By Richard von Busack
In setting up the career of the ultimate arch-villain, Arthur Conan-Doyle may have introduced him wrong-way round. We don’t witness the moment of discovery when Sherlock Holmes first pieces together the vastness of the enterprises of Professor Moriarity: the Napoleon of Crime. And in Guy Ritchie’s hasty and frequently low-class sequel to his 2009 franchise-builder, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, he doesn’t give us that moment either.
The game in question is already afoot: in the pretitles, Holmes introduces himself as a consulting detective and explains that he’s discovered Moriarity’s schemes. When Watson (Jude Law) rejoins Robert Downey, Jr’s Holmes in his flat filled with tropical plants, parrots and barnyard animals, the detective is raving: “He’s been living off of cigarettes, coffee and coca leaves,” says Mrs. Hudson the landlady. Given the dialogue, the scriptwriters were perhaps on that diet also.
The detective is treated as a clown throughout—with cheap wigs and beards and long underwear scenes. He wears humorous goggles while driving a rattly horseless carriage. He’s put on the back of a carnival pony as he rides into Germany; the soundtrack reuses Morricone’s “Two Mules for Sister Sara” theme complete with synthesized mule hee-haws. At the low point, Holmes is even painted with mascara and lipstick. Sooner or later, the hero in a Joel Silver-produced movie ends up as Bugs Bunny. The oil spreads; Mycroft (Stephen Fry) turns up nude and persists in referring to his less-smart brother as “Sherley,” as if he were Miss Temple.
True, Holmes’ hypertextual vision—the gimmick from the first film—is reliable fun. Holmes’ discovery of a hidden staircase from stains on the floor and scuffs on the walls is pleasurable. So is his cold-blooded way of advancing the plot. Gesturing to a suicide’s discarded pistol, he offers it to Watson: “He has no further use of that.”
The tension between Holmes and Moriarity survives Ritchie’s unconquerable urge to vulgarize. This time, Moriarity is kind of a Krupp, as indicated by all the high explosive ordinance in the trailers. But rather than in all the explosions and shootings, the movie’s deathliness is in the end-game: Holmes and Moriarity, in heavy bearskin robes, play a game of chess on the balcony of Swiss chalet. The place looks like a frozen castle in Mordor.
The Professor is a sweet role for any actor, and Jared Harris (above) does it well. There’s a vaguely syphilitic quality to this citizen above suspicion. While his exterior is mild, Harris’ teeth are ogreish, especially in a bulging-eyed final snarl. One nasty scene has M. admiring his reflection in a mirror, singing Schubert’s “Die Forelle,” while putting Holmes through the torture sequence. Many years ago in a movie, Harris’s own father Richard endured something like what Holmes goes through here.
The women seem retrofitted into the script. Rachel McAdams’s Irene Adler gets a demonstration of Moriarity’s power at a crowded restaurant. This demonstration, seen from the fly's eye view of the ceiling, is the movie’s best scene. Unfortunately it occurs some 15 minutes from the beginning.
Noomi Rapace (left) is a gypsy with a kidnapped anarchist brother, but she has no better agenda than a simple rescue plan; she’s the most unvengeful gypsy we’ve ever seen in a movie. The former Girl With a Dragon Tattoo shows off cheekbones that’d make a jaguar look flabby, as well as a fashion models’ ability to make any preposterous hat look fetching.
Kelly Reilly has a very droll profile, but she’s dropped out of a speeding train into a river. So much here depends on the Bond films; Mrs. Watson’s plunge is like the one Lana Wood took in Diamonds Are Forever. Possibly because of the snow scenes in Game of Shadows, there’s a shout-out to George Lazenby, star of that Christmas classic 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That film’s title is also said aloud by Downey’s Holmes for a further elbow in the ribs.
Ritchie seems to forget that there was a romance in OHMSS, and there’s really none here: just the partnership of two men and their conveniently missing beard. The bromance peaks in a cramped ballroom, where a tuxedoed Holmes dances with Watson. Like all the film’s many double entendres questioning the closeness of the great detective and his assistant, this moment is absent of all sexual charge. Unless you’re sexually aroused by stupidity.