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Two years ago, when the celebrated consulting detective of Baker Street was yanked onto the big screen for the first time in the 21st century, a big divide separated the traditionalists resistant to accepting the idea of Sherlock Holmes as an East End fight club habitue and mostly younger audiences who found director Guy Ritchie‘s slow-motion action moves completely cool. The argument quickly became a moot point, after Warner Bros.’ steam-punk-style action mystery grossed an astounding $524 million worldwide. With more of the same on view in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, everyone will know where they stand ahead of time, meaning old fogies are duly warned and fans will happily return for more.
If anything, Robert Downey Jr.‘s Holmes looks even worse this time around, as he’s bruised and battered almost throughout this new adventure, which pits him against his most formidable opponent, the diabolical Professor James Moriarty. But a good deal of Holmes’ time here, at least initially, is spent distracting his close associate Dr. Watson (Jude Law) from his expected duties at his wedding and on his honeymoon before he manages to literally push the bride aside altogether.
A distinguished Oxford professor and author who’s every bit as clever as Holmes, Moriarty (Jared Harris) announces his malicious intentions at the outset by dispatching Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the coquette who toyed with Holmes’ affections last time around, and plotting a terrorist campaign aimed at Europe’s ruling political class. The long and short of it is that the far-sighted Moriarty is engaged in cornering the market on armaments while staging assassinations and otherwise creating rifts between nations in order to hasten a continent-wide conflict. “War on an industrial scale is inevitable,” he warns Holmes. “All I have to do is wait.”
Unfortunately, Ritchie and his new scenarists, Michele and Kieran Mulroney, who co-wrote and directed Paper Man in 2009, largely eschew the sort of delicious cat-and-mouse game that could have maximized this face-off between two such worthy opponents, saving their only extended encounter for the climax. Instead, along with the prolonged drunken shenanigans that precede Watson’s wedding to Mary (Kelly Reilly) and the honeymoon train trip that follows, a great deal of time is consumed by their adventures with a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace, the star of the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels) and the revolutionary circles she is able to help them infiltrate.
These tangential escapades allow for the sorts of scenes that seem to have become the raison d’etre of the franchise. These involve lots of costume changes for Holmes, who at one point appears in the Watson honeymoon train compartment in drag, and the trademark slo-mo, herky-jerky action set pieces in which every move Holmes intends to make is pre-visualized in all its intricate detail, then repeated with speed to show how it all plays out. The wardrobe foolishness comes off fine thanks to Downey’s deadpan unashamedness, while the action stuff, perhaps arresting the first couple of times you see it, already seems hackneyed, mannered and overworked, an affectation of diminishing returns.
What one’s left with, then, is an elaborate entertainment that whooshes along through the messy streets and posh clubs of 1891 London; aboard boats, trains, horseback and Holmes’ early horseless carriage along unpaved thoroughfares, through forests and over mountains; into the rarefied corridors of power in the capitals of Europe; onto the stage of the Paris Opera during a performance of Don Giovanni, and into warehouses and factories that already seem filled with enough arms to fight World War I, which Moriarty would be disappointed to learn is still more than two decades away rather than around the corner.
After quite a few tedious detours and distractions, when the film finally gets down to the business of a climax at a gathering of elite European diplomats in a precariously perched Swiss mountain castle, it becomes not half-bad. A clever assassination plot comes to a head while Holmes and Moriarty sit down to a game of chess as they articulate their differences, leading to a mighty struggle that does nothing if not set up a sequel.
Aside from the screenwriters, the same core team from the first outing has been reassembled, making for an absolutely consistent look, sound and feel to the proceedings. Thanks to returning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, production designer Sarah Greenwood, costume designer Jenny Beavan and a large effects crew, the images are gritty and densely packed, and static is a word Ritchie and editor James Herbert have never heard of. Hans Zimmer incorporates a good deal of his greatly effective score from the original into this one, with new elaborations as well.
With Watson’s marriage on the line, Downey and Law raise the level of their sparring a notch from last time; that their portrayals of these famous characters are so distant from the original conceptions has now been proven irrelevant, perhaps even a plus to modern audiences. Stephen Fry adds an amusing new flavor as Holmes’ outsized, politically connected brother, Mycroft. Harris is fine as Moriarty, while Rapace gets no chance to show her previously established talent in her stereotypical gypsy role.
Opens: December 16 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Silver Pictures, Wigram Productions
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams, Paul Anderson, Thierry Neuvic, Geraldine James
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenwriters: Michele Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney
Producers: Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, Susan Downey, Dan Lin
Executive producers: Bruce Berman, Steve Clark-Hall
Director of photography: Philippe Rousselot
Production designer: Sarah Greenwood
Costume designer: Jenny Beavan
Editor: James Herbert
Music: Hans Zimmer
PG-13 rating, 128 minutes
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