The second installment in Guy Ritchie’s Holmes reboot reminds me, most of all, of The Dark Knight — the reference to this movie’s villain at the end of the previous movie, the theme of escalation, a triangular relationship (in a manner of speaking), the loss of a loved one and above all, the assured hand of a director hitting his stride with a franchise. There is even a scene where one of the characters looks like Heath Ledger’s version of the Joker.
But where the Joker was more interested in chaos for its own sake, Professor James Moriarty is interested in profiting from it. The plot involves Holmes and Watson racing across Europe trying to prevent catastrophe, and finding Moriarty almost always a step ahead. The challenge is something both Holmes and his arch-enemy relish, but Watson? As Mary Morstan-Watson observes at one point, Holmes is likely to want to join them on their honeymoon. Watson himself regards his dear friend with a mixture of admiration, amusement, exasperation and the occasional kolaveri.
The film is populated with a fine cast of character actors. Stephen Fry has a scene-stealing turn as Holmes’ brother Mycroft. “You mean there are two of you?” asks Mary at one point, and you can see why she feels that way. Jared Harris exudes a quiet menace as Moriarty. His exchanges with Holmes are beautifully written and acted. Noomi Rapace plays a gypsy fortune-teller — she does as good a job as the role lets her, but you cannot escape the feeling that this is scant reward for playing Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film series. (Not that the man playing Kalle Blomkvist fared any better.)
The highlight, though, is the Robert Downey Jr. — Jude Law pairing. While the books centered around Holmes and made Watson more of an observer, the films edge closer to buddy-action-movie territory (think Lethal Weapon with period costumes and more deductive reasoning) and their chemistry is absolutely electric. Downey Jr. is an inspired choice to play Holmes — he is capable of playing the role straight, I’m sure, but who better to bring out the detective’s innate kookiness? Law plays the straight man, but delivers his zingers at Holmes with such relish that he makes you wonder why Conan Doyle made Watson look like such a wuss in the first place.
It helps, I think, that the cast and crew don’t treat this like a film adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, but rather like a film series involving a character who might remind you, at times, of a fictional detective you once read about. While there is a lot more action than you might find in your average Holmes story, Ritchie uses some clever editing and economical dialogue to illustrate his hero’s powers of deduction. The result is a kinetic, witty and entertaining motion picture.