“The question is which of us is the trout and which of us is the fisherman Mr. Holmes?”
In 2009 Sherlock Holmes became a break out hit making over half a billion dollars and successfully brought the brand into the mainstream blockbuster film community making both Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson both known to the average film goer and relevant to modern cinema. While the movie’s story and concept themselves didn’t boast anything new or above average, the movie did boast lightning in a bottle chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as the leads as well as the very cool and stylized take on late 19th century England from director Guy Ritchie. Because of the chemistry and the style Sherlock Holmes was able to be successful with audiences as well as critics which now brings us to the inevitable sequel A Game of Shadows. While Shadows doesn’t have as much to prove as its predecessor it certainly had a whole new set of problems to deal with; the biggest being just another sequel that tries so hard to recapture the original, but ultimately failing like so many other sequels out there. The movie does return with the entire original cast and the marvelous Jared Harris joins the cast as Holm’s greatest foe Prof. Simon Moriarty. Is this sequel worth a look or is doe it join the sea of forgettable sequels that just can’t live up to the originals?
A Game of Shadows picks up with the plot thread that the first film left open in its ending with Irene Adler(Rachel McAdams) pulling a job for the mysterious and illusive Professor Moriarty(Jared Harris). Sherlock has been tailing her trying to get information on Moriarty as he has been investigating a series of seemingly unrelated crimes that he has traced back to Moriarty. After Sherlock loses Adler while he stops a bombing we get to see a scene between Adler and Moriarty where Moriarty confronts Adler’s feelings for Holmes. The entire point of the scene is to demonstrate the sheer power and malevolence of Moriarty’s character. It is after this rather lengthy prologue that the film really starts by reintroducing us to Watson who is visiting Sherlock Holmes on the eve of his wedding. Holmes has seemingly forgotten about Watson’s wedding as he is too occupied with his case which he claims is the greatest in his entire career. The game is afoot as Holmes gets in deeper than he ever thought he would with a case that is intricate, dangerous, and full of surprises.
There really isn’t much I can say about the plot of the movie without giving away too many details as the story of the movie is constantly building on itself with the mystery and the clues that are fed to the audience as the story progresses. There are several things to note about the story of the movie, the biggest of which is the complexity and almost unnecessary number of plot twists that are delivered in the last 15 minutes of the film. While I enjoy really complex and intricate stories; it is very difficult for movies in this genre to deliver some fairly big plot twists all at one time without feeling rushed and slightly convoluted. While Shadows handles many of the surprises fairly well I couldn’t help the feeling that the movie could have developed all of these last minute twists more effectively which could have added intensity and a bigger impact to the end of the film. Aside from this little gripe I think that the story in this film is much better than the first film as it takes the foundation laid by its predecessor and builds on it in a way that allowed the film to have higher stakes and more depth than the first film. I also think that the character of Moriarty was a very substantial part of why the story of this movie works as he brings a dynamic to the story that no other Holmes villain could provide. As a whole I think that the core of the story is a very solid one that works more times than not even if I do have some problems with how the movie was executed(which I’ll flesh out later).
The character work in this movie is all over the place, but actually fitting most of the time. For starters Holmes himself finds himself in a rough spot as he seemingly craves to find someone to love as his partner and best friend Watson is getting married. While this particular part of Holmes’s character isn’t fleshed out; it is certainly alluded to multiple times. Other than this I found Holmes’s character to be far less dynamic than he should have been as the lead character. Robert Downey Jr. is certainly entertaining to watch, but by the time the film ends the only thing Holmes seems to have learned is how to be more selfless, but this is something he had already shown he had in the previous film and at the beginning of this film. Either way I believe that Holmes is still entertaining to watch, and even if he is far from dynamic he still manages to be over the top and off the wall enough to keep me intrigued. Jude Law as Watson was also good fun to watch as he again played the reluctant but loyal sidekick. His character arc in the film revolves around his marriage and his future as he realizes that his days investigating cases with Holmes are coming to an end as he wants to have a family. The chemistry between Holmes and Watson is one of the biggest highlights of the film as RDJ and Law somehow continue to sell the complicated partnership between the two. The other big highlight of the film was Jared Harris’s performance as Professor Moriarty. Harris is able to take the fantastic writing of the character and make it something even greater. He plays Moriarty as a brilliant but cold and calculating villain who will stop at nothing to accomplish his goals. The character is intimating, intriguing, and actually respectable for the level of elegance and intelligence he brings to his crimes. He is essentially an evil version of Holmes who can at times outsmart and even outfight Holmes. Harris gives this character more layers than what many viewers may have been expecting and he dominates every scene he is in(which says quite a bit considering his opposite is RDJ who is notorious for stealing scenes). Aside from these 3 characters there are several small and supporting characters that are memorable if one dimensional. My personal favorites are Moriarty’s right hand man Sebastian Moran and Sherlock’s brother Mycroft.
