Despite some definite drawbacks, however, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a fairly good action/adventure film
Guy Ritchie defied the odds with his 2009 reboot of Sherlock Holmes: Ritchie managed to take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famed detective and turn him into a kick-ass, crime-solving action hero that modern audiences by and large loved - thanks in no small part to the roughish charms and quick wit of star Robert Downey Jr. With Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Ritchie attempts to expand the world his revamped detective inhabits, while also doing justice to the famous rivalry between Holmes and his longtime nemesis, diabolical genius Professor Moriarty.
So, is the sequel a bigger and better followup to its predecessor? Or do Ritchie and his cast fail to recapture the freshness and fun of the first film?
A Game of Shadows picks up shortly after the first Sherlock Holmes, with the brilliant detective (Downey Jr.) drawn even deeper into his manic quest to unravel the web of murder, corruption and blackmail that Moriarty has woven. Meanwhile, Holmes' longtime companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is preparing to wed fiancé Mary (Kelly Reilly) and leave the life of crime-solving behind. After Holmes gets hold of a few pivotal clues about Moriarty's nefarious plot, the evil genius decides that he has been putting off the problem of Sherlock Holmes for far too long, and decides to strike at the detective by targeting those closest to him.
Holmes manages to wrangle the honeymooning Watson into helping solve this final case, and the two begin an odyssey across Europe, following each subsequent clue they discover to the next strand in Moriarty's web. However, even with the help of allies like Sherlock's brilliant (but lazy) brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), or knife-wielding gypsy, Sim (Noomi Rapace), for every step Holmes and Watson take forward, they find that Moriarty is already two steps further ahead.
A Game of Shadows retains most of the best qualities of the first film: Downey's charm; the witty banter and strong chemistry between Holmes and Watson; the slow-motion sequences that illustrate Holmes' analytical powers at work; action sequences shot in Guy Ritchie's signature hyper-kinetic style; and the Steampunk aesthetic that makes the 19th century setting feel fresh and interesting, without breaking too far from the realities of the period.
On top of keeping all those elements intact, the sequel adds a wonderful villain in the form of Moriarty, who is realized onscreen in the best possible way by Mad Men actor Jared Harris. Moriarty is a sociopath hiding in plain sight: whether he's delivering a lecture at university, hatching a terrorist strike, or directly threatening Holmes, the mad genius never loses his staunch English formality and soft-spoken demeanor, making him all the more disturbing.
Harris is fantastic in the role, letting only the devilish glint in his eyes betray the true cauldron of insanity bubbling under Moriarty's carefully composed surface. He and Downey have a fantastic chemistry, wherein Holmes and Moriarty are two sides of the same coin, and have just as much respect for one another's intellect as they do disdain for how the other man chooses to use it. The final showdown between the two foes is tense, creative, and very well crafted - arguably the best onscreen rivalry this side of Batman and The Joker.
That all said, however, the story (by relatively untested screenwriters Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney) is very formulaic in its progression, and basically amounts to Holmes and Watson traipsing through Europe from set piece to set piece. Some viewers may buy into the notion that Moriarty and Holmes' cat-and-mouse game is actually smart in its twists and turns - but really this is your standard point A to point B to point C movie, and most of the so-called "twists" are anything but.
As someone who was critical of the first film's approach to "mystery," I can say that Game of Shadows made me yearn for the faux-supernatural parlor tricks of Lord Blackwood. In trying to (once again) bend the facts of history to suit the fiction of their story, the screenwriters ultimately fail to concoct a scheme worthy of the evil genius hatching it. And like the first film, the use of flashbacks - revealing that previous moments in the film were not at all what we'd assumed - still teeters dangerously close to line of deus ex machina (not that many viewers will notice, or particularly care).
The other downside of the film is that it is very shallow in terms of character development. Game of Shadows contains a subplot dealing with the dwindling bromance between the detective and his associate, as Watson tries to embrace his new life with Mary, sans his eccentric friend. Whether due to the nonstop onslaught of action, or the simple fact that they are too cool for significant emoting (even when called for), the whole Holmes/Watson relationship troubles are a flimsy, peripheral plot point, masked as understated inference. Also wasted are the talents of actors like Fry and Rapace, whose characters are little more than hollow plot devices that help push Holmes and Watson toward their next destination.
One particularly admirable thing about the first film is that it lends some complexity to Holmes' character: Despite all his manic bravado, the film revealed that Holmes is actually isolated and lonely as a result of his brilliance and analytical prowess - as was wonderfully illustrated in the scene where Holmes, Watson and Mary sat down to dinner for the first time in the first film. Game of Shadows presents several instances where the detective's vulnerabilities are seemingly going to be explored at greater depth - only to drop those opportunities in favor of another action sequence.
In fact, instead of going deeper into the character, Downey follows the ill-fated path that Johnny Depp did with his Jack Sparrow character: playing things so over-the-top that it borders on cartoonish (just try to pick out a scene where Holmes ISN'T wearing some ridiculous disguise and/or is engaged in some sort of schtick). In the end, it's actually Jude Law who ends up giving the more impressive performance, carefully conveying the internal struggle Watson endures while trying to decide where his loyalties lie.
Despite some definite drawbacks, however, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a fairly good action/adventure film, made better by the charisma of its main players. While the film is sure to entertain those who like a nonstop action flick with a few comedic moments, anyone looking to get deeper into the character of Sherlock Holmes, or see something different in the way Ritchie approaches him, are going to be disappointed. This franchise ain't broke, and the filmmakers certainly didn't try to fix it. Same Sherlock, different day.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is currently playing in theaters.
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