First of all, don’t see this until you’ve seen Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, AKA “the first one.” You’ll understand this one better and enjoy it a lot more.
As before, the banter and relationship between Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) is the center of the film; it’s the bromance of the 19th century. If anything, Holmes is more outrageous and speaks more quickly than before (often nearly too much so). Watson doesn’t need to harrumph more than the first film—his situation harrumphs for him—he’s on the verge of his wedding, and of course Holmes goes above and beyond outrage in his actions here. It’s the central joy of the film.
The other is the one modern effect that works—the quick montage sequence of Holmes’ thoughts before he jumps into action. It initially seemed like a too-modern cinematic intrusion for a film covering events of more than a century before, but the insight into the workings of a genius was fun and enlightening. Ritchie repeats the montages here, and they are as fun to anticipate as the verbal exchanges between the leads.
What doesn’t work as well is the treatment of the action sequences. What provided such energy to Snatch and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels were the post-modern treatments of many of the action scenes. He keeps some self-conscious touches here, too, especially when greater and greater gunfire is released upon the fleeing leads. It’s almost too styled for a historical picture, and nearly takes the viewer out of the world he’s created. But with the quick montages of Holmes’ thoughts and the beauty of the chase shots themselves, these sequences don’t seem as out of place as they might. But the shootouts and other action sequences, with the cutting between longer and closer shots, are confusing and clumsy at times.
There are several visual gags that were delightful and provided some respite from the intensity of the plot and the grey palette of the cinematography. Holmes on a donkey instead of a horse was a great comic bit, as were the costumes Holmes wore on a couple of different occasions, the second being a payoff of the first.
The one weakness of the film was its tight intensity and centripetal energy. Those few comic moments were such a relief because the rest of the film pulled inward constantly to either a whispered rapid banter between the leads or a barely expressed flow of genius thought from Holmes. Intensity is my middle name, and I love films that ratchet up the intensity when it works for the film. I don’t even mind having to lean into a film to experience it more deeply. But I felt as if I were being sucked into the mind and energy of Holmes, his breathless expressions, and his love/manipulation of Watson to the exclusion of all the rest of the things the film could have offered, like a moment’s peace to reflect on what had just been said or exchanged.
Jared (“I know I’ve seen him somewhere before”) Harris as Dr. Moriarty is the supposed villain of the piece, and brings a rhythm and intelligence to the film that is lacking in every other corner. Perhaps because he lives and breathes the character, his scenes with Holmes are the strongest in the film. It’s a far cry from his role and style on Mad Men, and is something of a revelation.
It’s too bad that the possibility of the annihilation of Western civilization that Moriarty threatens is reduced to just another, perhaps bothersome, challenge for the genius detective. There seems little really at stake except for Holmes’ boredom. Holmes’ whip-smart attitude and relationship with Watson take over the film, providing a joy ride of sorts but at the same time compromising the very context in which they both can be best enjoyed.