Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows (Two and a Half Stars)
U.K.-U.S.: Guy Ritchie, 2011
There’s a level of sheer frantic busy-ness and glibly manufactured chaos in director Guy Ritchie’s and star Robert Downey, Jr. second Sherlock Holmes movie — Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows –that makes it, by turns, easy to enjoy and hard to stomach. This rock-‘em-shock-’em-and-Sherlock-’em Victorian slam-banger from the irrepressible Ritchie (the director of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) is one of those movies that keeps blowing up in your face every ten minutes or so and the story is a nutso grab-bag.
The first Downey-Ritchie-Holmes bash replaced the mystery, romance and brilliant deduction of Arthur Conan Doyle‘s original stories (60 of them, including four novels), with martial arts, camp and crazy visuals, and the sequel follows that formula, slavishly. As the screen keeps erupting into one gorgeously designed, beautifully shot, madly expensive-looking, if totally daffy action orgy after another, Downey‘s slovenly Kung Fu Holmes and his stalwart if sometimes disapproving stiff-upper-sidekick Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) battle the “Napoleon of Crime“, Dr. James Moriarity (Jared Harris) — a genius and professorial fiend who is apparently trying to foment a war between Germany and Great Britain in 1891 (a quarter century before World War I). Meanwhile, Holmes demonstrates his flair for detection and his mastery of disguise — at one point, he brilliantly impersonates a chaise lounge — and tries to cope with his libidinous feelings toward Watson and his mixed sentiments about his old roommate’s approaching marriage, fomenting discord between the good doctor Watson and his bride-to-be, Mary (Kelly Reilly). A gypsy spy-seductress named Madame Simza Heron (played by Noomi Rapace, the killer-lady of the Swedish The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is also along for many of the wild rides.
The old Holmes stories by Doyle exercised your intellect, as well as stimulating your sense of romance and adventure. These new video game adventures of Holmes and Watson, jam-packed with antic mayhem, wild anachronism, and madhouse storytelling, give a battering to your nervous system. The movie is a prodigy of production design (Sarah Greenwood) and of cinematography (Philippe Rousselot). But it also surpasses the first 2009 Ritchie- Downey-Law-Holmes movie for craziness, fulfilling all your wildest nightmares of Hollywood excess.
No shit, Sherlock! The movie, in a way, seems to be a nightmare itself, something Holmes may be suffering through after an accidental cocaine overdose, while Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James) plies him with hot toddies and Watson says “There, there, old man. Buck up, old chap.” And Holmes shrieks “Watson! Watson! We’re in a huge phallic tower and I’m being imprisoned and tortured by madmen and…Yes, it’s Moriarity himself! My God, the tower is crumbling, Watson! It‘s crumbling!“
Truth to tell, I experienced a lot of queasiness and annoyance myself during Game of Shadows. It tends to wring you out. But I also enjoyed a fair measure of this movie, especially when star Downey was on screen reacting with that wry what-the-hell nonchalance of his, to all the unfathomable idiocy and antic mayhem erupting around him in nearly every scene. If you have a move that makes little sense, and keeps going so far over the top that it seems to be endangering the very Ozone Layer of sanity, Downey is a good man to have reacting on screen. No matter what lunatic thing happens here, no matter what fresh (and stale) absurdity is hurled in our faces, Downey can always come up with engagingly jaded reaction shots and what seems inspired improvisatory tomfoolery. He can be the ultimate straight man to a crooked, if not always comic, world.
Here are some examples or rampaging goofiness, as cooked up in lock, stock and smoking barrels full by Ritchie and his screenwriters, Kieran and Michele Mulroney (actor Dermot’s younger brother and sister-in-law) — including a somersaulting martial arts brouhaha with bad Cossacks in a huge, gaudy Victorian bordello during a rowdy bachelor party for Watson; a rapid-fire chess game between Holmes and Moriarity, conducted on a chilly mountain top balcony over the infamous Reichenbach Falls; a fast and furious train ride in which Watson seems in serious imminent peril of losing his virginity to Holmes in drag; the unnerving spectacle of Stephen Fry (who’s played both Oscar Wilde and Jeeves), here playing Sherlock’s apparently shameless brother Mycroft, prancing around barefoot to the elbows before an appalled Mary Watson (whom Holmes previously tossed off that speeding train, for her own good); and the simmering toothsome sight of a potful of hedgehog goulash, cooked gypsy style and served two-smoking-barrels hot to our heroes by Madame Simza Heron. (Holmes declares it the finest hedgehog goulash he’s ever tasted, which is what I mean by wry.)
Then there are the movie’s orgies of slow-motion, during chases, fights, dances, flights through the woods — everything it seems, but Watson‘s potential deflowering — a slow-mo Victorian deluge that sometimes suggests that Ritchie, visually, is trying to copy Sam Peckinpah and Richard Lester and Ken Russell at the same time, but just past their primes.
The acting has Ritchie and his cast doing it mostly ‘70s-style tongue-in-cheek (Downey’s specialty, though you‘ll never see his tongue) — as if Monty Python had taken over Masterpiece Theater for an hour or two. One wonders how these movies bumped into the idea of Downey turning Holmes into a seedy-looking, unshaven guy, with Law’s Watson as his straight-saber friend, but Downey makes it work, just as Harris gets the most of an essentially dramatic turn as the evil, brilliant Moriarity
Downey saved a lot of it — acting and reacting flawlessly, backed by a fine cast that also includes Eddie Marsan (too briefly) as bumbling Inspector Lestrade, and Rachel McAdams (too, too briefly) as wicked Irene Adler. It’s just a somewhat sorry script. Downey is a great actor, I think, never more so than when a movie is blowing up all around him or he‘s forced to disguise himself as a sofa, or somebody or something even harder. I’d hate to think though, that this was his prime, in any sense but a financial one — even though one senses that Guy Ritchie, a real Baker Street Irregular, is probably getting everything he ever wanted to get from this screenplay, and from the legendary Sherlock Holmes, and maybe more. I have to admit: This is the finest hedgehog goulash I’ve ever tasted.