I had a discussion on the social networks last week that went something like this:
Me: There's a movie coming out that has both Stephen Fry AND Noomi Rapace in it, and I don't particularly want to pay money to see it. What is WRONG with me?
Friend: Hey, it's got Jude Law in it, too--and you know that alone is enough for me!--and I don't want to see it, either. Looks like shit.
Me: This is like that time that Chow Yun-Fat and Keith Richards were in a movie together playing pirates and I thought: "How can this be bad?" Hollywood turns everything it touches to shit...
Friend: Well, now, not EVERYTHING. But point taken.
Basically, I was not looking forward to Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011, directed by Guy Ritchie). I didn't like the first film at all. I thought it looked like mud and I thought it was a bit too arch, playing to Robert Downey, Jr.'s screen persona rather than to the character. Add to that my absolute delight with the BBC series, Sherlock, and you have a film that is completely superfluous to my interests. But then, as I note, they went and cast Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes and Noomi Rapace as a gypsy fortune teller and my resistance to seeing the movie with my partner (who has no such qualms--she's a much less demanding viewer than I am) evaporated. To my surprise, it wasn't awful, though there are elements that make me cringe.
All of the principles are back, Downey, Jude Law, Guy Ritchie, Rachel McAdams (who is sadly wasted in this movie), and Moriarty has moved front and center as the film's nemesis. The film is ultimately an elaborate riff on "The Adventure of the Final Problem," with it's climactic resolution at Reichenbach Falls. I don't think I'm giving anything away by this. The name "Reichenbach" is spoken early in the film and anyone who has read Doyle will perk up. But, as with the first film, this only has a distant relationship to Doyle. The things that annoyed me about the first film are still here, including Holmes the action hero and a depressing reliance on "bullet time" action sequences and a bunch of Downey shamelessly mugging for the camera. But this movie introduces a couple of elements that make this go down a bit easier.
The plot finds Holmes unraveling the threads of Moriarty's empire of crime. Central to his scheme is a campaign of bombings across Europe intended to pitch France and Germany against each other. Moriarty, it turns out, has bought up the machineries of war and intends to profit from them. Meanwhile, Watson has gotten himself married, and in order to save the happy couple from Moriarty's assassins, Holmes invites himself on the honeymoon. Holmes ropes Watson into the adventure when it's made clear that Watson and his new wife will never be safe while Moriarty is alive. Holmes is following the Gypsy fortuneteller, Madam Simza, whose brother is somehow ensnared in Moriarty's machinations. Simza leads them to an arms factory in Germany, where the true scale of Moriarty's scheme is made clear to them. They then follow on to Reichenbach, Switzerland, where a peace conference is under way. This conference is a powderkeg waiting for a match, which Moriarty hopes to provide.
This is really two films stitched together. The seams show, but I like the ambition of the thing even if I have reservations about the execution. The first film is the romance between Holmes and Watson. This isn't the first film to load their relationship with homoerotic undertones, but it's probably the broadest of them. This is a farce--intentionally, I think--and it carries the film through its exposition while setting up the more troubling second film. That second film is an examination of the roots of the absolute calamity of the 20th Century. Moriarty is orchestrating a world war, and in this, even his evil seems dwarfed by the horror this suggests. The scenes where Holmes and his friends flee the arms factory in Germany look like a war film. This part of the movie is fatalistic, with Moriarty suggesting that the world hardly needs him to tumble into darkness. It's doing a fine job on its own. Unfortunately, this has the ring of truth. Where the first film was a Victorian adventure romp, this one shades into the 20th Century techno-thriller. There's a line of descent from Holmes to James Bond, and this film feels that relationship. Certainly, Mycroft's connections in the intelligence community suggest all of that. As a Bond film, this is a corker.
I have to admit, though, that I don't need to see any more drag comedy. This sort of thing just makes me grit my teeth. Holmes has long been a master of disguise, but this is taken over the top into abject silliness. Robert Downey looks ridiculous in drag. Har, har. Whatever antipathy I may have taken away from this is only partially mollified by the presence of Stephen Fry. Casting Fry as Mycroft Holmes is a stroke of genius, and contrary to the exchange I've included at the head of this post, Fry absolutely does improve the film, whether from the sly way he refers to his brother as "Sherly" or the way he lounges at home naked, and damn the propriety. Fry lights up the film. Noomi Rapace, unfortunately, doesn't have anything like the same kind of opportunity. Her inclusion in this movie just emphasizes how close to Holmes Lizabeth Salander was, and how disappointing it is that Rapace isn't Holmes. She acquits herself well enough in an underwritten part and looks fabulous, but Madame Simza could have been played by any number of actresses. The other major new addition is Jared Harris as Moriarty. This film suffers a bit of a letdown here, because the one element of the first film I liked was its treatment of Moriarty as a kind of shadowy puppetmaster. Here, he loses a measure of his ability to terrify by virtue of having a face. Harris is good as Moriarty, don't get me wrong, and I think any actor would face this problem, but as soon as you put a face to him, he becomes something banal, he becomes just another guy. This is a small gripe, though, and it's a problem shared with the James Bond movies: Blofeld was a lot more terrifying when all you saw of him was his hand stroking his white cat.
I do admire the film for giving Watson a place in the sun. "He's not nearly as dimwitted as you led me to believe," says Mycroft to his brother at one point, and he's not. He's not the idiot that Nigel Bruce's Watson often was. Part of it's the actor. Jude Law doesn't look like a buffoon, after all. But mostly it's the plot. The climax of the film requires Watson to deduce the enemy agent while Holmes plays chess with Moriarty. Moriarty, for his part, can't believe that Holmes would trust Watson that far, but Watson is totally up to it, of course. Indeed, Watson is the one that saves the oft captured Holmes rather than vice versa. There's more equilibrium between the two.
So, all in all, not awful. Not great, but at least it's not in 3-D. More than that, the film LOOKS cleaner than its predecessor. I don't know if that's a function of improved digital projection at the movie theater where I saw it or if it's some improvement in the actual lensing of the film, but where the first film's visual style was often murky, this one has been somewhat clarified. As I say, it's an improvement. There's also a subtle shift in visual emphasis, though only a slight one. This is more of a costume piece than the previous film. It's almost as if someone in the production staff (likely costume designer Jenny Beavan) realized that a huge portion of the audience for a Sherlock Holmes film starring Downey and Law is there for the eye candy and decided to cater to that by dressing them as fashion plates. The men in this film know how to freaking wear their costumes and it's kind of a pleasure to watch.