The usual spoiler warning: This contains spoilers.
I won’t bother to check for the overblown subsidiary title, which is something to do with shadows and darkness. It reminded me of Pirates of the Caribbean: Keep Reading This To Distract You From The Fact That Only The First One Was Any Good. Duff title aside, this film was pretty damn good, but an exercise in poor structure, which marred the overall effect. Guy Ritchie has, it seems, decided that three acts are not enough to tell his story of Robert Downey Jr. being Robert Downey Jr. (in tweed) and instead decided to shoot four. Now, obviously, there are five act films out there, and books, but four acts is a novelty. Mainly because it doesn’t work. One, two, three, five. That works. Four? Nope. Despite this, the film is pretty decent, even though the third act could have been squeezed into the second, and therefore not make the entire climax of the film feel like the denouement.
The film opens with witty fight scene, Robert Downey Jr. and the female protagonist from the first film getting offed pretty sharpish. Now, obviously this is a Sherlock Holmes film, and it revolves around Holmes, but I’m getting a bit tired of obvious franchises not bothering to franchise the female lead. I suppose we can turn a blind eye to James Bond having a different lady friend every film, due to the fact that he is by definition a cad, and liable to get his other half killed by way of his job. In this context, however, having the major female protagonist of the first film bite the dust almost as soon as the film starts is a bit lazy. It is used to dramatic effect, obviously, as a reason to make Holmes hate Moriarty, except that Holmes already hated Moriarty and was going after him anyway. So a bloody hankerchief is used to add weight to the hatred Holmes feels, y’know, “this time it’s for keeps old chap”. This would be okay, except that nothing is made of it for pretty much the rest of the movie. Holmes has a weepy bit, and then gets on with being Holmes. The replacement female lead has two dimensions printed into her character, which is rather unfortunate.
Minor irritant aside, this is all well and good, since Robert Downey Jr. is damn good at being Holmes, and Jude Law takes a break from being a wimp to put in a good turn as Watson. Guy Ritchie has the comedy down pat, and Stephen Fry carries one of the funniest scenes that I’ve seen in recent memory. Balancing the comedy with the action in any Downey Jr. flick is a tough balancing act (on point in Iron Man, less so in the sequel), but most of the time here it is quite masterful.
The big highlight of the film is Jared Harris’ turn as Moriarty. I last saw him in Fringe, and his evil turn here is a cut above his role in that series. He’s a bit too brutal at times, but then again, it’s a Guy Ritchie film. The scenes where Holmes and Moriarty face off without directly hurting one another are probably my favourites. The chess match at the end reminds me in a few respects of the Tyrell scene in Bladerunner, though not quite as good (Bladerunner is one of my favourite films, ever, so that would be a big ask).
Ultimately, it is the action that lets the film down. Well, not the individual bits, but the totality of it. Bombs? Check? Fistfights? Check. Shootouts? Check? Machine guns? Check. Goddamn HOWITZERS? Check. Goddamn howitzers AGAIN? Check. That’s the third act, right there in a nutshell, and it was eminently skippable. Consider this for a plot standpoint: They find out where Moriarty’s factory is, figure out what he’s up to, and somehow need to get from here, to ending up at the diplomatic conference for the finale. Now, in between these two points (normally: end of act two, halfway through act three) Ritchie wedges in: Infiltrating the factory, Watson breaking into a telegraph office, Holmes being captured, Watson trying to rescue him, Holmes being tortured, Watson getting shot at, Holmes being tortured more, Watson shooting a howitzer at the sniper (Moriarty’s sidekick), Watson picking Holmes from the rubble, the pair of them grabbing guns, having a shootout in the factory yard, a howitzer blowing a hole in the wall, everyone running away, everyone getting shot at, mortar shots going on in the tress, howitzer shots going off in the trees, sniper dude shooting people, some pointless sidekicks dying, everyone jumping on a train, Holmes randomly almost dying, Watson saving his life.
If that all sounded like a mouthful, it is all the more painful because it is largely pointless.
Here’s what needed to happen: They go to the factory, Holmes gets captured/tortured, they escape. That’s it. Instead, a rather convoluted series of shots is used to barrage the audience into submission, and replace plot advancement with loud bangs. It is a cheap trick, and mostly pointless. Having said that, the big bangs were well done.
In the end, though, the finale is pretty spectacular, and the two-way slow-mo fist fight between Holmes and Moriarty is a nice touch, building on the way Ritchie set the “thinking” fistfight style of the first film.