With Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law are back as Holmes and Watson, each refining the Jack-the-lad twists brought to the characters in the first film. Director Guy Ritchie is back, too, again whipping the action along at lightning pace and occasionally stopping things dead to give us a point-by-point breakdown of Holmes’ hyper-analytical take on the world around him. Some will undoubtedly feel let down because this sequel doesn’t – and by definition can’t – deliver the excitement of viewing those elements for the first time, but in fact, this second outing of the Ritchie-Downey-Law team offers a good deal more than simply regurgitating a winning formula.

The title is inspired by that “great game” cited by Rudyard Kipling in Kim, the strategic manipulation of people and nations that was the stuff of foreign policy and espionage in the late 19th century. Here the game is being played not against one country by another, but against everyone by a single man, the brilliant Professor James Moriarty.

Jared Harris plays Moriarty with a measured, arid calm that’s a fine contrast to Downey’s manic Holmes, and there’s genuine pleasure to be had in watching the rigid and punctilious Victorian matching wits with the eccentric bohemian. In discoursing on mathematics and classical music or facing Holmes across the inevitable chessboard, this Moriarty is the epitome of the self-satisfied academic – but Harris’ admirable underplaying can turn on a dime and become quietly sinister when it’s time to show who’s in charge. In many ways Holmes’ equal, the Game’s villain is a far more dangerous brand of sociopath than the great detective could ever become, a man who sees the rest of humanity as collateral damage in his campaign for power.

Some advance reviews are lamenting that the movie offers no compelling mystery for the great Baker Street detective to solve – which just shows how little those reviewers know about the Holmes canon they think they’re sticking up for. A Game of Shadows is drawn from the famous Conan Doyle story “The Final Problem” – one of only two stories in which the Professor appeared – and there’s even less mystery in the original than in the new movie. In the short story, we learn that Holmes has been making himself tiresome to the “Napoleon of Crime,” who makes a single appearance to trade barbs with our hero before returning to the shadows and turning his assassins loose on Holmes. The rest of the story concerns Holmes fleeing for his life to Switzerland, where their rivalry is resolved in an “off-camera” bit of action-flick violence.

In the new screen version, Moriarty’s crimes have been expanded to take in terrorism aimed at sparking a war between France and Germany that will eventually encompass much of the globe – World War I kicked off 20 years early, and all so that the Professor can gain power and profit on a Krupp-like scale. In scrambling to keep up with a scheme that’s far larger than anything he’s encountered before, Holmes is swept by events into taking on a role paralleling those prototypical British literary spy heroes Hannay and Ashenden…a role similar to that which Conan Doyle would later assign him in the story “His Last Bow.”

Here, too, the flight to the Continent and ultimately Switzerland is propelled by a flight from assassins – in this case killers Moriarty has assigned to eliminate Watson and his new bride as sadistic punishment for Holmes’ meddling in his affairs. Once Holmes has removed Mrs. Watson from harm’s way in his inimitable fashion, the Baker Street buddies are free to shoot, pummel and occasionally deduce their way across Europe in pursuit of Moriarty and his thugs.

As in the first film, Downey is funny, charming and utterly believable as the loose-cannon genius Holmes. And as before, the movie’s secret weapon is Law as his two-fisted ex-soldier pal Dr. Watson, cutting a figure so handsome and charismatic that at times it seems that Holmes has partnered up with James Bond in the ultimate action buddy flick. The two of them are an irresistible combination.

Stephen Fry is a welcome addition as Holmes’ equally eccentric big brother Mycroft, who serves the government as a major player in the Great Game. He delivers a large, droll performance as esoteric and plummy as his fine star turn in the 1997 Wilde, simultaneously the canniest man in the room and the most oblivious to social mores. (What a household those two must have grown up in.)

Best among the other featured roles is Noomi Rapace as a Roma fortune teller with roots in the international conspiracy; though the script doesn’t give her a chance to make the kind of powerful impression that her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo role allowed, Rapace remains a fascinating figure on the screen and easily keeps up with the fast company she keeps here.

The film has a good deal of fun with some of the clichés of the Holmes canon, particularly the hero’s penchant for preposterous disguises; where in older movies we’re supposed to pretend that we can’t recognize Basil Rathbone or other actors under the cheesy makeup, here the phoniness of the beards and bald caps is front and center, apparently effective only because of their sheer audaciousness. And the question of the homoerotic nature of the Holmes-Watson friendship/bromance is brought into fuller and cheekier focus. It’s hardly a new take, having been the object of speculation long before Billy Wilder first raised the question in his 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes…but only the truly easily offended will allow these tongue-in-cheek moments to interfere with their enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, one of the most entertaining action movies of the year.

December 17, 2011 · Posted in Now Playing  

So-called purists howled like mastiffs on the moors when director Guy Richie’s high-octane Sherlock Holmes hit the big screen – too violent, they said, too much action and too little cozy armchair detection – but those deerstalker-worshiping fanboys should just lower their pinkies and relax. This is one of the most entertaining and, yes, most authentic film versions of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved sleuth in years.

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April 11, 2010 · Posted in DVD