If you weren't sure whether steampunk had gone mainstream, the new Sherlock Holmes movie should convince you. This is the second entry in smart-macho director Guy Ritchie's reimagined Victorian detective franchise, where the cerebral Holmes uses his brains to deliver the perfect punch and Watson is his gun nut buddy. It's packed with all the oil-and-gear trappings of a classic steampunk tale, sprinkled over with a charming bromance that's played with anachronistic irony. If you love gleeful homoeroticism, tweed, and nineteenth century weaponry, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows will provide you with a diverting, though bumpy, ride.
Holmes and Watson's adventures in this flick take them deep into the tensions simmering between France and Germany in pre-World War I Europe, and fling Holmes repeatedly into the arms of his arch-nemesis Moriarty (when he's not snuggled up with Watson of course). We also meet Sherlock's oddball brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), a diplomat and nudist, who basically lights up the screen whenever he's on it.
Like the previous Sherlock film, Game of Shadows is about Holmes matching wits with a shady figure (in this case, Moriarty) who is making a covert bid for power - and using a bunch of crazy nineteenth century technology to do it. In this flick, though, Holmes has met his match. Moriarty (played with zesty villainousness by Jared Harris) is a famous scientist who concocts elaborate crimes when he's not dashing off books about asteroids. And it appears that Moriarty's latest crime could upset the delicate diplomatic negotiations between France and Germany, two European superpowers on the brink of war.
Against the backdrop of several gorgeously-realized European cities seething with anarchist terrorists and other sundry bad guys, Holmes and Watson try to sleuth out what Moriarty's game really is. I'm not going to give away much more than that, but suffice to say that the mystery is resolved in a way that's actually interesting, and even weirdly plausible.
The meat of the Sherlock Holmes franchise is quip-laced action, and Game of Shadows mostly delivers on that. There's an incredibly silly but awesome gunfight on a train, where Holmes is in drag (for a sort of good reason) and Watson is trying desperately to be on honeymoon. In a sense, this scene encapsulates the mood of the whole film. Holmes isn't on the train simply to rescue Watson and his new wife from Moriarty's henchmen – he's also there to rescue Watson from the boredom of heterosexual life. Holmes is always taunting Watson about how the doctor is clearly having much more fun on their adventure than he would have on a honeymoon in Brighton. And though Watson protests, we know Holmes is right.
Put another way, this is a movie about what two ultra-smart, ultra-tough guys like Holmes and Watson would do on their honeymoon. Shooting the biggest freaking guns you've ever seen is involved, of course, but there's also a moment where Holmes and Watson go ballroom dancing together. Holmes doesn't even sleep with the random gypsy chick Madame Simza (Noomi Rapace), so there's no heterosexual alibi at all. I love that this movie exudes a feeling of "yeah, this is totally gay and you love it." Because we do love it! The rapport between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law is spicier and more believable than what you see between the leads in most romantic comedies.
The movie stumbles when we veer outside the world of Holmes and his buddies (including nemesis Moriarty). Particularly painful is a scene where Holmes and Watson wind up in Simza's gypsy camp, where (groan) the gypsies steal all their stuff, feed them disgusting food, and force them to drink and dance. Clichéd bits like this crop up repeatedly in Game of Shadows. We're made to listen to the same jokes we heard in the first movie, about how Holmes takes drugs and likes to poison Watson's dog and wears really terrible disguises. Yes, it's fun to see Holmes being eccentric, but there has to be a fresher way of showing us. Some of the action set pieces suffer from similar problems. By the end of the flick, you'll be heartily sick of the preview/rewind/slomo/fastmo style that makes every action sequence feel like a really bad ecstasy trip.
Still, there's a scrappy heart to this film that makes it fun to watch despite all its flaws. I'm not saying it's great, but it makes for fine amusement and a genuinely cute bromance.