Just how far can a film meander away from its source material while still staying true to its title? Based on the gospel of Guy Ritchie and his bizarre melding of Victorian England and contemporary gangster movie: pretty darned far. His second Sherlock Holmes film is a wholeheartedly wacky caper that, save for some character names and the odd plaid trench coat, shares pretty much nothing with the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
What Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows lacks in literary accuracy, it attempts to make up for in its dizzy swashbuckling spirit anchored handily by the zippy camaraderie between Robert Downey Jr. as the Master of Deduction and Jude Law as his beleaguered sidekick, Dr. Watson. It’s just a pity Ritchie isn’t more confident in the innate ability of his actors or the engaging story to provide the main trajectory of the movie. Instead he’d rather let the copious action sequences do the talking.
This time around we find Holmes once more facing off against his arch-nemesis and brainy criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), who’s cooked up a scheme to start a war by pitting various European nations against one another. Aside from just loving to cause chaos and being strangely prescient (this is more than a couple decades before World War I), Moriarty is also looking to profit off of the sudden demand for arms by way of his controlling share in a futuristic artillery factory.
On the Holmes front (HA!), our hero is about to lose Watson, his number one bro and bantering partner, to matrimony. After botching the stag party and almost ruining the wedding itself, Holmes manages to hijack the honeymoon and recruit his exasperated friend by saving him from Moriarty, who’s out to hurt Holmes any way he can. This is “our last adventure, Watson. I intend to make the most of it!” exclaims Holmes as the bullets fly and the boys set off on a cross-continent romp to save the world.
Tagging along is Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: original recipe) as the way underused Simza, a gypsy fortune teller looking for her missing brother. She’s essentially meant to act as the lead female presence in the film and despite Rapace’s natural formidable presence and fantastic gypsy wardrobe, she’s mainly required to run and look worried, and that’s about it.
Actually, the plot in general doesn’t really matter much as Ritchie and screenwriters Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney seem much more interested in having their characters stage acrobatic fights with hulking Cossack assassins, setting up excuses for them to perform slow-motion ballet while dodging gunfire in a dense forest, and allowing a reason for Stephen Fry as Holmes’ genial brother Mycroft to trot about naked (which he seems to do in every movie he’s in).
It’s diverting and admittedly enjoyable but it would also be nice to see some of that eye candy stripped away in favour of occasionally focusing on the simpler pleasures of a well-told adventure yarn instead.
On his end, Ritchie just can’t seem to grasp exactly how to tell a straightforward story so he continues to fall back on the same super-slow visual effects he used in the first film. Sure it’s cool to watch Holmes’ ability to foresee exactly how a fight will eventually play out: the first time. Ritchie uses this trick 3 or 4 times during the film’s 2 hour and 8 minute runtime, leaving one to wonder if these sorts of flash and dazzle tricks are all he has in his arsenal and whether a brutal edit might have made for a sharper, more consistently enjoyable hour-and-45-minute film.
As it stands, with its engrossing-yet-obscured-by-over-the-top-CGI plot, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is little more than elementary, my dear moviegoer and for those with a clue about what to look for in a good popcorn movie, that won’t prove to be quite enough.