Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a dastardly Victorian villain with a Hitler haircut and pantomime King Rat teeth (and dress sense), is apprehended just as he is about to sacrifice a maiden in a Masonic ritual under London. He goes to the gallows, but returns to life and continues his seemingly-supernatural reign of terror, which is supposed to culminate in a terrorist atrocity (involving a new-fangled chemical weapon) that will strike at the heart of the British Empire. It’s up to an ingenious, two-fisted detective, his stalwart sidekick and a femme fatale with mixed motives to save the day – after jolly good punch-ups, spectacular explosions, startling deductive speeches and a duel on the still-unfinished upper tier of the new Tower Bridge.
If the hero of Guy Ritchie’s new movie were called Nick Carter, Sexton Blake or Richard Hannay, it would rate as super festive season entertainment. It has lovely period detail, well-conceived daring-do, a pulp pastiche plot and a great deal of brio, but – and it’s a slap-in-the-face but – Robert Downey Jr’s scruffy, bipolar, clownish blunderer isn’t a remotely credible Sherlock Holmes. If anything, this detective is a return to Downey’s breakthrough role as Chaplin and comes across as the Little Tramp playing Indiana Jones. If he were a new character – a Sherlock wannabe – the film would play better, but wouldn’t then be able to trade on the lingering name recognition value of Arthur Conan Doyle’s character.
There have been basket case Holmeses before: latterly, even Jeremy Brett played him as a drug-addled loon (to preserve a family rating and avoid evoking the star’s earlier troubles, the cocaine usage is unmentioned here), and a run of films, from Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes onwards, have dug into the darker side of the deductive superhero. But Downey doesn’t even aspire to the stature of Holmes – he’s shorter than Jude Law’s Watson, and often seems like the Good Doctor’s comedy sidekick – and can’t summon anything like authority. He’s babbling rather than incisive, and the imaginative attempts to convey his methods through annotated previsualisations of fight moves or montages of clues reduce clear reasoning to some sort of Rain Man savantry. In the canon of screen Sherlocks, Downey fits in with the last American great actor to take a stab at a radical rethinking of the role in a film just called Sherlock Holmes – John Barrymore’s 1922 go at the part: like Barrymore, Downey is good at what he’s doing, but what he’s doing isn’t really Sherlock Holmes but a new character by that name who is rejigged to suit the demands of a contemporary mass audience. In the ‘20s, they wanted Holmes to get married – now, they need him to be a lunatic clown who does brutal kung fu (though, to be fair, Doyle saddled him with a made-up wrestling style this makes a good fist of depicting).
Everyone else is splendid (Eddie Marsan’s Lestrade, who gets an amusing Masons-in-the-police joke; Strong’s baddie; Kelly Reilly’s future Mrs Watson) to adequate (Rachel McAdams’ spirited but not-quite-there Irene Adler), though Law has to go through a plot life from The Front Page/His Girl Friday as he tries to leave 221B to get married and his wily, needy partner goes to ridiculous lengths to keep him stuck in a cycle of danger, abuse and excitement. It also feels a bit too calculatedly like a bid for a franchise, with a hooded Moriarty (an uncredited voice who sounds a bit like Richard E. Grant) lurking in a carriage to take advantage of the tussle between Holmes and Blackwood in some as-yet-ungreenlit sequel.
It’s hard not to enjoy on all sorts of levels, but some of us would like a proper Sherlock Holmes movie now, please …
To bolster his reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle’s dispassionate, cerebral sleuth as a shambling, scruffy, clownish savant – with Robert Downey Jr drawing on previous performances as Charlie Chaplin and Tony Stark rather than looking to Holmesian studies from Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing or Jeremy Brett – Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes slyly poached a trick from George Stevens’s 1939 Gunga Din, which lifted the basic premise of the often-filmed play The Front Page of an adventurer who can’t bear to lose his best friend/partner to marriage and sets out to scupper his engagement by dragging him into a series of boyish scrapes. At various points in this sequel, Downey Jr’s Holmes turns to Jude Law’s battered, frustrated Watson – whom he has ‘rescued’ from a honeymoon in Brighton – and desperately asks him how much he is loving this adventure. The problem is that, this time, the answer has to be ‘not so much.’
Though Jared Harris’s bearded, soft-spoken, cold eyed Moriarty is given the canonical ‘Napoleon of Crime’ tag, his enterprise is less criminal than financial and political. The business about starting a European war to boost arms profits goes back to Basil Dearden’s The Assassination Bureau, Ltd (1969), one of a cycle of crowded, period-set action-adventure comedies which includes Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), the film that first advanced the notion of Holmes as an emotional basket case rather than a cool caclulating machine; it’s also close to the scheme Moriarty was behind in a later, lesser example of the form, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003). The individual parts of the plan – assuming nobody will look for the victim cleanly shot in the head by a sniper at the site of a bomb outrage – are more ingenious than the blunt, prosaic overall scheme. Ritchie comes up with breath-taking moments – replacing traditional ‘elementary, my dear Watson’ monologue of deductions – when Holmes’ POV takes over and his thought process is illustrated: trapped in a cellar, Holmes spots highlighted anomalies which prompt a hallucinatory flashback to the installation of a secret exit that enables a miraculous escape. In the climax, Holmes and Moriarty both think through the fight they’re about to have – Moriarty sees an inevitable victory (Holmes has been wounded) and Holmes concurs, which prompts a seeming self-sacrifice instantly revoked in a way that Doyle took ten years to get around to.
On a scene by scene basis, A Game of Shadows is lively and diverting, but as a whole the film is a shambles which sorely lacks the emotional throughline afforded by the Gunga Din gambit that flags after Watson’s actual marriage. Given that Moriarty murders the only woman Holmes has ever cared about (Rachel McAdams, briefly reprising her Irene Adler), it seems crass when the rest of the movie gives her nary a thought and that Holmes doesn’t quit the comedy antics to get serious about avenging ‘the Woman’. Stephen Fry is added to the team as the indolent, corpulent older brother Mycroft Holmes, who gets his own character make-over as a gay nudist with doddering retainers out of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. Ritchie goes for cheap laughs by having the brothers call each other ‘Mikey’ and ‘Shirley’ and has Sherlock conveniently forget someone he acknowledges as cleverer is on hand in the climax when Dr Watson (‘you know my methods’) is left to solve the puzzle of which ambassador is the secret assassin. Also wasted is Noomi Rapace, the original Lisbeth Salander: a supposed leading lady who has no connection with either male lead and is ditched on the dancefloor when the detective changes partners to waltz with Watson.