A crippled veteran, returning to London from Afghanistan and forced to live on a small pension, finds a flatmate who turns out to be a drug addict. They become close friends and this other man eventually tells the ex-soldier that Britain is heading for disaster but will emerge "a cleaner, better, stronger land" and suggests they rush to the bank to cash a cheque before its signatory reneges. The subject of this highly topical story is, as you've probably guessed, Dr John H Watson, narrator of the Sherlock Holmes stories. He's well played by Jude Law in Guy Ritchie's second Holmes movie as a sensible, intelligent, reliable chap, even if he too readily explodes or expostulates when confronted by his flatmate's outrageous behaviour.
But while the film's art director and costume designer give us an attractive version of late Victorian society, Robert Downey Jr's Holmes is from the end of the next century. His stubble is not even of the designer kind, his dress what passes now as "smart casual". The introspective, contemplative, ratiocinative, philosophic aspect of Holmes gets obscured as Ritchie turns him into a 21st-century man of action in the mould of Indiana Jones and Daniel Craig's ultra-tough James Bond. We know that Holmes practised the martial art known as baritsu, but Downey has the fighting skills of an SAS trooper, the agility of a trapeze artist, the stamina of a long-distance runner and the physique of a man with a personal trainer. Like Bond, he endures pain and torture as he's beaten by thugs, injected by deadly poisons and suspended by a meat hook stuck into his chest.
The background mood is right, a complacent, seemingly optimistic 1890s bustling with energy, but with something dangerous rumbling underneath that is more than the tube station being built near 221B Baker Street. A vast conspiracy is being launched by the great mathematician Professor Moriarty, but only Holmes can do the maths necessary to realise that all the bombings and assassinations around Europe are part of the Napoleon of crime's plan to foment war between France and Germany. The aim apparently is to make the professor rich through his recently established control of armament factories that will eventually fulfil his megalomaniac ambitions. But while the intrigue is persuasive and related to many of the concerns of fin-de-siècle politics and the melodramatic literature of the period, the nonstop action is very much of our current cinema. The movie begins with a vast explosion in Strasbourg followed by similar pyrotechnics in London, Paris and Germany, which punctuate endless chases, fights on trains and battles that result in a body count that anticipates the world war Holmes seeks to avert.
The frenzy is actually increased by the device of sudden flashbacks using high-speed editing to explain how the great detective-chessmaster had anticipated, then executed, a succession of clever moves that resulted in the violent triumph we've just witnessed. There is not, however, too much time in this high-octane narrative for the development of character. Naturally, the women don't get their due. Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the love of Holmes's life, appears fleetingly. In a major comic coup that makes the audience draw its breath and laugh heartlessly, Holmes throws Watson's wife from a train as it crosses a viaduct at night. Noomi Rapace, the striking heroine from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, stalks mysteriously through the picture as a fortune teller as if she'd been told to think she's appearing in the gypsy encampment sequence in From Russia With Love. The three Ms – Moriarty, Moran and Mycroft – come out rather better.
The screenwriters, Michele and Kieran Mulroney, have drawn on Conan Doyle's novel The Valley of Fear for Moriarty's character and background, and on the story "The Final Problem" for the film's climactic encounter between Moriarty and Holmes at an anachronistically named "summit conference" beside the Reichenbach Falls. And Jared Harris plays him as a ratty or foxy type, rather different from the gaunt senior undertaker depicted by Sidney Paget in The Strand Magazine. The ex-army marksman turned assassin Colonel Sebastian Moran is a forceful presence as played by Paul Anderson. Stephen Fry has the right portly build and detached manner for Holmes's older brother, the establishment fixer Mycroft (a part in which Christopher Lee was wholly miscast in Billy Wilder's Holmes movie). He is, however, embarrassing when conducting a breakfast-time conversation with Watson's wife while naked, and he introduces an unnecessarily camp element by addressing Holmes as "Sherly", presumably a reference to the famous "and stop calling me Shirley" joke in Airplane!. Hans Zimmer's melodramatic score incorporates arias from Mozart's Don Giovanni and a jaunty Morricone theme from Two Mules for Sister Sara.
Watching this movie, I was constantly thinking of my friend and colleague, the brilliant wit, critic, novelist, translator and pasticheur Gilbert Adair, who died 10 days ago. Especially his postmodern trilogy of parodic detective stories which conclude at a Sherlock Holmes conference in Meiringen, where Adair himself plunges into the Reichenbach Falls with his own central character. Adair calls non-canonical Watson narratives "Schlock Holmes", but the final book in his series, And Then There Was No One, contains the best Holmes pastiche ever written, a 30-page re-creation of The Giant Rat of Sumatra, a tale referred to by Watson in "The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire" and called "a story for which the world is not yet prepared". I must declare a slight personal interest here, as there's a pretentious movie critic in the book called Philippe Françaix.
Robert Downey Jr. is currently carrying two movie franchises — the Marvel “Iron Man” proto-“Avengers” thing for Paramount and the brawling steampunk “Sherlock Holmes” series for Warner Brothers — so it is perhaps understandable that he is showing a touch of fatigue. In the new Holmes adventure, “A Game of Shadows,” his imperiousness is hard to distinguish from boredom, and he seems to be in a hurry to spit out his lines, take his lumps, throw his punches and collect his paycheck.
Can a movie be hyperactive and lazy at the same time? Clever and idiotic? If the director is Guy Ritchie, the questions answer themselves. Like its predecessor “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” confects a smoky, overcast Victorian world, infuses it with an air of jocular, hairy laddishness and stages a lot of fights in fussy and tiresome slow motion. There is a plot, but no real intrigue, mystery or suspense, and no inkling of anything at stake beyond a childish and belligerent idea of fun.
What a shame. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, with his violin, his deerstalker and his steel-trap mind, has been one of the most resilient and adaptable figures in Anglophone popular culture. He has been updated, travestied and conscripted into preposterous tales so many times — including by Doyle himself — that it is silly to hold his character sacred, or to scold Mr. Ritchie for taking liberties. But you would think that a man of such reputed brilliance and erudition (I’m talking about Holmes) would at least know how to pronounce the word “heinous” or use “crescendo” properly in a sentence. And you would think that a brewing showdown between Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty (Jared Harris), would involve intrigue, suspense and devilish plots and counterplots.
Not that thinking is in any way relevant. There are a few dabs of sophistication — the witty, walrussy presence of Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother; a disquisition on Schubert’s great lieder and a morsel of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” — but these feel random and perfunctory. The real point of the movie is the bantering byplay between Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) punctuated by punches, explosions and action sequences as bloated and pretentious as a 10-minute drum solo on a live album by a second-rate art-rock band from the ’70s.
Rachel McAdams bustles through the action in a bustle; Noomi Rapace lingers a bit longer in long tresses and Gypsy garb. There is not enough of Eddie Marsan and just enough of Mr. Harris, sneering through a ginger beard, to make you root for the Napoleon of Crime against the foppish fool from Baker Street. Who is oddly mopey this time out, as if needing to reassure us of his sensitive, vulnerable side.
Poor Sherlock. He is so desperate for attention, so needy — perhaps because of the competition from the likes of Tom Cruise and Tintin — that you are likely to reach the point of exasperation long before Watson does.Continue reading the main story