With Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry; Written by Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney; Directed by Guy Ritchie; Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material). 129 minutes.
The 2009 “Sherlock Holmes” was something of a surprise. The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories were an important part of the mix, but there was also a touch of Indiana Jones as well as the science fiction subgenre of “steampunk.” For those not familiar with it, steampunk mainly focuses on stories set in the 19th century with advanced technology, some of which might actually have been feasible then. The sequel, SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, is much of the same, and for the most part, that’s a good thing.
These films make a stab at being true to the characters, even if they go in their own direction in terms of plot. Thus Sherlock Holmes is played by Robert Downey, Jr. as an eccentric who happens to be both brilliant and a pugilist of some skill. He’s also the possessor of a keen and observant eye and a brilliant, analytical mind, which makes him a far more complex character than, say, Basil Rathbone in the classic Holmes movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
Likewise, Jude Law is a Dr. Watson one suspects Conan Doyle would have approved of, even though he’s not at all like the beloved ditherer Nigel Bruce portrayed in the earlier films. Watson is war hero as well as a sharp physician and writer, and Law plays him as an accomplished and competent partner to Holmes. While the pairing of Downey and Law is surprising, together they form a 19th century odd couple, driving each other crazy while proving indispensable to each other. It’s telling that when Watson tells his new wife (Kelly Reilly) that Holmes would have been pleased at their finally getting off on their honeymoon she notes that it’s more likely that he would have liked to have gone along.
If the characters owe much to Conan Doyle, the plot is less in his debt. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows” has Holmes face the “Napoleon of crime,” the nefarious Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Moriarty is Holmes’s counterpart, equally brilliant with the ability to see several moves ahead. The film gets that Holmes and Moriarty need each other because each is the only one the other deems brilliant enough to be a worthy foe. Late in the film the two play chess and eventually ignore the playing board all together as they both play out the game in their heads.
The story involves a plot to foment a Franco-German war, but the details are murky. Director Guy Ritchie spends more time on the automatic weapons the villains use. Whether they are true to the period or not, Ritchie gets what the appeal is in this context, giving us close-ups of gears meshing and machinery moving, slowing down the action so that we can fully appreciate the mechanics of the weapons and their impact. There’s a subplot involving a gypsy fortune teller played by Noomi Rapace of the Swedish “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” trilogy, and her presence here is a shrewd career move. It shows she can speak English and play a very different sort of character, even if she’s not carrying the weight of the film. Like Rachel McAdams in the earlier film (and who appears briefly here), Rapace provides some nice contrast to what remains a boy’s adventure.
Notice should also be given to Stephen Fry as Holmes’ brother Mycroft who is supposedly more brilliant and more eccentric than Holmes. Fry is hilarious and delightful in the part and should please the Holmes purists. His scene comforting Mrs. Watson is one of the comic highlights of the movie.
In a season of some wonderful family movies and some problematic Oscar bait, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” offers a touch of the fantastic and a good deal of fun. It’s fantasy escapism that, for a change, requires no apologies.***
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.