You can make quite the list of people who have played Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Holmes. Everyone from Basil Rathbone (ever hear of him?) to Will Ferrell, there have been well known comedians and child actors of both sexes who have filled the part. The two best ones of late have been Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. If you read my review of the Robert Downey Jr. led Sherlock Holmes (2009), you will know which I prefer. To repeat another passage from that treatment, I would like once more to make it known that I do not think the cinematic ones (Cumberbatch’s British Broadcasting Company (BBC) are feature length, but made for television) are bad. It is interesting to compare them, however. It is fun to imagine the rivalry between Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) that briefly grew in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is because they both played Sherlock. Further, again as stated before, the movies with Robert Downey Jr. seem to be told in a style more palatable to American audience, whereas the BBC series is full of English humor that I adore. There is also an odd side to the two. I would submit to you that the show, which went on for four seasons and thirteen episodes, is more successful than the films. Sure, the 2009 iteration did well at the box office, as its sequel and today’s film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011). I find it puzzling that the third installment did not come as readily as the first two, and the only explanation I can think of is that they did not want to invite comparisons to its superior cousin. Anyway, on with the review.
Sherlock: A Game of Shadows starts with an explosion, but we will get to that later. With newspapers abounding in theories as to the culprit, a narration by Sherlock’s close friend Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) gives us the best hint as to the detective’s nature: Sherlock has his own ideas as to who is behind the seeming act of terror. We then shift to a few weeks earlier and his investigations into what he believes to be the source, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). This is a shadowy (no pun intended) character we only saw the outline of in the last film. One aspect about him that had been revealed is that he has an unwilling minion in Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). Sherlock is following her to get closer to Professor Moriarty, but also because there is a complicated romance between them. Giving him the slip, she delivers a package at an auction to another accomplice, which unwittingly has a bomb inside. This is not the aforementioned detonation, which Sherlock is able to confine inside an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus. They had agreed to get together for dinner later, but when Irene meets with Professor Moriarty, he feels her connection to Sherlock is becoming a liability and has her poisoned. Thus, Sherlock is left to dine alone. Some days later, Dr. Watson comes to 221B Baker Street in anticipation of the stag party (what our English cousins call a bachelor party) the evening before the nuptials. Of course, Sherlock has done nothing but focus his attention on Professor Moriarty. This is made more abundantly clear when they head out for the night’s festivities, and the only person they find is Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft Holmes (Stephen Fry), a highly placed official in the British government. Instead of talking about the revelry to come, he mentions the importance of a coming peace conference in Paris. Leaving Dr. Watson to have his own fun gambling, Sherlock instead wanders the establishment they enter, and sits down with a fortune teller named Madam Simza Heron (Naomi Rapace). In Sherlock’s possession is a letter that Irene had delivered with the bomb from her brother René (Laurentiu Possa), and it contains a number of strange drawings in it. She lets on that they had once by a part of an underground revolutionary movement, and that he had been a bomb maker. It also indicates to her that he is in trouble. So is she, as there has been an assassin sent to kill her. While Sherlock deals with the attacker, she eventually makes her escape. It turns into a massive fight that spills into the rest of the building, leading Dr. Watson to have to brawl with onlookers over his gambling winnings. It also means that a quite disheveled Dr. Watson and Sherlock show up for the wedding the next day. After this, Sherlock pays a visit to Professor Moriarty, requesting that whatever is about to happen between the two, that Dr. Watson be left out of it. Professor Moriarty refuses, and Sherlock must disguise himself to get onto the train taking Dr. Watson and his bride, Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly), to their honeymoon to warn them. Sherlock tosses her from the train, though she is rescued by Mycroft at the prearranged watery landing. This leaves Sherlock and Dr. Watson to head to France, first to the gypsy camp where Simza resides to recruit her help. Unfortunately, they are unable to stop the explosion (yes, that one) in Paris due to Sherlock misreading the clues left by Professor Moriarty. Still, a bit more sleuthing on Sherlock’s part leads them to an arms factory in Germany that the professor had recently acquired. Once there, it becomes evident that Professor Moriarty is gathering a great deal of material in anticipation of a coming war, and he is pulling the strings to start it in order to profit from it. Though Sherlock is captured and tortured, it gives him a clearer sense of Professor Moriarty’s machinations. With their escape, they are now free to head to the summit in Switzerland where the professor intends to use René to take out one of the dignitaries and finally set off his long-awaited conflict. At the conference, Sherlock leaves Dr. Watson and Simza to find her brother, who is disguised, while he confronts Professor Moriarty directly. While Sherlock is able to successfully take down Professor Moriarty’s entire operation thanks to pickpocketing the professor’s code book while being tortured, the wounds he sustained leave him unable to defend himself from the trained boxer that is the professor. Instead, Sherlock grabs hold of the other man and jumps off the top of a waterfall. Our detective, however, survives, thanks to a breathing apparatus he had taken from his bother. The film concludes with him coming out of concealment in Dr. Watson’s office and typing a question mark after “the end.”
While I mostly enjoy Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, there are a few historical tidbits that rankle me. The film takes place in the 1890s. There were rudimentary motor vehicles, “horseless carriages” using the parlance of the day, but the film makes it seem like a simple matter-of-fact that Sherlock and Dr. Watson use one to get around town. The worst comes in the arms factory. In effecting their escape, Dr. Watson and Sherlock make use of the handheld weapons. Every time I watch this movie, I cringe when I see Dr. Watson using what appears to be a machine gun. Rudimentary versions of these were around at this time, but not of the variety that you could sling over your shoulder and shoot on the run. Finally, there is a moment when Dr. Watson attempts to revive a dying Sherlock using chest compressions. While these were theorized at the time, I find it difficult to believe that they would have been used in this situation given that cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) was not formally codified until 1960. Honestly, I try not to make a big deal out of such things, but my education means that my brain notices them. Luckily, the rest of the movie makes up for it.
The climactic showdown between Professor Moriarty and Sherlock at the end of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows has some interesting philosophical moments in it. In an attempt to justify himself, Professor Moriarty claims that humanity will inevitably seek to destroy itself through armed conflict. He simply wants to be the one owning the bandages and bullets. He later adds that in trying to stop him, Sherlock is fighting the human condition, which is supposed to be impossible. This is a contravention of Christian teaching. God did not create man to kill one another, although the Bible does have many stories of this very thing happening, unfortunately. Outside of the Old Testament, when God commanded the Israelites to clear out the people of Canaan, God typically does not get behind warfare. All His creations are precious to Him, meant to serve a constructive rather destructive purpose, namely the building up of the Kingdom of God. When people act contrary to this notion, they do so against their intended nature. People can be cruel, but cruelty does not have the final word.
You could say that, historically speaking, cruelty did eventually come for humanity in the form of two world wars, as Professor Moriarty predicted in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Yet, if you look at the whole of human history, peace has reigned much more often than has warfare. Put differently, there is such a thing as a happy ending. That is something this film possesses. As such, I can put up with a little bit of historical inanity. Overall, it is a pretty fun experience.