Castor: 2009′s Sherlock Holmes was a polarizing film that seemed to divide audiences. Some purists of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories were taken aback by Guy Ritchie’s bombastic reinvention of the classic character which saw him use his brawn possibly more than his brain. Others hailed the witty homoerotic pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, the strong supporting cast as well as the modern take which blended mystery with visual panache. The follow-up Game of Shadows is very much more of the same hyper-edited popcorn fun, a full-throttle sequel that is smoother, darker and more entertaining than its predecessor.
The year is 1891 and Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr.) is investigating the connection between multiple bombings throughout Europe and the sudden deaths of key figures around the world. Tensions between Germany and France are escalating in a preview of World War I. Holmes has a feeling that Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) is at the root of all these evils but the respected and powerfully-connected academic is too clever to leave even the shadow of an evidence that would incriminate him. And so once again, Holmes enlists his faithful friend Dr. Watson (Law) on a James Bond-style, globe-trotting investigation to thwart a “collapse of Western civilization”.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a significant improvement on the first installment. It has a more coherent and tightly focused narrative, propped up by a sense of forward momentum that was substantially lacking in the first movie. Do not expect much of a central puzzle, this is still a classic Guy Ritchie style-over-substance creation peppered with a plethora of spectacular action set pieces, including a lengthy ambush on-board a train and a ridiculously overly edited flight through an exploding forest. However, some truly thrilling narrative decisions were made that provided much higher stakes to the proceedings, such as the quick dispatching of a key character at the onset of the story and Holmes confronting Moriarty over a game of chess in a thoughtful yet climactic showdown at the end of the movie.
In addition, the actors seem to have settled into their roles and there is a comforting sense of continuity with the returning characters. I really liked how Rachel McAdams was used in the opening sequence to elegantly tie-in the first installment which depicted her in over her head dealing with the mysterious Professor Moriarty. Rather than have a dull and redundant introduction, Holmes and Irene Adler (McAdams) simply pick up their witty relationship exactly where they left off and allow the narrative to seamlessly hit the ground running. This is how small cameos should be used in movies.
Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. is as appealing as ever as the unpredictable and unkempt title character. Holmes continues with his eccentric ways, arrogant aloofness and bromantic devotion to his partner-in-crime-solving, Dr. John Watson. But a darker side is starting to emerge (slowly), the picture of a sad, lonely, fidgety person who is afraid to death of losing his only friend. Jude Law returns as his reluctant sidekick Watson, the only man who can truly get along with this neurotic friend of his but longs for a more stable life with his wife-to-be (Kelly Reilly). The two actors share winning chemistry once again, still constantly trading quips like an old married couple with plenty of sight gags to go with their comedic inter-play.
But a hero doesn’t truly become whole until he finds his worthy adversary. In that regard, Moriarty is a terrific improvement on the weak villain of the original film. The casting of Jared Harris as Holmes’ arch-nemesis was a fantastic decision. He oozes suave creepiness as the diabolic villain who may even be more than a worthy match for Holmes and their deadly game of wits indeed provides the drive and suspense the first movie lacked. Another excellent addition to the cast is Stephen Fry who perks things up every time he is on screen as Holmes’ wayward sibling Mycroft.
Nevertheless, there is a few major disappointments with Game of Shadows, most notably the fact that the screenwriters (Michele and Kieran Mulroney) never really push the characters further. Affecting hints of the darkness smoldering our battered hero are suggested here and there but these opportunities to explore some emotional depth are never elaborated on. For example, the impact of the loss of a key character on Holmes is brushed over in a very cavalier way. Additionally, Ritchie’s unwisely decides to settle for the predictable Hollywood happy ending rather than take the bold but perfect conclusion immediately after the famous fight to the death between Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls.
On a final note, Ritchie disappointingly squanders his gifted actresses once again. Noomi Rapace, who was a revelation in the Swedish The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, is shockingly lifeless as a gypsy fortuneteller and is never given anything to do beyond tagging along for the ride and looking vaguely moody while listening to Downey’s quick-witted deductions. The main problem lies with the script which has her playing her character dead-serious, while the rest of the cast is obviously having fun with the over-the-top zaniness. In contrast, Rachel McAdams, as the duplicitous Irene Adler, brings the required energy and actually does more with less this time around. That is, until she is thrown away in a flash.
Nonetheless, you could do a lot worse this holiday season than this movie. With a winning cast, better pacing and energetic direction from Guy Ritchie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a significant improvement over its predecessor.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Boredom?
Sam: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows does something not many films can accomplish: effectively wastes the effortless talents of its excellent cast. Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, and Rachel McAdams (amongst others) are – despite a few quick-witted jabs here and there – entirely disposable in this high-octane action flick that feels more like a sluggish cartoon than a piece of filmmaking.
It was made lurid almost instantaneously in the first Sherlock Holmes that director Guy Ritchie was not going to abide by the tropes that author Arthur Conan Doyle laid out for him. No, no, we live in the 21st century – no time for slow-burn suspense and mystery. Instant gratification is now the standard.
With that said, Ritchie’s first installment was far more enticing and entertaining than Game of Shadows. Here the story picks up a few years later, when Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is soon to embark on his “biggest case” yet. But… he needs his partner in crime: Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) who is about to become a married man to the beautiful Mary Watson (Kelly Reilly). As expected Holmes begs and pleas with him to assist him on this one last job before he ties the knot of matrimony. And naturally, Watson gives in to help out his oldest friend.
Last film, we had Mark Strong as the villain who lusted over world domination (silly, but enjoyable). In this second installment, our antagonist is Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Apparently Moriarty is dead set on springing a war for his own financial benefits, simultaneously influencing government in whatever direction he chooses. He’s a connected man and apparently – according to Holmes – his most difficult “adversary”.
Which seems a bit silly because Moriarty – though he certainly contains a fair share of vice – is not so intimidating, nor are his actions all that devious. Alas the middling mystery continues. The crux of the plot is not so much farcical as it is hidden amid a sea of tame subplots and uninteresting minor characters. Nothing quite works out or has any pragmatic direction. Which is fine if the film was a good time.
However the script written by Michele and Kieran Mulroney diminishes a majority of the enjoyment you’d typically have had with Holmes and Watson. Robert Downey Jr. is still marginally satisfying as the narcissistic and self-indulgent (though mission-dedicated) Holmes. Jude Law is absolutely perfect for Watson, a doctor who attempts to stay away from the action but can’t resist the temptation.
Some new characters include Holmes’ brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) who helps out with the adventure when he can and Constable Clark (William Huston) an ex-Army soldier who works as a minion for Moriarty. Both are mildly amusing, but every other character in the film serves as mere plot point to move along the already dull story.
While putting the sole blame on Guy Ritchie may be a tad inadequate, it’s not too far off. His direction is tepid and frustratingly uneventful. The film wallows from one action scene to the next. What’s in the middle is pure exposition. All of which is captured with lackadaisical camerawork. Reminiscent of Michael Bay’s Armageddon, I’m not quite sure Ritchie holds on a shot for more than 3 seconds.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows ultimately amounts to one quick cut after another, punctuated with tedious storytelling and plodding pacing. The film in a mathematical sense is a cut + another cut + a witty line by Holmes + ludicrous action scene + misanthropic direction = a film not worth spending money on, amid this Holiday season.
2 stars out of 4
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