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An Icon Out of the Elementary

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

Daniel Smith/Warner Brothers Pictures

The easiest way to digest “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is to pretend that the film does not concern the exploits of fiction’s finest detective at all. If one can convince oneself that Robert Downey Jr. is playing not Sherlock, but some rough-and-tumble Victorian adventurer — Indiana Holmes perhaps — then the film can be enjoyed, much like its predecessor, as a rambunctious but somewhat shallow romp. Naturally, one might notice the odd similarity between Conan Doyle’s creation and the hero of Guy Ritchie’s film; but that is surely mere coincidence.

By following this approach, one may avoid cringing at “A Game of Shadow’s” shameless anachronisms and the diabolical liberties — to use Mr. Ritchie speak — that the filmmakers have taken with the Sherlock Holmes legend. When given the opportunity to bring Holmes back to the big screen, Mr. Ritchie had two options: either he could stay true to his source material and hope that it would still have pull at the box office or else remix his ingredients to match the appetites of Generation Xbox. He chose the latter.

Out goes the notion of Holmes as a man of thought, and instead we are given Sherlock the man of action. In “A Game of Shadows,” the detective’s keen mind is at its sharpest during physical combat, when he is deciding how best to cripple his opponent. This cognitive effort is played out as a coming attraction demonstrated in bone-breaking detail before the fact. This technique was a novelty in “Sherlock Holmes,” but in the sequel it becomes a little tiresome — at least until Holmes faces off against his intellectual equal, and we discover that this nemesis uses the exact same modus operandi.

The dastardly foe is none other than Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), an unseen puppeteer in film one but now brought center stage. Moriarty is a crafty devil, an academic sociopath who commands the ear of no less than the British prime minister. Mr. Harris — making good use of “Mad Men’s” lengthy downtime — plays Moriarty with lovely sense of controlled menace and is one of the film’s true assets.

Every good villain needs a dastardly plot, and Moriarty is no exception. His scheme involves orchestrating a series of assassinations and subsequent company buyouts in a bid to become a one-man military-industrial complex. He then hopes to plunge the world into an apocalyptic conflict from which he can profit by providing both bullets and bandages.

Holmes joins the dots early on and is soon on his enemy’s trail. Thanks to the huge box-office success of “Sherlock Holmes,” the new story covers international ground from London to Paris then on to Switzerland and a vital peace conference at the Reichenbach Falls. Anyone familiar with the original Holmes canon will — at the mention of that locale — be placing his or her bets on the outcome.

Where Holmes goes, Dr. Watson (Jude Law) duly follows. The good doctor is a reluctant companion this time as he has just married his beloved Mary (Kelly Reilly). A none too subtle attempt — this is a Mr. Ritchie film — on the couple’s lives puts an abrupt stop to thoughts of marital bliss while decimating the London-to-Brighton train. With his new bride in the safekeeping of Holmes’s pompous brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), Watson duly enters the fray. Holmes and Watson team up with a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace), who may just hold the key to preventing the premature arrival of World War I.

There is little to distinguish “A Game of Shadows” from the first “Sherlock Holmes” other than the fact that it takes place on a much larger canvas and is even more ridiculous. The new film shares the high quality production values of its predecessor, with sets and costumes evoking the contrasting opulence and soot-stained griminess of the Victorian age. Mr. Downey remains rather brilliant; his Holmes is a deadbeat genius whose mind teeters on the edge of insanity. “I see everything. That is my curse,” is Holmes’s neat summation of his mental dilemma. Mr. Downey is not just a remarkable actor but also a gifted physical comedian — he did play Chaplin after all — here demonstrated by the way that he ducks and dives around his foes without them noticing.

A shame that the good elements of “A Game of Shadows” are undermined by the film possessing all the subtlety of a haymaker to the solar plexus. “A Game of Shadows” is set in 1891, but its depiction of the past falls in line with a Hollywood trend which sees history as being much like today except that people dressed funny and were too dumb to invent the Internet. Various devices are used to make the scenario seem familiar to a modern audience. Holmes drives an automobile instead of traveling by hansom cab; the bad guys favor a machine gun over a Martini-Henry. Holmes is captured and tortured, Guantanamo-style, while Moriarty’s terrorist bombings will resonate a little too closely with some viewers. There is even a visit to what appears to be a 19th-century strip joint, although the floor show is a chaste affair which is surprising given the Victorian interest in pornography.

There is nothing wrong with a touch of steam punk, but “A Game of Shadows” borders on the patronizing. This is Holmes through the rabbit hole and into a Mr. Ritchie universe of street brawls, booze and floozies. Women are given short shrift, as shown by Ms. Rapace’s underwritten role. Meanwhile, Watson is a boorish semi-thug who still bickers with Holmes as if they were on their 20th year of marriage and is somehow indicative of the film’s FHM approach to its material. Watson is still a doctor, but he kills far more than he cures.

The stylistic indulgences — especially the repeated use of “Matrix”-style slow motion — are presumably meant to ratchet up the excitement levels, but they tend to distract one’s attention from the story and squeeze out the tension from the action scenes. There are moments when “A Game of Shadows” is great fun; but really, this is a pastiche of Holmes rather than a faithful rendition of a character who does not need cinematic surgery to make him fit into the current era. Witness Steven Moffat’s excellent BBC series “Sherlock,” where Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes was updated by simply setting the stories in the 21st century but with the spirit of the original stories left pretty much intact — elementary really.


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