Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)
It would be nice if kids or teenagers left the Guy Ritchie “Sherlock Holmes” movies wanting to be smarter. These things are roller coaster rides, like any successful Hollywood action franchise, but at least the guy at the head of the roller coaster isn’t a pun-swilling gigantus, like Arnold Schwarzenegger, or an ordinary schmoe yapping out of the corner of his mouth, like Bruce Willis. At least he’s a supersmart guy. So maybe it’ll encourage a few kids out there to be smart or get smart. One can hope.
On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) have, under Ritchie’s direction, become so glib in their smartness, in their ‘science’ of deductive reasoning, that, halfway through their latest adventure, the horribly subtitled “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” they began to remind me of the satiric 1960s-era Batman and Robin (Adam West and Burt Ward) solving the Riddler’s riddles.
Here’s Batman and Robin from 1966. What has yellow skin and writes? A ball-point banana! What people are always in a hurry? Rushing? Russians! “I’ve got it!” Robin says, snapping his fingers. “Someone Russian is going to slip on a banana peel and break their neck!” “Right, Robin,” Batman replies with gravitas. “The only possible meaning.”
For Holmes and Watson, it’s this dirt on this page, and that wine stain on that page, not to mention such-and-such an inky residue, leading them, of course, to that wine cellar near the printing press in Paris! The only possible meaning.
The movie, while it mostly ignores the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, is bookended by homages. We see Dr. Watson actually writing a Sherlock Holmes adventure, which Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson did, and in 1891, which is the year Conan Doyle’s first story, “A Study in Scarlet,” appeared in The Strand Magazine. And we get Reichenbach Falls in the end.
But it begins with terrorism. Things are blowing up and the newspapers of the day are blaming the right or left, the nationalists or anarchists, depending; but, Watson writes, “my friend Sherlock Holmes had a different theory entirely.” Cut to: a package changing hands in the dirty streets of London. The last hands belong to Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), functionary to Prof. Moriarty (Jared Harris of “Mad Men”) and love interest to Sherlock Holmes, who, disguised as a Chinese opium addict, suddenly appears at her side, warning her of unsavory men following her. Ah, but he’s mistaken. They’re guarding her, against him, and she leaves him in their care. Which leads to our first example of 19th-century fisticuffs, or, more precisely, slow-mo and super-deductive 21st-century martial arts madness.
Are we tired yet of Holmes imagining the fight before the fight even though he has no idea whom he’s fighting? Are we tired yet of explosions, of bullets ripping through trains and trees but always missing our lead characters? Are we tired yet of all the anachronisms, of machine-gun pistols and faultless plastic surgery and the general 21st-century superquick pace of movies—zipping from London to Paris to Germany to Switzerland and back to London again? Or is it just me?
The key to the movie is how to keep Dr. Watson involved. He’s about to get married, remember, and does, to Mary (Kelly Reilly), so he should be out of the picture. But Holmes bolts after the ceremony to confront Prof. Moriarty, who has already killed Irene Adler with a rare form of tuberculosis, and who then threatens the newlyweds. “When two objects collide,” Moriarty tells Holmes, “there’s always damage of a collateral nature ... I’ll be sure to send my regards to the happy couple.”
Soon after Watson and Mary board a honeymoon train to Brighton, assassins arrive, bullets fly, and Holmes, watching over the newlyweds, protects Mary, and the movie franchise, by pushing her from the train and into a river, where brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) awaits in a rowboat to take her to safety. Phew. Thank God she’s gone. We can continue.
To Paris, and gypsies (including Noomi Rapace of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), and a bombing at the Hotel d’Triomph; then to Germany and a munitions factory and a nasty bit of torture; then to Switzerland and another assassination attempt and the final tumble at Reichenbach Falls.
Moriarty’s plan? Corner the market on munitions and start a war. Yawn. Holmes prevents the immediate war but Moriarty, and we in the audience, and most likely Holmes, know it’s a stopgap. “War on an industrial scale is inevitable,” Moriarty tells Holmes. “All I have to do is wait.” Which is when Holmes reveals he’s gotten hold of Moriarty’s booklet of holdings, and, with brother Mycroft, Mary and the underutilized Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), depleted it. Cue anger flaring in Moriarty’s eyes. Cue both men imagining the fight before it happens. Cue Holmes seeing his demise. Cue the tumble into the waterfall.
Holmes’ fans know he survives. Back in 1891, Conan Doyle wanted to kill off his famed character, of whom he was tired, but there was such a yap of protest that he brought him back again, with convenient explanations for his survival. So my only question, as I watched a saddened Dr. Watson finish his story of the demise of Sherlock Holmes, typing in THE END, was whether the filmmakers would give hints that Holmes was alive or save it for the second sequel. Neither. They showed us Holmes alive, mischievously adding a question mark to Watson’s manuscript: THE END? Which, I admit, I thought was a nice touch.
But overall the script by the Mulroneys, Michele and Kieran, isn’t as clever as the first, which was written by a gang of four. The characters are now broader, the explosions bigger, the roller coaster ride blurrier. I was bored. Trees getting blown up don’t excite me. Good dialogue excites me.
You know which Holmes excites me? The one from the new BBC series, “Sherlock,” starring—and this has got to be the greatest British name that Charles Dickens didn’t invent—Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s set in modern times. He texts, he’s got a website, and Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman, who played Tim on “The Office”) is a veteran of the Afghanistan war. They bring Holmes to the 21st century. The Guy Ritchie films keep Holmes in the 19th century but lavish him with the flotsam and impatience and violence and general stupidity of ours. They’re about a sequel away from the ball-point banana.
You know how Holmes imagines the fight before the fight? I wish the filmmakers, Guy Ritchie, et al, would imagine the next sequel before the next sequel, see the shoddy result, and do the filmmaking equivalent of tumbling into Reichenbach Falls. The End. No question mark.