There’s a nefarious plot to force the collapse of western civilization in SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS, and as befits an eponymous character, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the only person who can save the day. Not just because he is scathingly brilliant, as is his arch-nemesis Professor Moriarity (Jared Harris). No, as is made clear in the cleverly plotted script by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, it’s because both Holmes and Moriarity have a few screws loose, one more than the other, but not by much. It takes both the keen mind and the soupcon of paranoia to see the plot bubbling beneath the headlines.
Guy Ritchie continues as the director of Downey’s tenure as Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic consulting detective. This means, of course, that there will once again be stylish camera moves, telescoping time, and a crackling kinetic energy in even the quietist of moments. There aren’t many, though the film relies just as heavily on the complex relationship between Holmes and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) as it does on the potboiler of a plot. That relationship is undergoing a strain as Watson prepares for his nuptials and makes the fatal mistake of entrusting Holmes to organize his stag party the night before. Rather than a send-off, it becomes part of Holmes’ investigation of Moriarity’s web of influence, and rather than a wild night of questionable excess, it embroils the good doctor and his intended (Kelly Reilly) in Moriarity’s plots. It also embroils Holmes’ even more eccentric older brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry), as well as governments made patsies of, dark machinations, and gypsies, in particular a singularly lovely and completely unsmiling one (Noomi Rapace).
For all the rushing about from one European locale to another, there is still plenty of time to explore the emotionally charged nature of the Holmes-Watson relationship. Subtexts and the subconscious are toyed with, as is a tantalizing eroticism that serves to emphasize their purely chaste, but oddly intimate, friendship. Law is once again more than merely the lumpish excuse of exposition, evincing a respectable level of smarts, and an even more respectable ability to think quickly in tight situations that require both brawn and brains, even as he grumps about his delayed honeymoon through what he is promised is his final adventure with Holmes. Downey as his counterpoint has the more interesting character, of course, and he imbues Holmes with a noble dignity in the near madness of his limitless eccentricities, the which Holmes acknowledges without apology, unlike his dependence on Watson, which he pretends does not exist. Downey has all the right instincts for when to play it very large, and when to go nuanced. A fleeting moment that involves his distaste for horses involves the briefest, but most pointed, of interaction with an equine as each sizes the other up with equal skiddishness. Barely three seconds on screen, and yet a wealth of information about Holmes that could be gleaned in no other way. In Moriarity, Harris takes a less charismatic approach, all cool calculation with a calm delight in creating mayhem, particularly the kind that puts money in his pocket and corpses on his tally sheet.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS is as fiendishly clever as it is intricately constructed. It remains true to the original appeal of Holmes and his methods, while going as large as 21st-century CGI can go, as well as incorporating a bracing modern sensibility. Substitute as it might trapeze artists for pole dancers, the foibles of humankind are writ large, as is Holmes‘ appeal as a character of infinite interpretations will never wane.