‘Holmes’ Meets His Match In This Shadowy Sequel

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows:  4 out of 5
Dr. John Watson:  Oh, how I've missed you, Holmes.
Sherlock Holmes:  Have you? I've barely noticed your absence.
The Victorian boys are back in town.  Sherlock and Watson are back and this time they are wrapped up in a deadly game of shadows, as the threat of Professor Moriarty looms in the background.  The first film, from 2009, turned out to be a lot of fun, given the new take on the character and universe.  Mixed with the fun performances from Downey, Jr. and Law and the stylish direction of Guy Ritchie (not to mention Hans Zimmer’s wonderful score), Sherlock Holmes was able to get by on charm and wit, as much as it did by blockbuster spectacle.  This sequel certainly goes the “bigger is better route” but does not lose sight of what made the first film enjoyable.  It is a bit long, without a solid handle on its plot until about midway through and does some disservice to its female lead, but the film still manages to provide a very entertaining experience.  Seeing Holmes face off against Moriarty on the big screen, alone, is worth it here, but all the trimmings in this film continue to make it a worthwhile bit of fun during the holidays.

A Game of Shadows picks up a year after the events of the first film.  Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) has become obsessed with trapping the criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris).  Moriarty has proven himself to be the intellectual equal of Holmes, while also hiding in plain sight as a well respected man, despite his nefarious deeds.  The latest of these deeds has included a number of random bombings and assassinations of important individuals.  The revelation of Moriarty being willing to personally harm Holmes in more ways than one, after an early confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty, makes Holmes’ push to stop the professor even more significant.

In the middle of all of this, John Watson (Jude Law) is about to be wed to his fiancée, Mary (Kelly Reilly).  Watson had previously moved out of the London flat he shared with Holmes (on 221B Baker St., respectively), but has still come to Holmes’ aid from time to time, despite Holmes’ reclusive state.  Watson becomes drawn into Holmes’ affairs more heavily, following an incident on the night of his supposed bachelor party, which leads to knife fights, chases, and the introduction of a gypsy named Simza (Noomi Rapace, of original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo fame).  As Holmes deduces more about the various individuals and situations he comes into contact with, it leads him, Watson, and Simza across Europe, with hopes of stopping the cunning Moriarty.

Even before the initial trailer for this film, which suggested a “samesies” approach, I was a bit worried that as much as I enjoyed the first film, fast tracking a sequel could imply something along the lines of The Mummy Returns, where the film is basically a duplicate of the first, but bigger (and with annoying children).  Fortunately, while the film is larger in scale, it does not feel like a rehash of similar beats from the first film.  The style created by the first film is still present, but also expanded upon.  We get more “Holmes Vision” with an added twist at one point, as well as a few incredibly stylish action/effects sequences, and of course plenty of the banter between Holmes and Watson.  There are similar problems that this film shares with the first as well, but I was happy to see that this film felt more like another adventure in the Holmes story, rather than that same adventure with a fresh coat of paint.

Once again Robert Downey, Jr. gets to have a lot of fun playing the titular character.  His approach to the role once again has him at the height of his wits, as others play catch up.  He gets to exhibit plenty of wild behavior that always ends up servicing his overall purpose, while being an entertaining person to watch.  Add to that his handle on the dialogue, fighting talents, and approach to various disguises, and you continue to get a broad, but witty performance.  Jude Law as Watson was also a welcome return.  I was a big fan of the choice of his casting last time around and I continue to enjoy what he brings to this film.  His chemistry with Holmes and the way he serves as gateway into the film for audiences is very appropriate.  Seeing him in action is also a lot of fun, especially during a moment that had me thinking back to his role in Enemy at the Gates.  Between Downey, Jr. and Law, it was also quite rewarding to see the depths of their relationship, in the midst of what is a fun time to spend with them.  The film continues to be a solid bromance at its core.

 Dr. John Watson: I see your web of conspiracy has expanded.
Also faring very well is Jared Harris as Moriarty.  It would have been easy to gun for a really huge movie star for this role, but a great choice was made to have an accomplished character actor (best known for his work on Mad Men) play the anti-Holmes.  In the film, Harris is very good during his screentime and fantastic in his scenes played opposite to Holmes.  The two have a wonderfully respectful rivalry that plays to their strengths as intellectuals, with sinister underpinnings as far as Moriarty’s intentions are concerned.  There is enough to Harris’ performance that positions him as an effective threat, without a need for overdoing it or underselling his presence.

In supporting roles, Stephen Fry has a comedic role as Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft Holmes, who adds nothing but laughs and exposition; not a bad thing necessarily.  Kelly Reilly also gets to do a bit more, besides be fed up with Watson’s relationship with Holmes.  And Rachel McAdams does return for a small portion of the film.  The other new addition, Noomi Rapace, is unfortunately given very little to do.  Besides her involvement in an early action scene, she mostly has the task of following a long with the dynamically dapper duo, before sitting out during their fun activities.  Given the strong work that Rapace was able to impress many with during her stint as Lisbeth Salander and the fact that she’s another talented, but mostly unknown actress as far as blockbuster movies go, yet chosen to be in this film, it is a shame that she’s relegated to this position.  Still, she wears a gypsy wig well.

Ritchie’s work as a director continues to be a selling point for this film as well.  The first film gave him the chance to solely focus on his talents as a man with a keen eye for dynamic visual filmmaking.  Having set up the foundation and style with the first film, which did feature some exciting set pieces, this sequel really gives him a chance to dig into some fun.  Moving out of London and into other European cities leads to a few really fun and thrilling set pieces, including an action set piece aboard a train, another set in a weapons depot, and a really well done chase through the woods.  I enjoyed that there was a lot of variety to the action, while also making sure to establish an effective level of peril throughout.  Holmes and Watson really take a beating during this film, which is a nice way of keeping the film’s stakes above the level of lighthearted fluff.

In terms of production and costume design, this is a great looking film.  There is still a stylized nature to the world that Sherlock lives in, which feels appropriate, especially given that the first film set up the tone so distinctly.  For every attempt to keep a level of authenticity to the surrounding characters and locales there are also elements such as a castle in Switzerland, which is practically equivalent to a Bond villain lair.  Helping this further is Hans Zimmer, who once again provides a score that did not necessarily catch me off guard like the first film, but continues to provide the inventive score that fit well with the character and tone of the film.

The problems that people found with the first, I believe, relate to the length of the film and the way the character of Sherlock was handled.  I’ll still maintain that despite the obvious adjustment to a blockbuster film world, the portrayal of Sherlock is quite fitting, but I would like to think that the same justice is done this time around as well and with better results.  As far as the length, it is still a problem.  I honestly saw no real shape of the actual plot of this film until around midway through.  The threat of Moriarty was apparent, but the story could have been tightened up without losing much at all.  However, once the pieces started to clearly fall into place, everything really gelled together for me.

Overall, big fans of the first film should dig this sequel, fans ok with the first may like this one more, and those not taken at all by the first will probably still dislike what Ritchie and company have to offer here.  I seem to take away a great deal of enjoyment out of these films and my feelings are supported by the fun performances from Downey, Jr. and Law, the very welcome addition of Harris as Moriarty, and the engrossing, large spectacle scenes seen throughout.  I was happy that the film did not seem to be an enlarged copy of the first and will be happy to see where this series goes next.
Professor Moriaty:  Are you sure you want to play this game?
Sherlock Holmes:  I'm afraid you'd lose.


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