective. Not because it's more subtle: This sequel is just as profligate as its 2009 predecessor with explosions, anachronisms and quick cuts. But the dialogue is a little sharper, and Holmes gets a worthy opponent in Professor Moriarty, who might be smarter than Conan Doyle's beloved hero - even if the prof's sinister plot turns to be just plain dumb.
The movie's first moments, set in a dingy 1891 London, establish the bipolar tone. As originally conceived, Holmes was a reflective sort, and so the story begins with papers and the sound of typing. But it immediately hops to Strasbourg for a massive explosion. It seems a diabolical mastermind has begun a series of bombings and assassinations, hoping to spark a "world war" two decades before one actually occurred.
That sort of supervillainous premise owes more to Ian Fleming or Marvel Comics than to Conan Doyle's drawing-room mysteries. And this Holmes is a wisecracking, globe-trotting superhero in the mode of, say, Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. owns both roles, of course, and little more than a costume change and an accent adjustment distinguish the two. The actor plays Holmes as brainy yet highly physical, and keen on dressing up. "A Game of Shadows" introduces him in Chinese drag, and doesn't waste much time getting him into a wig and a dress.
In addition to Jared Harris's vulpine Moriarty, the movie adds an amusing if mostly peripheral turn by Stephen Fry as Holmes's older brother, Mycroft. It also wastes original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" star Noomi Rapace as a gypsy fortuneteller whose action skills barely matter. Rachel McAdams reprises, but only briefly, her role of Irene Adler, perhaps Holmes's great love. And Jude Law returns as Dr. Watson, Holmes's famous sidekick, a role for which he still hasn't developed a characterization.
Holmes's latest case nearly scrubs Watson's wedding, and ends the new couple's honeymoon before it even begins. Holmes, the filmmakers wink, can't bear to let Watson go. The suggestion that the detective has a homoerotic attachment to his sidekick, floated in the first movie, is made even more explicit here. The two men are forced - by a machine gun - to cuddle together on a train-compartment floor, and later share a dance at a formal ball. Such stunts wouldn't be needed if Downey and Law showed any chemistry, but they don't.
That's not entirely Law's fault. Downey's Holmes is manic, self-absorbed and "verging on psychopathic," with little empathy despite his need to do good. The actor frequently portrays this sort of character, riffing on his former notoriety as a drug enthusiast. The movie isn't shy about invoking Downey's bad old days; it mentions Holmes's taste for cocaine, gives him a junkie's perpetual dishevelment - in lipstick that's soon smeared, the great detective resembles Courtney Love - and renders him groggy with alcohol, blood loss and various poisons. Downey does groggy very well.
"A Game of Shadows" draws here and there on Conan Doyle's tales, but it relies more on Hong Kong's hyperactive 1980s new wave, as filtered through "The Matrix" and Quentin Tarantino. Extreme close-ups, violent edits and slo-mo inserts are used to depict both visceral action and Holmes's methodical thought. Thinking, however, is not the movie's priority. The game here is action-farce, and that's better played with swagger than with intellect.
Contains violence and drug use.