Sherlock Holmes and A Game of Shadows (2009/2011)

My favorite moment in 2011’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” has to be the very last scene. In it, Dr. John Watson, wittily played by Jude Law, puts the finishing touches on his account of the adventure we have just seen. Watson is sad; his friend Holmes is missing and presumed dead in the Reichenbach Falls of Switzerland. His wife lures him away from his typewriter just as he adds the concluding words: The End.

The Watsons exit the room, but the camera lingers on a rather extravagantly upholstered armchair. The armchair moves! It seems to break apart! A head emerges from the fabric! The head is inside the fabric! By Jove, it’s a figure, clad head-to-toe in the exact same upholstery as the chair, perfectly camouflaged – so perfectly, in fact, the Watsons’ bulldog, sleeping nearby, hadn’t even thought to bark at it.

The mask comes off, and it’s Holmes, of course – eavesdropping, as usual, though this time to the extent that he allows his friend to continue to think he’s dead. No, of course not – in the scene just before, we saw Watson open a parcel, inside of which was a portable air mask such as one might use … underwater. So, Holmes, and this is typical of him, has teased his friend that he might, in fact, still be alive.

Ever curious as to what Watson has written, and undoubtedly certain he can improve on it, Holmes slips behind the desk and adds a final bon mot to “the end:” a question mark.

It’s a great ending, and so far a definitive one to the “Sherlock Holmes” film franchise as directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. So far, no third film has emerged, though I’ve read that one is in development. Downey has been kept busy with his Marvel franchise in which he plays Tony Stark, AKA Iron Man. I much prefer his work as Sherlock.

I got hooked on Holmes by watching the eponymously titled 2009 film that introduced Downey in the role. I had never seen any of the classic Sherlock Holmes films nor read the Arthur Conan Doyle stories – a terrible, almost unforgivable oversight (easily corrected). Though I haven’t gone back and watched Basil Rathbone, et al, I have read the novels and short stories (well, most of them), and I have to say, Sherlock is one of my favorite characters, ever. Reading Conan Doyle also turned me onto the genre of detective fiction and all the other lurid crime stories and pulp fiction inspired by his pen. That includes Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley stories, Raymond Chandler’s and Dashiell Hammett’s detective thrillers, Poe’s Inspector Dupin, and others. The king, however, is still Conan Doyle – and always will be. (Why his masterful Hound of the Baskervilles hasn’t been made into a film yet by Ritchie, Downey and Law is beyond me – it’s a movie waiting to be updated.)

I should right here note that I’ve also seen quite a few episodes of the BBC series, “Sherlock,” with Benedict Cumberbatch as the detective and Martin Freeman as his Bosworth, Watson. I enjoy the show and performances (the two leads are just about perfect), but the visual flair of the episodes I’ve seen has gotten a little in the way of the actual stories. In other words, the plots are dense enough – I’d like the directors to tone down the razzle-dazzle and maybe get Cumberbatch to slow his diction … just a hair. Also, the BBC has brought Holmes and Watson forward to present day … which I find a tad disconcerting. The soul of Sherlock is found in the grimy back alleys of 19th-century London; text messages kind of take the fun out of the chase.

Anyway – 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” did a fair amount of modernizing while keeping the character at home in the late 1880s. Ritchie’s style probably predicted that of the BBC series – slick surfaces, quick cuts, flashy cinematography – but it seems oddly right for a movie set so long ago. He brings a brutal, visceral feel to the detective tale; his London, with its sleazy cobblestone streets, cold weather, bleak skies and potential for violence, is at once real and imagined, kind of like Jabba’s castle in “Return of the Jedi,” or any of the fantastical cities in “The Lord of the Rings,” or, for that matter, “Harry Potter.” He proves that, stylistically, Sherlock Holmes can stand right alongside those franchises today.

Downey was the right choice for the role. He sells it with his voice – lowdown, gravelly, precise, lecturing, and pompous – that of a smarty-pants whose common sense only slightly outweighs his book smarts. His eyes are well-suited; he’s got this thousand-yard stare that suggests Sherlock’s wheels are turning at a rate faster than even he can keep up with. He seems to be channeling his intellect, and when he turns it on you, it can be too direct – like getting hit with a firehose. This is, to me, Sherlock Holmes. (Is Downey playing some version of himself?)

