What does Sherlock Holmes mean to Guy Ritchie? Meditations in bullet-time, lens filters, gratuitous violence, frenetic pacing. He injects into Victorian England a street hoodlum sensibility that suits the fog-veiled grimy London of old, but his writers work with a tin ear for Arthur Conan Doyle. Signature Doyle quotes are trotted out to remind us that we are indeed watching a film about Sherlock Holmes, but beyond that the plot is a muddle and the dialogue—written by relative newcomers Kieran and Michele Mulroney—seems a lackluster approximation of what Yanks think clever Brits sound like. A compositional equivalent to Dick Van Dyke’s infamous butchering of the Cockney dialect in “Mary Poppins.”
Robert Downey, Jr., ever-amusing and charismatic, delivers another droll performance as Holmes, yet there is little else to him than a collection of quirks and pithy phrases. The first installment of the franchise focused on the developing bro-mance of Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr. Watson and this sequel extends their rocky relationship, but only after ridding them of the poor females in their lives. In a wild diversion from Holmes canon, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is done off fairly early in the film—this should be no small feat given that Adler is the only adversary to best Holmes, but the scene is dull and the method is predictable. Adler’s death is meant to signal that Holmes’ new adversary, the nefarious Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), means business.
Soon Holmes and Watson are entangled in Moriarty’s plans and must escape or thwart numerous murder attempts. We, the audience, are assured of Moriarty’s genius but not shown his vaunted intellectual prowess in action; he can play chess, he’s a professor, he has a British accent and speaks with proper grammar but beyond that his plans for dominion amount to little else than his attempt to become an arms merchant and war profiteer. How is this genius?
Stephen Fry is a welcome distraction as the shrewd and proud Mycroft Holmes, older (and smarter) brother of Sherlock. There are a few weak attempts by the writers to amp up the quirk factor by reinterpreting Mycroft as a gay nudist who is attended by a doddering servant; it initially makes for an amusing scene but my mirth soured at its idiosyncrasy. It seemed a flimsy ploy for cheap laughs. Yet I found myself more appealed by the idea of a film with Fry as Mycroft than with the celluloid Sturm und Drang unravelling before me.
It’s a fair action film and is otherwise a suitable distraction. Though I’ve come to dislike the theater experience, I didn’t regret seeing it on the big screen. I say rent the thing on DVD.
Grade: 3½ Speckled Bands out of 5.