A couple of Christmasses ago we first encountered Sherlock Holmes in a new disguise – Robert Downey Jr, although not a native of the environs of Baker Street, London, donned the figurative deerstalker and cape and brought a whole new endearing streetfighting quality to Conan Doyle’s much loved detective. No violin playing intellectual, RDJ’s Holmes is more an enthusiastic amateur at disguise than a master of it. His strengths are his fists and his intuition, supported by ingenuity, obsession and a certain characteristic that his beloved gambling chum Dr Watson likes to label as ‘almost psychotic’. Not only that, this Holmes can make us laugh while he saves western civilisation. Thank heavens then that this Christmas we have Sherlock Holmes 2, aka A Game of Shadows.
There are quite a few Sherlock Holmeses out there, from Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett (whom I saw on stage in the role and he was mesmerising) to Benedict Cumberbatch’s TV version which is modern in more ways than one. Nevertheless, it is clear that there is room for more than one and Robert Downey Jr’s Holmes has a niche of his own. It may be more about entertaining the crowds than putting the world to rights but he is very good at it.
In A Game of Shadows, Holmes steals Watson (a rare watchable performance from Jude Law) away from his Brighton honeymoon with his spirited bride, to take on his arch enemy and nemesis Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) who has taken upon himself the task of lighting the spark of war between France and Germany so that he can reap the profits through selling big shiny state-of-the-art guns. Moriarty and Holmes respect each other, as one would expect from Victorian icons of good and evil, and so Moriarty decides to take his frustration and violence out on Watson instead. This, more than anything else, including the threat to world peace, is enough to push Holmes on to the most extreme of disguises and the most extravagant of plots to put an end to it. There are allusions to the game of chess in the film but in reality there are few subtleties, with both sides preferring to blow the other one up or bring down buildings on their heads.
The strengths of A Game of Shadows (its humour, repartee and exotic locations to name but three) are also its weaknesses. Whereas the first film was novel and exciting, and yet still had a mystery to it, a detective story, there is little of that here. Instead Guy Ritchie just lets it all hang out. There is stunt upon stunt and gag upon gag. Admittedly, some are extremely funny (I need to see the film again just to take a second look at some of them), but there are no puzzles and all Holmes has to do is work out where the next punch (or gag) is coming from.
There are some extremely enjoyable set pieces here as the action takes Holmes, Watson and Moriaty to France and Switzerland. The special effects and historical settings look more plausible than they did in the first, although the danger seems less dangerous. While there is little new here with Holmes and Watson – although Ritchie does rather labour the bromance element – there is the added spark of Stephen Fry as ‘Sherley’s’ brother Mycroft. Fry is exceedingly funny in the role, even if he does get naked, and it’s worth seeing the film just for him – as well as the scene with Watson dancing with the gypsies, of course.
A Game of Shadows is an uncomplicated holiday sort of a film. It doesn’t seem to want to be more than that and so it should be taken as such. In a couple of years we may get another and I’ll definitely see it but I will always remember the first as a standard against which all future Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films should be measured. Judging by A Game of Shadows, that might not be sensible of me.
But when all is said and done, it is an absolute joy to see Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes again. He makes me laugh and cry and he can dominate the screen as few actors can. There’s barely a pore that doesn’t have charisma oozing out of it. I take my hat off to him.