Law as Watson is the real surprise, in that he renders all other Watsons somewhat second-rate. He’s the perfect foil for Downey’s glassy-eyed, often manic sleuth. With his stern discipline, impeccable manners, calm demeanor and rigorous attention to detail, he brings Holmes back down to earth … even if the crime at hand tends to require outside-the-box thinking.

There’s the question of whether the Holmes-Watson arrangement isn’t suggestive of homosexuality. Well, of course it is. Who cares? Aren’t C-3PO and R2-D2 husband and wife? Ritchie never highlights or even does much with the possibility; once or twice, it’s played for a gag, but that’s all. Downey and Law never play to it; the film wisely leaves the true nature of their relationship to subtext, just as, it seems to me, Conan Doyle did.

The first “Sherlock Holmes” is a wonder, funny as hell, charming, imaginative, briskly paced and tremendously entertaining – one of the best films of an otherwise so-so year for movies. It has the added pleasures of the devilish Mark Strong as the villain, Lord Blackwood, and Rachel McAdams, lovely and bewitching as Holmes’ sole (female) love interest (of sorts), Irene Adler. The plot borrows heavily from Conan Doyle without adapting any particular story or case. I miss the visits from various breathless clients with whopping tales of woe, but the script hangs together very well, even if it occasionally feels like a clothesline for sensational action scenes (of which there are plenty).

The movie does take a few liberties. For one thing, Holmes is portrayed here as more of a bruiser than his literary counterpart; there’s a brilliant bare-knuckles boxing match in which Sherlock takes on a man twice his size and beats him easily, demonstrating Ritchie’s technique of breaking down and spelling out the detective’s moves. (“Haymaker … break ribs … left to the jaw … breakfast is served!”) For another, Holmes’ addiction to cocaine is hardly even suggested, though I’ve always preferred to believe that he finds no drug more satisfying than his own personality.

Finally, there is the issue of the “big bad” villain who features more prominently in “A Game of Shadows.” That would be Professor James Moriarty, played here by the slightly underrated Jared Harris. Moriarty is the Darth Vader of the Sherlock Holmes saga, and it would have been criminal (ha) to omit him from this incarnation. While only glimpsed in the first film, Moriarty gets plenty of screen time with Holmes in the second movie, if not quite enough. Harris underplays the villain, playing him as less of a mustache-twirler than a calculating egotist whose intellect matches – if not surpasses – Sherlock’s. Indeed, the film makes it clear that they are two sides of the same coin (or chess piece) – Moriarty is even described as a “Cambridge boxing champion.” The moments between Downey and Harris are absolutely the best thing about “Game of Shadows.” In their final scene, they do combat first on the chessboard, then in their minds, where the real battle is always played out. Downey gives them both a memorable sendoff … and if you recall the death of Sherlock Holmes in literature, you can probably picture the moment.

That said, “Game of Shadows” is the lesser film. It’s not as well-written, relying heavily on action sequences that contain way, way too many special effects (I’m thinking here of the prolonged gun battle on the train, and the tiresome chase in which bullets shred trees like tissue paper.)  Harris plays Moriarty a bit too softly, deferring to the overwhelming brilliance of Downey, whose performance is another keeper. There are two scenes in which a character would have died many times over were it not for their necessity to the plot. The second act is a bit of a drag. And, finally, Noomi Rapace, hot, at the time, from “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” is thoroughly wasted as one of the most superfluous supporting characters I’ve ever seen in a major film. She gets a scene where she literally sits and listens to Downey talk, contributing nothing to the action. For whatever reason, Ritchie treats her like pure window dressing, which we know isn’t the case – she’s GREAT in “Dragon Tattoo” and deserved a better role here.

In all, the Sherlock Holmes feature films are a hit, a pleasure, a shot of pure entertainment. If there is a third, I will be “all in.”