Director Guy Ritchie’s second movie about Sherlock Holmes isn’t, of course, about what detective story fans think of when they think of Sherlock Holmes at all. Ritchie has Robert Downey Jr. playing an action movie hero called Sherlock Holmes, and the moviemaker has borrowed a few proper nouns and an occasional idea from Conan Doyle’s original stories about the great London detective.
For example, the Sherlock Holmes of the new film “A Game of Shadows” has a sidekick named Dr. Watson and played by Jude Law. He isn’t much like the original Watson, a loyal and courageous but sort of stolid and formal army veteran and chronicler of his pal’s adventures in “pure detection.” Law’s Watson is a two-fisted adventurer who is willing to be rerouted from his honeymoon to help Holmes chase his arch-enemy onto the continent.
The relationship between the new film’s Holmes and Watson is vaguely homoerotic, particularly early on in the movie when the former is dressed in drag and he pulls the latter with him into a reclining posture, by his side, on the floor of a railroad passenger compartment. But by then The Woman in Holmes’s life, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) seems to have been poisoned by Prof Moriarity.
Jared Harris was a fine choice to play the Math tutor (in Ritchie’s film he is a Cambridge astronomy professor) who is the center of all organized crime (in Ritchie’s film he is a munitions manufacturer who would benefit from a large war). An instance of even better casting is having the great Stephen Fry, long Hugh Laurie’s acting partner, play Sherlock’s older and less physically-active brother Mycroft. He minds the new Mrs. Watson while Sherlock and Watson hurry off to France, Germany, and Switzerland.
Anachronisms abound throughout the film. Moriarity’s factory has a sound system for blasting long playing records. Gatling Guns and howitzers and pistol-size machine guns are all deployed in the passage at the factory when Watson returns Col. Moran’s fire and Holmes escapes through a slo mo hail of lead, to a train on which there will be another moving fight.
Slow motion—stop action photography also figures several times in the style device that gives the movie what depth it has. We see how Holmes imagines the actions which will happen during a fight immediately before the action takes place. In essence, we see his planning for fast physical action. There is a duel of these images of foresight at the movie’s climax.
And there is a visually ingenious but suspense-deflating denouement at the end of the movie. The chess game metaphor is old as a Madonna dance routine. I can’t figure out parts of the plot, including what it is that directs Holmes to the gypsy fortune teller on the night of Watson’s “stag party.” Did they do “stag parties” in 1891? Can you imagine going to a “stag party” with Robert Downey Jr. and Stephen Fry?
One admires the look of things here—the photography was done in a gritty black and white that works in church, in the suddenly jungle-filled apartment at 221B Baker Street, and at the castle over the Reichenbach Falls. Ritchie also has enough sense not to stop too long to explain anything. His are not stories of ratiocination. This is not your deducing Holmes. This is you karate Holmes, your sharp-socking Sherlock. And, luckily, the great detective has a Downey Jr. sort of sense of humor.
I have no desire to see “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” again. But I did enjoyed watching it once. And heck, what are we looking for from Christmas movies? A couple of hours of diversion between bowl games? For that purpose, this is a pretty good movie.