The new Sherlock Holmes movie reveals a mystery about Guy Ritchie

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. ()
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Simon Abrams

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Once again, British director Guy Ritchie has defied expectations and, as is often the case with him, he has done so in a way that isn’t good.

His 2009 action-adventure pastiche Sherlock Holmes was perhaps his most even-handed film to date. But consistency is not Mr. Ritchie’s strength. So it’s regrettable but not especially surprising that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t nearly as composed as Ritchie’s last film. Everything that was charmingly bratty in Ritchie’s smart-ass way in the last film is blown out of proportion here. A Game of Shadows lurches where its predecessor zipped along.

Ritchie clearly gets who his version of the Sherlock Holmes character is and how he wants to depict him. But he and screenwriters Michele and Kieran Mulroney don’t know what to do with the kernel of a good idea they have for A Game of Shadows, and bungle even the stuff that they got right in the first film. The entertainingly kitschy slow-motion, anatomically specific fight scenes that Holmes, in Ritchie’s first film, visualizes in his head before actually dispatching his opponents are uninspired and idiotic in A Game of Shadows. Nothing is presented in the proper proportions. As my friend and fellow critic Sam C. Mac whispered to me while we were watching, “I have deduced that this film is drunk.”

Then again, isn’t that what we’ve come to expect from Ritchie? His filmography is wildly ambitious and woefully uneven. After making waves with clever, heavily stylized British gangster pics Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, Ritchie produced a notoriously rancid remake of Swept Away and a deconstructionist psychoanalytic gangster-story morass called Revolver.

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A Game of Shadows doesn’t get everything wrong, actually. The Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) of Ritchie’s films is an overweening man of action, reflected nicely by Downey Jr.’s bottomless reserve of quirky mannerisms.

Ritchie and the Mulroneys pick up with their manic hero in A Game of Shadows right where they left him in Sherlock Holmes: love interest Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is stuck playing both sides in the fight between Holmes and evil-genius war profiteer Professor James Moriarty (an exceptionally well-cast Jared Harris). Immediately something gives, and disaster strikes.

Meanwhile, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) is about to get married, leaving Holmes to his own devices. But Moriarty refuses to leave Watson out of his schemes, which involve an elaborate plot to instigate a war between France and Germany. So it’s Holmes and Watson against Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson), an assassin and Moriarty’s answer to Watson.

This is the first of several signs of how important doubling and reverse psychology is throughout A Game of Shadows. It’s a point that the Mulroneys overemphasize, showing how little they think of their audience. Like Watson, Moran is a soldier who learned how to fight in Afghanistan. But unlike Watson, Moran is associated with Moriarty for purely mercenary reasons, not out of friendship or loyalty. This contrast is brusquely underscored when Watson and Holmes explain to each other and to the audience at home that Moran is a mercenary.

Similarly, the Mulroneys treat viewers like inattentive children when they explain in four different analogies how Holmes and Moriarty serve as each other’s mirror-image doubles. But then, since A Game of Shadows is about how Holmes uses everyone else as his foil, they can’t stress this concept enough.

In one scene, Holmes uses reverse psychology to get Watson to relax. He warns Watson not to drink and not to dance with a group of gypsies that they meet up with. Watson promptly does both. Holmes only smiles and joins him.

The idea that Holmes and Moriarty are both extraordinarily good at misleading and deceiving other people is still oblique at this point. So in the next scene, Mycroft Holmes (the deftly cast Stephen Fry), Sherlock’s smarter but less ambitious older brother, explains to Watson’s wife that ever since he and Sherlock were children, they would play around with improvised codes and double-encrypt their letters so that their encoded messages would say the exact opposite of what they really meant.

Still too abstract. So then finally, when Holmes acts on a clue that Moriarty leaves for him, he soon realizes that the information he’s picked up on was left there on purpose. Moriarty later hammers the point home by suggesting that the two adversaries are like a fisherman and a fish, but it’s still unclear who is catching whom.

It’s almost laughably overheated. But in Ritchie’s world, these are the bread crumbs that cunningly leading the audience toward a serious and intellectually gratifying payoff, rather than build-up toward the generic You Are Me revelation that villains always lay on action heroes right before those villaains meet their demise.

The only hint that Ritchie and the Mulroneys have a sense of humor about their film’s central emphasis on doubling is a moment in which Moriarty alludes to having one vice. Ritchie has already made reference to Holmes’s canonical habit of doing drugs in Sherlock Holmes, but then the viewer realizes that Moriarty is talking about his love of feeding pigeons in a nearby park. Which, OK, was a clever misdirection.

The rest of A Game of Shadows is all too obvious.