Anything but elementary
When you’re a recognizable icon of western culture, like the Trojan Horse or the Three Musketeers, you have to expect a certain amount of adaptation, disrespect, and lampooning. When you’re as recognizable as Sherlock Holmes, and you’re in the public domain, you can expect just about anything. At least he never had a candy bar named after him.
The world’s first consulting detective has been represented by some of the world’s finest actors, such as William Gillette, Basil Rathbone, and Jeremy Brett. He has been adapted in pastiches from Edwardian playwrights to Nicholas Meyer to Laurie R. King, and been parodied and pilloried in the movies by everyone from Billy Wilder to Peter Cook to Daffy Duck.
Two years ago Madonna’s ex-husband Guy Richie directed a new Holmes and a new Watson, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, in a new adventure that was remarkable for its high spirits and humor, its bravura performances, and its grimy, brooding steampunk aesthetic in late Victorian London.
Almost exactly two years later, Richie and his cast have renewed their effort with a sequel that has, alas, less sparkle, less flair, and a less preposterous plot.
What the new “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” does have is the fully-fledged participation of Professor Moriarty, whose presence was only hinted at in the last go-round. Moriarty is busy planting bombs at various peace conferences around Europe, hoping to initiate World War One several years too early. He’s doing this because he has gained control of the international arms industry and will make (you should pardon) a killing, which seems an awfully lame motivation for such an aware villain.
Jed Harris, son of the late, great Richard Harris, provides an amusing Moriarty, though he never quite rises to chilling psychopathic malice. (His dentures do, however, rise to the precise articulation of the late, great Claude Rains.)
Rachel McAdams returns as Irene (pronounced Ireeny) Adler, Holmes’s only crush; she dies a noisy death early on, leaving the field open to the nonstop flirting between Holmes and Watson, which is one of the movie’s few amusing tropes. Would that Downey and Law could carry it off, as they did so much better in the original movie. Unfortunately, their bromance seems to have soured, or at least cooled off, and they have only hints of their old spark.
As I’ve noted, the same is true of the plot. Moriarty’s avarice doesn’t come close to the original installment’s mix of rage and sorcery which, while preposterous, was never boring. The art-direction-by-committee as photographed by Philippe Rousselot, on the other hand, is darkly beautiful in its steampunk way, as it careens all over Europe from Strasbourg cathedral to the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris. (Incidentally, the scene from “Don Giovanni” at the opera is pretty good, though I didn’t recognize the voices.) And the fortress high in the Alps at what is here called Reichenbach is every 11-year-old boy’s fever-dream.
That leaves us with the director’s missteps, and they are legion. Here I’m not even talking about the plot being “unfaithful” to Doyle’s stories – I got over that years ago. I can’t even complain about Downey playing Holmes as a filthy, unshaven slob, even though Doyle describes him as having a cat-like love of personal cleanliness. My problem is with the director’s use of flashy technique to draw attention away from his paucity of ideas.
In his first Holmes movie, Richie devised a whip-quick montage to represent Holmes’s keen observational technique. Here he repeats this device, and pairs it with endless quick cutting in fight scenes, to the point that the viewer has no idea who’s hitting whom; confusing, expressionistic camera angles; and some highly picturesque use of slow motion, allowing us to see artillery shells knocking over pine trees. These are the sort of tricks that a director uses to draw attention to himself and away from the fact that he doesn’t have much of a story to tell. Armed with computers, suddenly everybody thinks he’s F. W. Murnau.
It’s not that he has simply turned Holmes into an action hero: he has robbed him of the feats of ratiocination that have made him one of the most fascinating figures in western culture, and given us a badly-disguised mountebank in return.
If you think I’m being too hide-bound and traditionalist, let me say that I think the new BBC series “Sherlock” is one of the most brilliant takes ever on Doyle’s creation. Updated to the present day, it had me when Watson (played as wry and humorous by Martin Freeman) is invalided home from the same unwinnable war in Afghanistan as the original Watson was 124 years ago. Benedict Cumberbatch (alarming name!) is as brilliant, north by northwest, as Jeremy Brett was in the title role, going even further in the direction of the borderline sociopath who now uses nicotine patches instead of Holmes’s pipe. “It’s a three-patch problem,” he mutters to Watson. Richie’s Holmes is worth a cheap matinee, but the BBC’s Holmes will give you an absorbing evening at home with the decanter of port and a chunk of Stilton.