Poor Watson, a smart guy fated to look dim next to his brilliant best friend, Sherlock, and often underused on screen the way Robert Sean Leonard is as Wilson on House (as the series’ creator has often said, Wilson is Watson to House’s Holmes). The bright twist in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is that Jude Law’s devoted yet savvy Watson is at least as important as Robert Downey’s smartass Holmes.
Guy Ritchie’s sequel to his 2009 hit Sherlock Holmes can’t bring the same surprise, but it is every bit as much fun, mirroring the formula that worked so well: a popcorn detective movie in Victorian clothes, with high-tech action and a splash of droll humor. This time the bromance is so prominent that when danger arrives on Watson’s wedding day, it’s Watson and Sherlock who go on the honeymoon.
The plot – never much more than an excuse in action-buddy movies – has the pair traveling the world and shooting at villains like proto-James Bonds. They begin in London, where Holmes hosts a misbegotten bachelor party for Watson. (Of course the party’s pathetic; why would Sherlock celebrate something he dreads?) At the club, they encounter a gypsy played by Noomi Rapace (the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), whose ties to anarchists lead them on to France and Switzerland, by train, horse and pony, grabbing every opportunity to swing from chandeliers, toss people from moving trains, take deadly gunshots at close range and from a distance.
The ultimate villain here is Moriarty (Jared Harris), whose plan for world domination intentionally echoes contemporary blood-for-oil schemes and Wall Street power grabs. The 21st century frisson has always been a key to Ritchie’s reinvented Holmes, but the sequel has fewer contemporary lines, which makes them even more distracting. “No pressure,” Holmes says about his chance to save Western civilization from Moriarty.
The villain is smart enough to know that the way to hurt Holmes is to go after Watson; Sherlock must defeat Moriarty to save his best friend. But it is the sheer glee of their last shared case – surely Watson will settle down as a married man – that gives the film its emotional underpinning. Downey and Law play this effectively as Holmes and Watson against the world, like Butch and Sundance but with more explosives and a few Sherlock-invented toys.
The franchise depends, of course, on Downey’s brilliantly sly portrayal, dragging Sherlock into the present and winking without seeming to wink. One of Sherlock’s clever inventions is the “urban camouflage” suit, a painted bodystocking that lets him fade into the Victorian potted plants or flowered upholstery. It’s Downey’s arched expression when he steps away from the background that makes this more than a creaky sight gag.
And Law lets Watson come to the forefront – challenging Sherlock’s obtuseness, playing action hero himself, displaying a strong-willed yet likable personality – without letting us forget that Watson knows he’s there to help his more-brilliant partner.
As this company reimagines the characters, they get great support from Kelly Reilly as Watson’s wife, Mary, who is even more patient with Sherlock then Watson himself. And best of all Stephen Fry delivers a thoroughly delicious performance as the other Holmes, Sherlock’s supercilious diplomat brother, Mycroft. Among other improbabilities, the film gives Fry a (thankfully comic) near-nude scene.
Through it all, Sherlock Holmes never slows down. In a season loaded with portentous awards-bait, it is a joyful and sparkling escape.