Sherlock Holmes is so accustomed to being the smartest guy in the room — sorry, Dr. Watson — that when he finally meets an intellectual match in the new Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, it’s enough to momentarily remove that smug look from the detective’s face.
Physically, Holmes’ adversary hardly seems a threat: bad teeth, receding hairline, watery eyes. But in terms of brainpower, professor James Moriarty proves to be one mighty nemesis.
Arthur Conan Doyle created crime fiction’s first uber-villian when he cloaked Holmes’ frequent nemesis Moriarty in the respectable gowns of an Oxford University professor, and Game of Shadows screenplay scribes Michele and Kieren Mulroney devise cunning plot complications that lend industrial-age gravity to the evil genius. Still, Moriarty might have come off as just one more over-the-top Eurotrash mastermind were it not for a deceptively bland performance by British actor Jared Harris.
An ex-member of London’s Royal Shakespeare Company known to TV fans as Mad Men’s tragically stifled account executive Lane Pryce, Harris established his icy-bastard bona fides with a recurring role in Fringe as ruthless time traveler David Robert Jones. A chameleon of the first stripe, Harris is surely the only actor in history who has portrayed John Lennon (Two of Us), Andy Warhol (I Shot Andy Warhol) and Ulysses S. Grant (Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln).
In the PG-13 A Game of Shadows, which opens Friday, Harris animates the template invented by Doyle and made infamous by The Silence of the Lambs’ serial killer Hannibal Lecter — erudite facade, vile interior — with an understated performance that doles out evil intent in genteel increments.
Early in the film, for example, Moriarty meets Irene Adler (played by Rachel McAdams) for tea at a posh London restaurant. Speaking in a near-whisper, Moriarty takes the old “iron fist, velvet glove” tack and works it like a charm as he unctuously asks nervous Irene: “You wanted to meet me here because you thought you wouldn’t be alone?” Then he taps his glass once with a spoon, and all the other diners scurry outdoors.
Moriarty’s encounters with Holmes force Robert Downey Jr.’s antic sleuth to calm down and get serious. As Dr. Watson often reminds us, Holmes’ analytic powers of deduction make him insensitive to his companions’ needs. But next to Moriarty, who calculates motives and outcomes with total disregard for human suffering, Holmes seems like a paradigm of compassion.
In between the hero-villain showdowns, Game of Shadows director Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla) orchestrates seat-rattling explosions, sight gags, slow-motion bullet trajectories, fast-cut fisticuffs and one beautifully photographed nighttime train sequence filmed by cinematographer Philippe Rousselot.
(Spoiler alert: Plot points follow.)