Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows understands one thing well: There are few joys as great in life as having a good enemy. Chess players know it well. The clock ticks. The sweat forms on the brow. The mind racks itself, drained and strained. Mano-a-mano, tête-à-tête, blow for blow, two men go in — and one comes out. No, we can’t all get along. A man is known by his friends, but he is remembered by, and for, his enemies. Where would Batman be without the Joker? Superman without Lex Luthor? Professor X without Magneto? There’s something aristocratic about it — that one man must be subservient to another — but the greatest villains are those who could have been the greatest of heroes. They remind us of the choices our heroes make that made them other than the villain. Economics may be the study of choices, but drama is its portrayal.
Which brings us to Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes is a role Downey was born to play, as he established in the first film. The manic, brilliant, drug-addled Holmes is well captured by the manic, brilliant, formerly drug-addled Downey. Jude Law’s loyal yet prickly Watson is a nice contrast to Holmes’s absent-mindedness. Holmes’s disguises, playful and comedic, are perhaps too much so, but it is clear that Downey loves playing dress-up — though we could have done without Holmes in drag. Holmes’s archenemy, Professor Moriarty, is well played by Jared Harris of Mad Men fame. In both characters, we see the look of recognition of a peer and the longing that a genius’s soul has for a counterpart — even a malevolent one.
In this portrait, director Guy Ritchie pays a fitting tribute to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius,” Doyle wrote in “The Valley of Fear.” And Holmes — who at first appears mad — instantly recognizes the mad genius of Moriarty. He is immediately shocked, as he is intrigued, by the intricacies of Moriarty’s machinations. Moriarty is, we’re told, “the Napoleon of crime,” plotting from behind his professorial chair at a prestigious university. (Tenure sure has its perks.) By day lecturing on physics and math, by night planning world domination, Moriarty is intensely preparing a formula for upsetting Europe’s balance of power. Still, the professor has time to play mental — and later actual — chess with Holmes as he contemplates assassination, murder, and world war. This sounds implausible, and it is to Ritchie’s credit that the scenes between Moriarty and Holmes (and Sarah Greenwood’s production design of period England) are almost enough to save his film from formulaic conventionalism.
Alas, Ritchie goes a trope too far by having Moriarty do it all for a buck. In a tired story line you have seen or heard many times before, Moriarty is hoping to make money off Europe’s descent into chaos and mechanized slaughter. It’s capitalism, not a love of crime, that sets him in motion, and even his capitalism is based not on evil genius but on keen insight that a war is coming anyway and he might as well profit. A profiteer he may well be, but the sinister element is missing.
In so doing, Ritchie cheapens Moriarty’s evil. The specter of mass killing hangs over the film for a moment, only to be banished by the awesome power of mechanized Europe. This wouldn’t be bad if it were more fully explored. Holmes and Watson note the coming of the automobile, but only dimly notice the tanks, machine guns, and modern cannon, all of which make their deafening debut.
Not sure if it is a comedy or a drama, A Game of Shadows takes you along on Holmes and Watson’s romp through pre–World War I Europe. Along the way, they meet a gypsy who is brought along for God knows what reason, and the three of them bounce around from Victorian England to Paris to Germany and back to Switzerland. There are anarchists and nationalists and gypsies and bombs, with bad accents thrown in to keep reminding us we’re in turn-of-the-century Europe. Naturally, there are central-casting Prussians, who under Hollywood rules can be shot for the simple reason that the Germans, emasculated by their own history, sort of feel like they deserve it and therefore won’t complain. We get ballroom and battle scenes and a tad bit of diplomatic gamesmanship.
This is all a sideshow, which is a pity because it takes up most of the movie. It would have been far more fun and far more interesting to return to the old Moriarty and Holmes of Doyle’s beautiful series. Theirs was a real game and a deadly one, played for love of the game. Moriarty kills because he can and because he leaves no loose ends. So evil is Moriarty, and so clever, that he is almost too powerful even for Holmes — “the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen,” as Watson describes him. Doyle’s Holmes knew well the danger Moriarty presented. “If I were assured of your eventual destruction I would, in the interests of the public, cheerfully accept my own,” he told him in “The Final Problem.” Holmes knows what Moriarty is, just as he knows who he is.
Holmes, who loves the public interest, never loses his ethical focus in Doyle’s work. He knows that “all great criminals have a complex mind,” and so submits his own mind to the pursuit of something far more worthy: justice. “I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go,” he explains in one story. Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, for all its $125 million budget, isn’t sure of its focus at all. Maybe the sure-to-follow sequel will set it on the right path.
— Charles C. Johnson is a writer based in Los Angeles and author of a forthcoming biography of Calvin Coolidge. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.