Review: Robert Downey Jr. benefits from Moriarty as bad guy in Ritchie's 'Sherlock' sequel
One of my favorite books this year was a piece of fiction written by UK film critic Kim Newman, a collection of stories called "Moriarty - Hound Of The D'Urbervilles". It is a series of tales narrated by Col. "Basher" Moran, second-in-command to the insidious Professor Moriarty. The stories boast about successful wrongdoing and brag about various schemes gone right, and in all of them, Moriarty is presented as a barely-human monster with a bland face. It is a wonderful way to revisit the world of Sherlock Holmes from a new perspective, and it is pretty much pure fun.
One thing that is clear when you look at the entire body of work that exists out there about Sherlock Holmes and the various characters he's collided with over the years is that he remains one of the most elastic, archetypical pulp characters ever created. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle probably didn't even fully understand the allure of the character, which is true most of the time when someone has that moment of pure inspiration. In the stories he wrote, Doyle was careful to drop plenty of bread crumbs that other writers and readers have picked up over the years, clues to ways you could reinterpret or reimagine or even just reexamine the characters. If you don't like one interpretation, there's always another just around the corner, and there's probably some version out there that will exactly scratch whatever itch you have concerning the ongoing adventures of the world's crankiest genius and his stalwart if unspectacular companion.
One of the things I loved about Newman's book is the way he textured in references to the Doyle stories, demonstrating an encyclopedic knowledge of the work while also taking advantage of all the unfinished corners left in the stories. I find that for my tastes, the closer you stick to the Doyle, the more I enjoy it. For that reason, I find the Guy Ritchie "Sherlock Holmes" series to be a fascinating litmus test when it comes to people's reactions. I've ready plenty of reactions from people attempting to muster up some sense of outrage over all of the ways he's changed things, and more often than not, the changes they mention aren't changes at all. Certainly with this second film, "Sherlock Holmes - A Game Of Shadows," Ritchie, along with screenwriters Kiernan and Michelle Mulroney, has gone out of his way to layer in some really lovely references to the print version of the greatest villain Sherlock ever faced while also creating their own version of Professor Moriarty.
That's a tough character to get right, and one of the reasons I loved the Kim Newman book was because he was smart enough to offer up a few personal glimpses at this evil genius at the center of a spider's web of crime while also keeping some mystery about his nature and his plans. Even his closest criminal conspirator, Col. Moran, knows next to nothing about him except what Moriarty chooses to reveal.
From the start of this film, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is on the trail of Professor Moriarty, who he has slowly become convinced is the root of all evil. He's done his best to leave Watson (Jude Law) out of things, especially since he's about to finally marry Mary (Kelly Reilly), which means he's out of the detective game for good. In a tense opening sequence involving Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the bad girl Holmes can't help but love, we see that Moriarty will do whatever he has to do to rattle Holmes and send him a message about how things work. When Sherlock doesn't take the hint, Moriarty targets the newly-married Watsons, and Sherlock has no choice but to involve them in a frantic search to figure out how a gypsy girl named Simza (Noomi Rapace) and her missing brother somehow figure into Moriarty's endgame.
The easy move would have been to cast a big giant movie star as Moriarty, and there was much talk about Brad Pitt playing the part for a while. While I'm sure he could have done it and would have been plenty interesting doing so, I'm glad it didn't turn out to be a star like that. Instead, Jared Harris manages to skirt that line for most audience of "Do I know him?" and "Who is that?", and it works for the character because he doesn't have a ton of baggage. He's also smart enough to know that you can't go big when you're playing opposite Robert Downey Jr., because he's going to be the center of gravity no matter what. Harris underplays admirably, as if he's holding all of humanity at arm's length, feeling little for them aside from curiosity and a slight disgust.
As much as Downey, Guy Ritchie is the co-star of the film. Once again, he's taken advantage of the giant budget he gets for these movies to bring a long-lost London back to life. I love the particular moment that these films are set in anyway, as modernization tries to drag London into the future while wrestling with the history that is always alive at the edge of things. In this film, London is little more than a chessboard for a game between these two giant intellects, each approaching the other as little more than an abstract problem at first, but finally realizing that they're going to have to get their hands dirty if they're going to win. Ritchie's sense of style in the action sequences is on full display this time, and there are several major set pieces here that really deliver, including a run through a forest that is visually dynamic, as strong a visual idea as the boxing match at the end of "Snatch."
More than that, though, he's made room for Downey to grow into the role a bit more, and the Holmes we see in this film is feeling less and less complete as a person precisely because of the personal toll this private war is taking on him and those around him. There is a sense here that the relationships have all progressed since the end of the first film, and the returning cast is all very good together again. There are some strong new additions as well, and Harris really does emerge here as an equal for Holmes. I don't think Noomi Rapace adds much to the movie, but that's more a fault of the script than anything else. She's furniture for much of the movie, and anyone who comes looking for the dynamic energy of her work as Lisbeth Salander is going to be disappointed. I really did like the addition of Stephen Fry as Mycroft, and knowing that Fry is a giant Holmes nut makes it fun to watch what choices he makes in playing the part of Sherlock's equally brilliant and odd brother.
If you didn't care for the first "Sherlock Holmes," I doubt this one will suddenly win you over. They are very much of a piece, but I prefer this one because I think the villain works better, and I think they make some great choices towards the end of the film. I do think there's a stretch in the middle of the film where it gets bogged down and has trouble maintaining a narrative momentum. Even so, when it finally brings Moriarty back in, it becomes wicked fun, and worth your time. I have no idea if this is going to be an ongoing concern for Warner and Ritchie and Downey and everyone else, but if so, it appears that they can indeed recreate the chemistry that made the first film work, so it sounds like these will continue to be worth waiting for.
"Sherlock Holmes - A Game of Shadows" opens everywhere December 16.