Guy Ritchie struck gold with 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. Combining a fast-paced, modernized take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective with the blossoming and revitalized post-Iron Man popularity of star Robert Downey, Jr., he successfully brought the character back to cinematic life and created a full-blown blockbuster. The film was, in retrospect, somewhat uneven, but was nevertheless an enjoyable romp that set itself up perfectly for a sequel. That sequel comes to us this week in the form of Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, and it retains much of what made the first one so engaging, while bringing in new characters that elevate it beyond its predecessor.
The plot of A Game Of Shadows is a murky, labyrinthine beast, replete with anarchists, bombings, assassinations and a continent-spanning conspiracy to bring about world war, all deviously masterminded by the nefarious Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). I’d be spoiling the fun if I went into it any further, but suffice it to say that the battle of wits, fists, firearms and ripostes between Holmes and Moriarty is handled with a devious cleverness. Their vainglorious yet deadly rivalry is handled with equal parts of Downey Jr.’s trademark wry banter, and a deadly serious, bitter contest of wills that quite literally holds the fate of the world in its balance. Harris’ turn as Moriarty is a genius slice of villainy — he’s a quiet, menacing schemer, but he’s no glib deliverer of one-liners. No, there’s no doubt that Moriarty is evil, a genuinely sociopathic maniac determined to destroy everything in his path in his quest to influence the world. Yet at the same time, its done with a subtle devilishness makes his character all the more terrifying, a true Machiavellian plotter who masterfully pulls the strings behind the scenes, a man so brilliantly devious that it’s obvious that no one but Holmes could ever hope to bring him down. It’s heady, enjoyable stuff, and far outstrips the banter and — much as I hate the word — bromance between Holmes and his steadfast and long-suffering sidekick John Watson (Jude Law).
That bond of friendship and brotherhood between Watson and Holmes is the other focal relationship in the film, and that’s where the film was a bit of a mixed bag. The repartee between the two was sharp and exhilarating in the first film, but it felt more forced and overwritten in the sequel. Part of that problem lies with the writers (Ritchie and siblings Michele and Kieran Mulroney), who ramped up Holmes’ eccentricities, but did so via an increase in silliness and a childish jealousy over Watson’s pending nuptials with the lovely (if underused) Mary (Kelly Reilly). Downey does himself no favors either, veering off from oddball genius to petulant ridiculousness. It felt akin to Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow evolution, a character that shone bright in its first iteration, but dimmed via excess in subsequent parts — and was strangely paralleled by the similarly frustrating arc of Tony Stark in Iron Man 2.
Yet their relationship and interactions were salvaged by the scenes where they get down to the business of detecting, and that’s where Ritchie’s film excels yet again. Despite the action-packed trailers, what makes Downey and Law so great together is their moments of clever investigative technique and their back-and-forth playing of ideas off of each other. Their yin-and-yang approach to solving the greatest mystery of their time is utterly engaging and joyous filmwatching, aided by Ritchie’s first rate use of innovative and wickedly smart zooming effects. CGI is used minimally, but when it is used, to bolster the whirling dervish that is Holmes’ thought processes, it’s marvelous.
The film has other supporting characters that turn in solid, entertaining performances, most notably a hysterically smug performance by Stephen Fry as Holmes’ secretive brother Mycroft. Fry is a slick counterpoint to Holmes, a whole other version of arrogant, brilliant bastard that was just as fun to observe. Noomi Rapace was solid as the quick-witted gypsy Simza Heron, but as with most women in the Holmes films, underused. It’s a boy’s night out in London (and Switzerland, and Turkey, and several other locales), and sadly the women felt a bit like window dressing for much of it.
The other great supporting role is Ritchie himself, who directs his ass off in the film, creating a gorgeously rendered window into another time. With a breathtaking attention to historical detail, every costume, set, vehicle and weapon (not to mention the stunningly rendered credit sequence) is a lavishly rendered ode to the turn of the century. He celebrates the characters and their settings with an outstanding ability to shoot an action scene, with explosive combinations of back-alley fisticuffs and frantic firefights, all interspersed with a solid understanding of when and how to utilize ultra-slow motion for added effect. The combination, particularly during a hectic firefight and chase through a forest, is dizzying in all the right ways.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows is, for the most part, an enjoyable combination of detective story, action movie, and period piece. The performances are resoundingly enjoyable, despite the occasionally glaring stumbles in Downey’s performance — more attributable to the writing than the actor, but blame can be passed all around. Yet with Ritchie’s slick, inventive direction and a well-scripted story of nefariousness and Holmes’ and Moriarty’s keen battle of wits, it overcomes its few missteps and outshines its predecessor.