“Unlike you, I repress nothing,” quips Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) at one point in Guy Ritchie’s follow-up to his comic-book restyling of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic literary creation.
He’s addressing Dr Watson (Jude Law) while expressing his thoughts on the culinary delights of hedgehog goulash (don’t ask), but there’s no mistaking the intended sexual dimension of the remark – largely because there’s barely any innuendo contained within the film.
Amping up the bromantic banter that was one of the few charming aspects of its chaotic, largely forgettable predecessor, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows adopts a policy towards the homoerotic overtones of the Holmes/Watson pairing that is – to quote another line from the film – “so overt, it’s covert”. When Holmes isn’t staring longingly into Watson’s eyes or confusing their “partnership” with a “relationship”, for instance, he’s doing his damndest to sabotage Watson’s new marriage, even going so far as to interrupt his honeymoon trip to Brighton by dressing as a woman, throwing Watson’s wife off a train, demanding that his trusted companion “lie” with him and then whisking him away to Paris, which, he duly informs Watson, is a “real honeymoon destination”.
It’s all done under the auspices of solving a big case, of course, but Ritchie’s decision to put the man love so blatantly up front and turn the film into an unrequited love story – one recounted after the fact by his object of desire (the film uses Watson writing his reflections on his adventures with Holmes as a framing device) – gives the film a subversive edge that’s unusual for a high-stakes mainstream sequel.
And that’s before we even get to the introduction of Sherlock’s elder brother Mycroft. Played by Stephen Fry, Mycroft not only has a penchant for walking around naked and eying women with curious disdain, but also insists on calling his sibling Shirley at all times. As blockbusters go, this is as proudly camp and outré as any John Waters film.
It’s too bad, then, that the care and attention that has been lavished on developing this fascinating version of Holmes as a character isn’t reflected in the rest of the film. Frustratingly incoherent and overly busy, A Game of Shadows mistakes narrative impenetrability for fiendish complexity, jumping as it does from one fast-cutting set-piece to another, but not before rewinding every action scene several times to reveal what actually happened from another angle, then stopping every 15 minutes or so to let Holmes verbally recap everything we’ve just witnessed. It’s exhausting stuff and while it’s clearly Ritchie’s flashy way of mimicking the synapse-firing thought-processes of his coffee-drinking, tobacco-smoking, coca leaf-chewing hero, it makes for an alienating viewing experience rather than one that draws you into Holmes’s brilliant brain in a compelling way.
It doesn’t help that A Game of Shadows also squanders a great villain by saddling him with an elaborate scheme that proves largely inconsequential as the film works towards its Reichenbach Falls showdown. That villain is, of course, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) who, with a mind as quick and deductive as Holmes’s, is more than a match for Baker Street’s finest. Yet the Machiavellian plan he’s come up with – to foment a world war by manipulating the wave of anarchism sweeping fin de siècle Europe and using it to stir up tensions between France and Germany – is so needlessly convoluted, Harris’s deliciously sinister performance has no room to breathe. Consequently his confrontations with Holmes don’t have the pulpy dramatic heft required to make us care about their outcome; it’s only when Watson is turned into the damsel in distress as a result that they become in any way interesting.
Harris isn’t the only one shut out of the action. Cast as a gypsy fortune-teller whose missing brother has some kind of involvement with Moriarty, Noomi Rapace – making her Hollywood debut after breaking through as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – is a complete non-entity thanks to the script giving her nothing to do except look a bit surly while sporting an array of gypsy-chic costumes.
It’s too bad, because at 130 minutes there’s no reason why a lot of this couldn’t have been junked to help streamline the action into the fun romp it’s clearly capable of being. As it stands, it has more in common with the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels than its tightly plotted inspiration.