Once again, the great detective returns to the silver screen, with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprising their roles as Holmes and Watson after the success of Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, director Guy Ritchie returns, and as I'll explain, that's not a very good thing at all. It may be possible that the Guy Ritchie Fan Club may want my head on a pike by the time I'm done with this review.
The first go-around for the franchise saw Holmes spending as much time in action as he was in deducing. Gone was the familiar deer skin cap of so many previous adaptations. Remaining in place was the notion that as brilliant a detective as he might be, Holmes is socially inept at the best of times. His partner Watson routinely found himself annoyed by Sherlock's eccentricities, to the point where he moved his medical practices out of 221B Baker and planned to get married.
The follow-up has Watson getting ready for marriage to his fiancee Mary (Kelly Reilly), but things go quickly awry with the arrival of Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). For those of us who've read the original works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, we're already familiar with Moriarty, seeing as how he's the great nemesis, the Napoleon of Crime. Moriarty heads up a secret plot to drive the great powers into war, masterminding bombings and assassination twenty years before the Great War. He'd profit handsomely too, given that this Moriarty is heavily into the munitions industry.
Holmes and Watson pursue the trail across Europe, running across Sherlock's brother Mycroft along the way (you may want to avert your eyes for a Stephen Fry scene... consider yourselves warned. No, I won't explain.) Rachel McAdams briefly reprises her role as Irene Adler from the first film. And the detectives cross paths with a gypsy named Simza (Noomi Rapace, from the Swedish versions of those The Girl Who... adaptations. Complete aside: did Stieg Larsson lose a bet that required him to start every book title the same bloody way?).
The antagonism between Holmes and Moriarty is part action thriller duel, part verbal jousting. Moriarty comes across, perhaps, at times, like a Bond villain, but that's because he's being placed into a modern action film in period dress and setting. Harris, a son of the late Richard Harris, comes from good acting stock, and plays the role well. Though this Moriarty isn't quite the authentic version we see in the books, he's got an understated air to him, and a suitable menacing charm. I'd like to see more of Harris at work in other roles.
Downey and Law return to their roles as if they never left, and play as well as the material allows. Their bantering and bickering throughout feel true to what they've done before with these characters. I like Law's sheer exasperation at Holmes. And I enjoy that unlike other adaptations of the character, Watson doesn't come across as perpetually confused about everything. Downey continues to play Holmes as a mixture of the detective and fighter, utterly incapable of understanding social boundaries and good manners. He seems to stand apart from it all, taking in what he sees, and then acts upon his conclusions.
So, I've explained the good in the film... now it's time for what doesn't work nearly as well. There is a great deal of attention given over to detail, to making things look like a Victorian era world, which is a credit to the production crew. The problem is that this sort of detail gets rushed through, because the whole film is a modern action thriller passing itself off as a period piece. Hence the explosions, gunfire, and fast paced action sequences. It's too much to expect a straight forward adaptation of a Holmes tale, it seems.
That fast pace I've mentioned and the things that I didn't like about the film, can be placed squarely at the feet of the individual responsible for them: director Guy Ritchie (I told you his return wasn't a good thing). The things that I didn't like in the first film get repeated here. The visualization before Holmes does something sequences, so that we're getting the same scene twice. The slow-down camera trick. The speed-up camera trick. These were annoying in the first film, and don't work a second time around.
For awhile we've been seeing the camera-slow-down trick by editors in films. Done in moderation, this, and the speed-up trick, are acceptable. It seems that they were made popular because of The Matrix, which dealt, of course, with reality not being what the characters thought it was. In a late 19th century setting, these kind of tricks just come off as annoying and pretentious.
It got me to think about Ritchie himself, and his pedigree as a director. Actually, there's not a lot there to recommend. He's not a good director, but he thinks he is. He thinks he's an auteur, and no doubt he has plenty of people around him telling him that, saying he's hip and relevent. And so he keeps playing with the same gimmicks in editing and directing, staying true to himself, failing utterly at one of the cornerstones of being a good director: knowing how to tell a story. I have much the same complaint about Quentin Tarentino, incidentally.
I've wondered through these two films what the films would be like in the hands of a more capable director. Someone who doesn't have Entertainment Tonight on speed dial. Someone who takes the craft seriously. Someone who's not trying to mash an action thriller into a genre that needs, from time to time, quiet moments for a detective to consider the case before him. Someone who didn't have the deplorably bad judgment to marry Madonna, in other words. That alone should disqualify Guy from ever working on a film again.
No doubt the film will make lots of money, and there will be another followup. I'd like to hope that Guy steps aside, but I doubt it.
Maybe the next film can be from the dog's point of view.