Thursday, December 15, 2011

'Sherlock Holmes,' the Franchise Continues

As a version of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows doesn't cut it. As a big movie action contraption, it's passable.

Forget the Sherlock Holmes once known as a detective with a keen and unforgiving intelligence. That Holmes -- a creation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle -- has vanished inside a much more contemporary creation: a kick-ass movie franchise.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows -- the second movie starring Robert Downey Jr. (as Holmes) and Jude Law (as Dr. Watson) - seems less interested in celebrating Holmes' legendary powers of deduction than in flexing as much action-movie muscle as possible.

So it should come as no surprise that the plot doesn't much matter, except to say that it pits Holmes against arch rival James Moriarty, played here by a bearded, confidently evil Jared Harris.

In the early going, Holmes frets over Watson's impending marriage. Few other renderings of Sherlock have flirted so openly with Holmes and Watson's infatuation with each another, and this one goes so far as give them an improbable comic scene in which they waltz together. If I remember correctly, Holmes leads.

If you saw the first installment, you pretty much know director Guy Ritchie's game. Ritchie sees Holmes as a disheveled detective who's as quick with his fists as he is with his wits. For his part, Downey lives up to this image of Holmes, seldom looking as if he's not in need of a bath.

The banter between Holmes and Watson doesn't exactly reach Noel Coward levels, and there's no enjoying Game of Shadows if you don't revel in amped-up action, including the firing of some very heavy artillery.

Even taken on its own terms, the movie is not without miscalculation: Noomi Rapace, the brilliant Swedish actress who created the role of Lizbeth Salander in the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is entirely wasted as gypsy woman who's shoehorned into the movie for plot reasons.

Surely, Rapace could have made larger contribution; her role is the dramatic equivalent of a guy who holds another guy's coat during a fistfight.

Stephen Fry fares better in a genuinely amusing role as Holmes' diplomat brother, Mycroft Holmes. Fry's comic talents are used to best effect in a scene in which he appears nude. (No, we don't see enough of Fry to challenge the movie's PG-13 rating.)

When not busy changing costumes, Holmes' tries to get to the bottom of a mystery that has something to do with arms sales and with setting various European countries at one another's throats. But let's be honest: There's nothing much at stake here aside from getting to the next action set piece and maintaining the scaffolding of characters and effects that keeps the series from toppling.

Game of Shadows does that - and so it probably should be regarded as a passable addition to a successful franchise. I didn't love Game of Shadows, but I didn't mind Ritchie's latest action contraption, either. Perhaps because nothing about this helping of Sherlock Holmes needs to be taken seriously - and Ritchie seems to know it.

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