Most people would have experienced a similar bug-eyed reaction upon hearing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels director Guy Ritchie was to be behind a new big screen recreation of one of the quintessential figures of late Victorian Britain. So when Ritchie successful cast Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson in his 2009 film Sherlock Holmes, with nary a deerstalker hat in sight, he proved that it was possible to take existing stories and reinterpret them so that they are fresh, relevant and (most importantly) alive for new audiences. The only question remained is whether he could capture magic in a bottle a second time around. Naysaysayers, you may need to suppress your squeals of glee.
On the eve of Dr. Watson’s (Jude Law) wedding, a series of bombings rock London. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) determines that the ostensibly respectable Prof. James Moriarty (Jared Harris) is behind them, and is a criminal mastermind the likes of which the world has never seen. After events take a turn for the worse with Holmes’ special friend Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), Holmes traces a letter back to the gypsy Simza (Noomi Rapace), and the game is once again afoot.
There was always going to be a sense of the familiar to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and director Ritchie’s same obsession with the slow/fast/slow HolmesVision technology that threatened to derail the first outing is simply exhausting at this second go at the plate. Even in the first film, the way Holmes saw the world led to a series of clues that ultimately helped solved the case further down the track. Here deductive reasoning has been thrown out the window in favour of pace, with identities and solutions discovered simply because Holmes decrees it to be so. While there isn’t the same need to establish just how clever Holmes is, there isn’t a lot of detecting going on from the world’s greatest detective. Where there original film used Holmes’ action abilities as a natural extension of his superior intellect, here Holmes is merely a jack of all trades. It is as though the new writing team of actor Kieran and wife Michele Mulroney fundamentally don’t understand the character.
Even the new supporting characters add very little to the film, even with the casting of Stephen Fry as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. He is doddering and hilarious in a Stephen Fry sort of way, and has at least one brilliant nude scene, although he too is indicative of the confused world that Ritchie and the Mulroneys have created. The addition of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Rapace feels like a cheap narrative gimmick to get over the sudden departure of Rachel McAdams, and let’s face it: Rapace was never the most charismatic of actresses, pretty much only adept at looking angry at things. Downey Jr’s reactions to this chain of events are stymied by a script that doesn’t allow him room to breathe let alone grieve. Even the most formulaic of films need to have an internal consistency at least.
The action, having said all that, is still spectacularly staged, especially the sequences on a train. Yet the best moments are still those between Downey Jr and Harris, as hero and foe, simply playing a game of chess and discussing how respectively good and evil they are. The film is peppered with a number of these dramatically strong exchanges, and these add a bit more weight to this otherwise light entertainment. This is the stuff of popcorn fodder after all, although one can’t help but feel that even the lower standards of this film are not met with all the skill that they could have been.
Loosely based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story The Final Problem, there is a certain inevitability to the film’s direction. Holmes fans will know what is coming as soon as the story reaches Reichenbach Falls, although it would naïve to think that this is the end for the titular detective. Even Conan Doyle couldn’t fight public demand for additional stories, with his final solution ultimately giving way to a masterpiece in The Hound of the Baskervilles, written eight years after trying to kill Holmes off. With everybody seemingly signed on for a third film already, we live in hope that the series will climb back up the falls. In the meantime, one of the best modern takes on Holmes is coming back to television screens next year with a second series of Mark Gatiss’ and Stephen Moffat’s Sherlock.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is released in Australia on 5 January 2012 from Roadshow Films.