'Sherlock Holmes': Big, Loud Distraction
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"This is so deliciously complicated," Robert Downey Jr.'s title detective announces at one point deep into the indeed rather convoluted "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." Speak for yourself, Sherlock, about the "delicious" part at least. This second installment in the maybe 2,000th cinematic reboot of the legendary fictional 19th-century sleuth is nothing to get in a huff about, but you know, maybe "delicious" is pushing it a bit.
Produced by commercial action master Joel Silver and directed by no-longer-mavericky Brit post-lad filmmaker Guy Ritchie, this new "Holmes" opens, after some narration from second banana Watson (Jude Law), with Sherlock in a bad disguise stalking London streets, tailing sort-of paramour Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) as she delivers a mysterious package. Irene and Sherlock still enjoy the strange relationship established in the first film: She's a bad-but-not-evil gal who likes toying with the guy. (Not exactly the character originally conceived by Conan Doyle, but if we start getting into that issue relative to this film, this review's going to take up more bandwidth than the Internet has on tap.)
So she delivers him to some Victorian narsty fellers who are gonna rough him up in an alley, and here we are treated to the filmmakers' newfangled conception of Holmes' famed deductive method: a kind of quick-cutting ESP thing with sepia-toned images of violence combined with Holmes' voiceover reasoning things through and coming to a decision on how he's going to handle the variables of the threat to come. Which is followed by a similarly quick-cut, frenetic depiction of the action as it actually happens, which you can tell is actually happening because it's not sepia-toned. So you get two not very coherent action sequences for the price (to your pocketbook, your retinas, your frontal lobe) of one! Nifty, if you like that sort of thing.
And if you like that sort of thing, this movie has plenty of it, from multi-big-gunned shoot-outs on trains going over high bridges to multi-multi-bigger-gunned shootouts at munitions plants and more. In between these handsomely mounted sequences, some characters appear, including Holmes' archnemesis Professor Moriarty, a criminal kingpin who's here seen actually doing some professoring. Moriarty is played by a bearded Jared Harris, who seems pretty comfortable as the archvillain. Everybody in the cast seems pretty comfortable, including Stephen Fry as Holmes' brother Mycroft and Kelly Reilly (still fondly remembered in these quarters for her work in "Mrs. Henderson Presents") as Watson's new wife, Mary.
I'm sure Joel Silver keeps his cast members very comfortable, but I also suspect their insouciance has to do with their awareness that what's at stake in the film has little to do, finally, with their characters. Indeed, the picture has little compunction about disposing of what one might have supposed to be a major character in the Holmes saga right at the outset of the film. The players are replaceable; other new ones here include a gypsy fortune-teller (Noomi Rapace, of the original Swedish Millennium trilogy films) whose errant brother may be a pawn in Moriarty's diabolical game. The game involves both a chess match with Holmes and a plot to sink Europe into war, and it is complicated and, in fact, hard to follow. Largely because it cheats. A big key to the mystery here is withheld from the audience until the very end, an old Agatha Christie trick, if I recall. No matter.
The point is that it does get wrapped up in a nice neat (and big) bow at the end, giving the impression, what with all those chases and explosions and all, of having given the audience quite a ride. Never mind that any emotional or psychological engagement has either been skirted or entirely taken for granted because the film's dealing with mythic, iconic characters who are perhaps expected to make that sense of engagement automatic. As big, loud moviemaking goes it's not quite as devoid of charm as it could have been, and things being as they are these days, that's saying something.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.