There is something that remains itching when you think about a Guy Ritchie adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective Sherlock Holmes. Especially if it is to star American smart talking wise-ass Robert Downey Jr. And even with knowledge of the very entertaining 2009 first effort, the very idea, when anticipating sequel A Game of Shadows, is wrong. Just so wrong.
And it almost goes wrong in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Let me just list some of the movies’ faults, and then continue with its strong points; because the film does have them and they do save it.
The first thing that is wrong is the plot. It starts in the middle of Holmes’ investigations into a series of diverging but connected crimes planned and executed by his literary arch-nemesis: Professor James Moriarty. That is just wrong: Holmes is all about figuring out a mysterious puzzle, and finding the culprit. Starting halfway through leaves very little detectiving to do.
As a result the story is rather thin, and for a ‘Napoleon of Crime’ Moriarty (excellently played by Mad Men’s Jared Harris) has a rather boring big scheme. It is merely an excuse to send Holmes and his sidekick Watson (Jude Law) to Paris and Germany. But I think that Homes should never leaveLondon, let alone England (see what happens to him when he ventures to Switzerland).
The first half of the film is self-indulging, surface-obsessed baroque gets-the-blood-from-under-your-fingernails kinda affair without any emotional pull or narrative necessity. The relationship between Holmes and Watson, the centerpiece of any good Conan Doyle adaptation and a strong element in the previous film, is not further developed.
It is only past the halfway mark; during the German set piece; that stuff starts to really happen, for the characters I mean. Suddenly the stakes are raised, there is some serious danger and Holmes and Dawson are forced to redefine their partnership.
This is the moment that the good casting starts to pay of, and Downey Jr. and Jude Law finally get to do more than bicker like an elderly couple. Unfortunately it is also the moment at which it becomes apparent that Stephen Fry serves as mere comic relief, and that the fabulous Noomi Rapace’s is underused as a Gipsy fortune teller – a possible romantic interest for Holmes that is never developed, perhaps because of memories of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, in this film in a cameo role). Infuriatingly, here it is the poor execution of the film’s first half that robs the good second half of the emotional heft that it could possibly have.
But there are Downey Jr. and Law, and they shine. And Moriarty is a worthy opponent to Holmes, excelling in the same skills that make the detective such a formidable chess player and fighter. You will truly hold your breath during the Reichenbach-set climax. Unfortunately it is followed by a franchise-perpetuating cheat in the final scene. But that is just something you have to live with when watching these kinds of films.