I remember when I first saw your predecessor. On the surface he seemed to be an amalgamation of everything wrong with modern filmmaking in general and adaptation in particular. It was the epitome of a modern action film, complete with spectacular action set pieces, sardonic humor, hand to hand combat, and speed ramping, yet it was in service of a classic piece of literature that seemed to exist on a plane that was the very antithesis of these modern concepts. People were upset that a character renowned for his intellect and cunning would be reduced to a sort of murmuring cliche detective with a penchant for bare-knuckle boxing.
In spite of those misgivings, though, that film somehow rose to prove itself as a tremendously engaging piece of entertainment. While perhaps not as faithfully cerebral as some may have hoped, there was a joyful spring in that film’s step which helped to allay many of the issues that otherwise may have hampered it. Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. as Watson and Sherlock Holmes, respectively, had a chemistry that went a long way toward creating characters and a relationship that an audience would want to get behind. Downey Jr. also brought his considerable talent to make an otherwise viciously unlikeable character just beguiling enough to be charming. Even the modernized narrative and stylistic techniques were given enough care and contextualization that they didn’t feel too out of place. In addition, there was the joy and the mystery and the propulsive desire to want to discover the truth that made that film work so well.
Which means that when you begin by bleeding the mystery from your narrative and filling your veins instead with more bickering between your leads and a lifeless slurry of rivalry between Holmes and his arch-nemesis Moriarity (Jared Harris), you manage to do everything that your predecessor avoided. Throughout the entirety of our time together I could help but ask myself what you were attempting to do. You took no time in establishing the rivalry between Holmes and Moriarity – a mathematical genius with a transparently maniacal plot – instead relying on Holmes to simply say, openly, that there was one. Everything occurs as though half the story has already been told, and therefore we are watching the midpoint rising action rather than the establishing act wherein we get to grow to care about the interactions between these two men.
Seeing as the main thrust of your narrative is the relationship between Holmes and Moriarity, this exclusion is particularly crippling. You lack enough of a clear mystery plot to serve as a narrative engine, so this relationship should have been the surrogate for that. The relationship between Holmes and Watson is much diluted since the first film, and in this installment you treat Holmes as the jealous interloper – the bungling, stunted, frat-boy best friend to Watson’s buckled down family man. This cheapening is predictable, and therefore not entirely disheartening, but the laziness with which it is executed drains it of much of its analogue’s more lively spirit. Another reason you suffer is due to your fatal sequel-induced malady of too many new characters. In this case there is the pretty gypsy fortune teller with a missing brother (Noomi Rapace) and Holmes’s brother Mycroft (Steven Fry). Each of these characters has their slight plot-advancing purpose in your tale, but you imbue them with so much more time and energy than they need and weigh them down with so much more tangled nonsense than is necessary that they become parasitic to the core story and characters.
You do yourself no favors by creating a plot full of holes and lacking in any mystery for these half-drawn new and stagnant old characters to inhabit. Upon leaving the theater and thinking back on your story I couldn’t help but feel as though I had missed something. My recollections of you existed in a kind of weird haze. I had visions of trains and Paris and explosions and forests and factories and a mountaintop castle, but nothing connected them. It was as though you consisted entirely of set pieces strung together by a series of minor dialogue exchanges that might justify them, if only barely. Even worse than this narrative in-cohesiveness, however, was your lack of mystery. What is the point of a story featuring the world’s most famous detective if the villain, and his plan, and his motives are transparent from almost the first scene?
Sure, you attempt to still give us our Holmesian fix by having the great detective do some deft planning and skillful intuiting, but you very unwisely keep the audience on the outside of his process for much of the film. Rather than showing us step by step the theory and method of Holmes’s skills, you rely instead on sudden reversals of fortune in the present before flashing back to show us the off-screen mechanics of Holmes’s forward thinking and planning. So instead of being able to look at Holmes acting in the moment and wondering what trick he might be up to, we are instead show the gleeful success of his wit and cunning before being summarily filled in on his process in reverse. It’s like telling the punchline of a joke before giving the set up – all the joy and interest is gone because we know where it’s going and what the end will be.
These flashbacks are almost all done in the same speed ramping style as your fight scenes, which works in terms of creating a strong visual cue – slow motion means Holmes is working things out – but also creates a kind of fatigue. Every time the scene slowed down to allow for a work-through of a given situation I became disengaged because I either knew how things would work out in the end or because I was eager to see the prognosticated fight go down in real time.
All in all, throughout the course of our interaction I simply felt as though you never really set out to earn anything. You didn’t earn the gravity that you seemed to think your central rivalry was worthy of. You never earned the excitement that your action scenes wanted to convey. You never earned the reputation of Holmes’s cleverness. You never earned the set pieces you set up.
Without spoiling too much, your climax involves a group of people searching for an assassin in a crowded room, while Holmes and Moriarity play a game of chess on a snowy, windswept patio overlooking an impossible crevice. Holmes and Moriarity act as though this is the culmination of some great, expansive game of cat and mouse, while we the audience see it as the end result of an insane series of explosions and gun fights. Later, they have a moment where they come to an understanding of an inevitable outcome and decide to skip the struggle and proceed right to that outcome. This moment, to me, symbolizes your entire theory regarding storytelling – we all know what we’re here for and what we’re going to get, so why bother working toward it?
I have no doubt you will entertain some people. Even I was drawn in by your style, some of your wit, and your rambunctious energies. However, compared with the surprising victory that your predecessor scored, your peppy mediocrity serves as a pretty hearty letdown.
A bit too elementary, my dear,
Brian J. Roan