Anton Chekhov once noted that if an author mentions a rifle hanging on the wall, by the second or third act that rifle will have been fired in some manner. This theory has been called “Chekhov’s Gun” – and I’d wager that when Chekhov first posed the theory, Guy Ritchie was there to witness it.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is not quite as entertaining a film as the first, though it comes close – Downey and Law banter just as amusingly as ever, the action is effortlessly watchable and exciting, and the plot is intriguing to a point. Where Game crumbles is in the villain and the new accompanying lass, both of whom lack the bite that was present in the first film.
Let’s talk about the positives first, though, shall we? Downey and Law are in top form, and this time they crank the not-so-subtle underlying homoeroticism up to eleven – note particularly an incredibly amusing sequence aboard a train (with Holmes in a trademark humorously bad costume, a fact that he even lampshades casually), Holmes’ displeasure at Watson’s wedding, and many lines taken wonderfully out of context. Added to the mix is the always entertaining Stephen Fry as Holmes’ brother, Mycroft (continuing the tradition of awesome names that Conan Doyle established), who keeps Watson’s new wife safe and has a great number of deadpan snarks himself.
Ritchie continues his signature adrenal rush time warp action – something he has dubbed Holmes-O-Vision appropriately – and it is used to varying degrees of success in this film. While the incredibly satisfying variant of Holmes outlining his plans to incapacitate his enemy and then rapidly executing these plans in real time was used only twice in the original film, they were perhaps the most crowd pleasing moments. Ritchie recognizes this, and uses it far more often in the sequel, to great effect. Where this technique is less successful is in the quick action scenes – in particular, a run through the forest makes gratuitous use of it to the point where the details of the scene outweigh the frenetic pace that it should have, and it feels like it takes them 10 minutes to reach a train a few hundred yards down the way.
The weaknesses of the film lie in two new characters – the gypsy played by Noomi Rapace and the villain. Rapace, a seasoned actor previously from the Swedish Girl X the Y trilogy, that will hopefully be outdone by Fincher’s version this year, does a good job with what she is given, but she isn’t given much. As the new obligatory-female-companion, Rapace lacks the biting wit that Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) brought to the original. Rapace’s character seems far more like a loose end in Moriarty’s scheme that allows Holmes and Watson to get onto the trail and thwart his ultimate schemes; indeed, there is almost no resolution to her character arc at the end of the film, either, leaving her a loose end in the film’s plot as well.
The film also introduces Professor James Moriarty, revealed at the end of the original film to be orchestrating an incredibly elaborate plan throughout the film just to obtain a small piece from Blackwood’s machine (which, incidentally, is the only thing in the film that does not qualify as a Chekhov’s Gun). Here, he is played very ably by Jared Harris as Holmes’ only logical equal. The scenes between the two are endlessly entertaining, and when they end one feels disappointed that they weren’t longer. Though there is a hackneyed and dreadfully disappointing chess metaphor that the two conduct throughout the film (though it does provide for one particularly impressive shot), it is very apt – numerous times throughout the film Moriarty proves himself to be several steps ahead of Holmes in a way that Blackwood never was. As interesting as it is to watch Holmes snatch victory from nowhere, it is equally interesting to watch failure thrust upon him from nowhere. Ritchie is talented at hiding details in plain sight that will then be used to torment or gratify Holmes, and Moriarty gets a lot of the credit.
Moriarty’s weakness, however, is in his plot and motive. For the first hour of the film, very little of the plot is revealed – there are bombings in France and Germany that are being blamed on anarchists, a doctor is murdered early on, and Moriarty appears to be deliberately targeting Watson. Throughout this first hour, however, is the lingering question of “why?” WHY is Moriarty doing all this? For the first half-hour this question is intriguing and exciting, but once that half-hour is up it becomes tiresome – not knowing what the plot is at the half-hour mark of a film is not a good sign. And once the plot IS revealed, in a particularly impressive scene in Germany, it’s disappointing – it boils down to a scheme for money. Really? This guy is one of the most brilliant intellectuals of the age, is friendly enough with politicians to be invited to a peace summit, has the cash to orchestrate these elaborate plans as it is – and he’s doing it all for money? Weak.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is an entertaining, yet heavily flawed romp. There is a moment in the movie where the comment is made that Holmes “plays the game for the game’s sake”; the film does the same. It’s a pity, because the film would be all the better if Moriarty played the game for the game’s sake as well.
* * 1/2