That I actually enjoyed the trailers while waiting for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was potentially a bad sign.
Of course the new “Borat” movie will be simply irresistible, but Battleship? Maybe that was why I wasn’t looking forward to seeing SH:AGOS, as I hereby dub this sequel.
In this case, even with the deliciously deliquescent Robert Downey Jr. playing the arch detective and Jude Law as his faithful Dr. Watson, I’d found the 2009 “steampunk” film slightly desperate, especially when springing massive set-pieces of destruction in London’s shipyards and foundries. The dead hand of Indiana Jones yanked the Arthur Conan Doyle source material toward Six Flags territory. I’m not a total purist, but the film also tittered too obviously at the Holmes-Watson partnership, with scenes that felt stilted and obvious compared to any Judd Apatow bromance.
The new Holmes sequel is more of the same. And yet it works–splendidly, dear chap. Director Guy Ritchie delivers a thoroughly enjoyable studio Christmas movie while managing to put some steel ribs in the old Victorian corset. By leaping to the end of the Holmes saga, his duel of wits, quips and fists with nihilist Professor Moriarty, the film provides a worthy adversary. By disposing of the first film’s love interest, overly dimpled Rachel McAdams, in the prologue, we get to discover gypsy Noomi Rapace (the original “girl” in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and let her glower her way into our hearts. The steampunk fling is over, substituting a satisfying historical subtext backgrounded, however fleetingly, in the political tinderbox that led to World War I. The climactic fight is, for once in the genre, clever and surprising.
Robert Downey Jr. continues to be the most entertaining male star of the last decade. Even when mouthing meaningless banter during pointless gun battles, there’s always something going on with the guy. His Holmes plays like a period Hunter S. Thompson with a hint of Christopher Hitchens: people whose truth-seeking mental mechanisms make them incapable of tact. His coked-up Asperger’s dialogue with Law’s Watson is a delight.
The story starts in 1891, around the time Conan Doyle began his own plan to do away with Holmes so he could concentrate on writing “serious” novels. Because Watson is the ostensible writer of the stories, and thus a stand-in for Conan Doyle, the film puts this reluctance to use by framing everything around the phlegmatic Doctor’s upcoming marriage–after which, Watson informs Holmes, he will be done with the detective stuff and settle down for good.
“Hell Hath No Fury Like Sherlock Scorned,” may as well be director Guy Ritchie’s motto from this point on. First Holmes ruins Watson’s stag night and wedding that sets the plot in motion. Holmes gets rid of Watson’s buck-toothed bride and substitutes himself on the honeymoon, on a train. The bromance is on! And funny, this time. Then it’s off to stop an anarchist bombing in Paris, a visual relief from London, and a significant failure by Holmes. Rapace uses her gypsy wiles to spirit our lads across the German border, where all hell breaks loose in a factory of death modeled on the Krupps armament empire.
With guns and money and war afoot, it’s only natural that the wrap-up should take place in amoral Switzerland, at a peace conference held at the summit of Reichenbach Falls–the cataract where, in Conan Doyle’s original story, Holmes met his ambiguous end.
The formula is familiar: Take two friends, one hang-loose, disreputable but highly charismatic, the other reserved, conventional and thus easily embarrassed by his buddy. Add a romantic complication or two, disperse sprigs of whatever’s in the zeitgeist these days and pour, with a heavy hand, the cinematic equivalent of 151-proof rum: chases, fights and explosions. Call it the Pineapple Express Cocktail, if you like, but when it comes to your table, don’t forget to ask for a straw.