I honestly feel a little bad for Guy Ritchie. For the past few weeks, everyone in my social circles have been buzzing about the second season of the BBC "Sherlock" series, created by Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Meanwhile, there was hardly a mention of the return of the feature film version of "Sherlock Holmes" directed by Ritchie, featuring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Dr. Watson. I had practically forgotten about it in the mad end-of-the-year awards season rush.
I liked the first "Sherlock Holmes" released 2009, even though the plotting really wasn't as smart as it wanted us to think it was. I liked the more rough-and-tumble take on Holmes, the pairing of Downey and Law, and the art direction that clearly spared no expense. The sequel, "A Game of Shadows," is more of the same, adding a few new players – a gypsy woman played by original "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, and finally Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty. Holmes and Moriarty are in direct conflict this time out, with Holmes hellbent on uncovering how the Professor may be orchestrating a coming war.
But first, he has to ruin Watson's bachelor party with an extended fight scene, dress in drag to intercept an ambush on a train, and win over the allegiance of a band of gypsy anarchists. This "Sherlock Holmes" is much more frantically paced and haphazardly pieced together. It's action scene after action scene, occasionally intercut with some good banter between Holmes and Watson, but more often pausing for some really tepid exposition for a very tired plot. I'm sad to say that none of the new characters work very well. Noomi Rapace is saddled with a bad accent and an empty character. Stephen Fry is wasted, with nary a good one-liner to ham. Jared Harris fares the best out of all of them, but his Moriarty is so typical, played so straight, and offers no surprises.
It's a lot easier to see the flaws in these films now that the novelty of Downey's performance has worn off. Everything about his Sherlock is less convincing in "A Game of Shadows," from his accent to his disguises to his behavior. The scale of the story feels off, with the detective racing around Europe, thwarting Moriarty's schemes with artillery and fancy footwork as often as he does with pure deduction. The longer the film went on, the more it felt like I was watching one of the "National Treasure" movies or another sequel to "The DaVinci Code." The scenery was nice and I still love the period recreations, but the action scenes were so generic and there were so very, very many of them.
Alleviating the pain somewhat were the performances of Jude Law as Watson, getting in on more of the funny business this round, and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, who nails exactly what the character should have been in the first movie. The fact that the film uses both of them so badly speaks to the dire prospects of this franchise. There are some genuinely interesting ideas and images, such as Sherlock mentally playing out each fight scene in advance, but the story constructed by the filmmakers isn't strong enough to adequately support them.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the ending, and past this point I warn of spoilers, for both the feature film and BBC versions of "Sherlock." Both versions decided to end their sophomore efforts by taking a stab at adapting "The Final Solution," the last of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, that sees Holmes and Moriarty plummet to their deaths at Reichenbach Falls. And in both versions, Sherlock Holmes survives.
However, the television series doesn't explain how Sherlock escaped imminent death, though it leaves a lot of clues for the audience to puzzle over, and Watson doesn’t know that he survived. This sets up a nice emotional cliffhanger leading into the third series. The film, however, neatly ties up its story by leaving Watson with an obvious sign that Holmes lived, and gives an obvious solution for how he did it.
It's not a bad ending for the kind of film "A Game of Shadows" is, but it leaves the film franchise on bad footing. It feels like the filmmakers have already rushed through their best material. There's nowhere for a third installment to go, unless Moriarty also survived the waterfall or the filmmakers are confident enough to try and top him with an original villain.
The BBC series might be able to pull something like that off but it has far stronger writing and a very solid, self-contained universe that they can draw from independently of the original stories now. If there's a third "Sherlock Holmes" movie, all I expect all we have to look forward to are more pretty sets and explosions.