The direction for this film is overall pretty solid, but I did have a handful of issues with how things were executed. Guy Ritchie returns to the director’s chair and brings back the great cinematography and art direction of the first film. A Game of Shadows takes us to many new locales around Europe such as Paris, Switzerland, and Germany and all of them look beautiful because of the great cinematography and the excellent art direction. The movie also boast a large number of explosions to keep this intricate(and at times convoluted) story moving. While most of them seem natural enough I found the execution of these fighting scenes to be a little too unorthodox. There’s a scene near the end of the film where the movie goes into super slo-mo which seems pretty cool at first, but the sequence is a bit too long for its own good. Another device I had issues with were the fight scenes that return from the first film. In these scenes Holmes plans out what he is about to do to his opponent, but unlike the first film there is so much speeding up, slowing down, jump cuts, and other unnecessary tricks that is is almost nauseating to watch. Despite the film’s cool set pieces and unorthodox fight scenes; I really appreciated that the confrontation between Holmes and Moriarty at the end of the film was not an action filled set piece, but a battle of the intellects as the two face off in a chess game that is cross edited with the actual events of the film. It was probably one of my favorite sequences from the film and I thought it highlighted the real heart of the rivalry between Holmes and Moriarty. I give credit to this sequence to both the writer and Guy Ritchie who finally gets the right balance of cool and unorthodox tricks mixed in with the climax of the story. The direction may have been a bit uneven, but overall I think it works more times than it fails.
Overall I think that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows manages to outshine its predecessor because of its better story, fun performances, and interesting if truly menacing villain. The movie could be rough around the edges at times, but the overall product outshines many of these issues.
A Game of Shadows manages to deliver a story with more depth and higher stakes than the original while also giving us a film that demands for the audience to see the first film to fully appreciate what all is going on here. The villain of tale, Professor Moriarty brings a dynamic to the story that no other villain could which really adds to the dramatic impact and tension of the story of the film.
Aside from the lack of dynamics from the character of Sherlock Holmes, the movie actually manages to give us a cast of memorable characters with great(and fun) performances by Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, and Jared Harris While most of the supporting cast is rather flat they remain fairly memorable by the time the movie finishes with actors Noomi Rapace and Stephen Fry giving solid and enjoyable performances. The two biggest highlights of the film were the chemistry between Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law and the character of Moriarty who stole every scene he was in with his cold and menacing Ora.
Although Ritchie wasn’t quite as consistent as he was in the first film; he still manages to give us a beautiful art direction with some great cinematography. His overall package is solid, but some of the decisions made concerning the action set pieces are questionable and at times become too unorthodox for their own good. At times Ritchie relies just a bit too much on style rather than substance.
Overall Effectiveness of the Film: 8.5
A Game of Shadows manages to work as both an entertaining popcorn film and a crime investigation film. While I’ll certainly question whether or not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would approve, I cannot deny how well this film works as a piece of entertainment in the world of film. The film looks great, is well performed, and is well written which is all we can ask for from Sherlock Holmes at this point. The film doesn’t do anything significant to set itself apart from other popcorn entertainment which leads me to hope that one day we will get a radically different and more character driven take on a Sherlock movie.
Overall Score: 8.0