Tuesday, December 20, 2011


According to The Guinness World Records, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s illustrious literary detective Sherlock Holmes ranks as “the most portrayed movie character” in cinematic history. Indeed, Hollywood has been shooting movies about Sherlock Holmes since the initial one-reeler, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled,” appeared in 1900, as a 30-second silent epic. Since then a number of actors have taken up residence at 221 B Baker Street, ranging from the most vintage, Basil Rathbone during the 1940s, to the most bohemian, Robert Downey, Jr., who received a Golden Globe for his performance in director Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” (2009). Mind you, the Holmes character has made an enviable reputation for himself on television, too. Actor Jeremy Britt took top honors with the definitive interpretation of the notable consulting detective throughout 41 episodes of the Granada Television series. Most recently, the BBC-TV revived Doyle’s gumshoe for the contemporary series “Sherlock” with Benedict Cumberbatch making his deductions amid a modern-day London. Clearly, with as many as 211 movies featuring him, Sherlock Holmes qualifies as an enduring protagonist whose eternal popularity has not diminished in over a century.

Meanwhile, “Lethal Weapon” producer Joel Silver and Ritchie have brought back Holmes for a superior sequel, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (**** out of ****), and “Paper Man” scenarists Michele and Kieran Mulroney have pitted him against his most diabolical nemesis, that Napoleon of Crime, Professor James Moriarty. Nothing less than the fate of Western civilization hangs in the balance during this taut 129 minute melodrama which sends Dr. Watson with our eponymous protagonist globetrotting across Europe after “Sherlock Holmes” had confined them to London. Although Lord Blackwood proved an audacious adversary in “Sherlock Holmes,” Moriarty emerges as a far more stimulating opponent in a sequel that surpasses its predecessor. This Moriarty may be the best in any Holmes adventure. Ritchie and the Mulroneys have put the Victorian Era sleuth through the paces with several exciting sequences, including a bullet-riddled shoot-out on a railway train to a challenging chess match in a scenic castle in Switzerland posed on a waterfall. Happily, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” preserves the formula of its predecessor in every detail and character, not only replaying the ingenious Holmes-O-Vision fisticuffs scenes but also ushering in new characters, such as Holmes’ brilliant elder brother Mycroft. My only complaint about this otherwise tour-de-force mystery thriller is the short shrift given to Holmes’ love interest, Irene Adler, who doesn’t garner her share of screen time.

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” takes place in the year 1891 as anarchy threatens to engulf Europe and ignite war between France and Germany. The press speculates either nationalists or anarchists are behind the violence, but Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr. of “Iron Man”) believes Moriarty is to blame. Indeed, Moriarty is to blame! No sooner do his unwitting henchmen carry out a piece of his elaborate puzzle of murder and mayhem than a dishonorably discharged British sniper, Colonel Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson of “A Lonely Place to Die”), kills them with extreme prejudice. Essentially, the sequel picks up where its predecessor more or less off as Dr. Watson is poised to wed Mary (Kelly Reilly of “Pride & Prejudice”) despite Holmes’ indefatigable efforts to derail matrimony. Holmes and Watson visit a London night club where Holmes was supposed to throw Watson’s stag party. Instead, Holmes runs into his brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry of “St. Trinian's”) and leaves a disgruntled Watson to gamble while he meets a gypsy woman, Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace of the Swedish film “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), who has been searching for her long lost brother named Rene. No sooner does Holmes read her fortune than a smelly Cossack warrior attacks them in an exhilarating scene. Later, after they escape, Holmes meets Moriarty at the university where he teaches mathematics. This is Holmes’ first encounter with Moriarty, and Moriarty tells him he plans to kill both Watson and his wife Mary on their honeymoon. Naturally, Holmes sets out to thwart him and all hell breaks loose.

Oscar-nominated actor Robert Downey, Jr., has another field day playing Sherlock Holmes. Some of his disguises make him virtually invisible. What may irritate die-hard Baker Street regulars are Downey’s undignified antics, particularly when he appears in drag to thwart the villains on the railroad out to murder Watson and his wife. Downey’s funniest scene has Holmes straddling a Shetland pony to the hilarious strains of Ennio Morricone’s music from the Clint Eastwood & Shirley MacLaine oater “Two Mules for Sister Sara.” Undoubtedly, Downey’s best dramatic scene occurs when he crosses analytical swords with Jared Harris’ Machiavellian Professor Moriarty. Mind you, Downey displays more personality than Harris. Nevertheless, Harris makes an undeniably menacing impression with a grand scheme to start a war. Jude Law reprises his role as Dr. Watson, and the chemistry between Law and Downey is still as charismatic as ever. Watson isn’t the bumbling oaf that Nigel Bruce was in the memorable Basil Rathbone outings in the 1940s. The mustached Law is as sharp with his wardrobe as he is with his revolver. For that matter, he is pretty good with military artillery. As Watson’s future wife, Kelly Reilly acquires more screen time here. Other supporting characters from the original, such as Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) and Holmes’ landlady Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James), are back. One of producer Joel Silver’s better characteristics is his predilection for retaining the same characters as well as actors as he did in his quartet of “Lethal Weapon” blockbusters.

As usual, despite his revisionist handling of Holmes as a knuckle-smashing action hero, Ritchie makes sure that this lavishly produced thriller never wears out its welcome. Holmes and Watson find themselves up to their respective necks in danger. Happily, Ritchie and the Mulroney never fall back on the formulaic endangered woman plot with regard to Madam Simza and her part in the action. Unlike the first Ritchie “Holmes,” the sequel boasts a couple of tragic moments, but they don’t slow down the pace. Thanks to a lot of gorgeous computer-generated imagery and “Sommersby” lenser Philippe Rousselot photography, everything looks convincingly Victorian. Nothing about “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is merely elementary, but everything is wholly entertaining.