“Oh, how I’ve missed you, Holmes.”
“Have you? I’ve barely noticed your absence.”
Thus begins my review of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Guy Ritchie’s action-packed sequel to 2009 international box office smash, Sherlock Holmes. In the second installment of Ritchie’s version of Conan Doyle’s classic character, Holmes and Watson, played by returning leads Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, respectively, find themselves seemingly in over their heads as they take on Holmes’ greatest rival, Professor James Moriarty, played by Jared Harris. They are joined in their battle of wits and weapons by the formidable gypsy Simza Heron, played by Noomi Rapace.
A Game of Shadows subscribes to the age old Hollywood rule for sequels: Bigger is Better. The set pieces are more spectacular, the scope is grander, the stakes are higher, and the action is sufficiently amped up.
Sometimes this doesn’t work well. A sequel can get so bogged down under the weight of its extra characters and plot points that it becomes an unintentional parody of it’s predecessors. Spiderman 3 suffers from this unfortunately common occurrence. But sometimes, it works better than anyone could have expected. The most recent, and possibly most excellent example is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
A Game of Shadows falls somewhere in the middle, but substantially closer to the side of The Dark Knight than to Spiderman 3. In other words, Sherlock Holmes’ latest adventure is arguably as good as the first installment, though it would be hard to argue that it is better.
That said, it is fully enjoyable and loads of fun.
I’ve been a fan of Guy Ritchie from the beginning of his career, and there is no one who features England, and London specifically, better than he. And this is no less true of 19th Century London. It is a true supporting character, providing a living environment for his very well developed characters to inhabit. But unlike the first movie, A Game of Shadows takes our heroes all over 19th Century Europe. This is both a benefit and a hindrance to the film. It’s refreshing to see Holmes and Watson racing through Paris, but there are times when it feels like there’s just a little too much going on, while story and character get lost in the shuffle. This is unfortunate because story and character are the strongest parts of the movie.
One of the highlights of the previous film was the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Their banter is always hilarious and their relationship is one of genuine care, while never hinting at something homosexual. This is a rare thing in not only cinema, but in life as well. The prevalence of homophobia among straight men and the popularity of homosexuality in Hollywood has made it nearly impossible for men, especially young men, to find positive examples of genuine, masculine friendships. Since Jonathan and David, there has always been a tendency to turn close friends into something more, and that has kept many men from developing actual friendships with one another. Relationships like Holmes’ and Watson’s are rare in fiction and even rarer in life, but they are absolutely essential to cultivate.
This may be the single most redeeming element of the whole film, a picture of a deep and abiding friendship between two straight men. It may get buried beneath our own fears and assumptions, but it is clearly there, and I pray more people see it as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the filmmakers intended it.
The addition of Moriarty provides A Game of Shadows with a great opportunity to see Holmes as we have not yet seen him, outsmarted. If you’re familiar with the books, you know that professor Moriarty is nearly always one step ahead of Holmes. He is at least as brilliant but has been corrupted by his desires for evil. This is well established in the film and we are left with no doubt that this is truly a brilliant and dangerous man.
Being a fan of Conan Doyle’s classic tales well before Sherlock Holmes’ current cinematic turn, I was very pleased by the addition of Mycroft, Holmes older, more intelligent, socially adept brother. In the stories, Mycroft is what Holmes would be if he exerted all his energy thinking, rather than acting upon his thoughts. In the movie, Mycroft, played by Stephen Fry, serves as the voice of experience and wisdom for Holmes and Watson, advising them in their quest to stop Moriarty without ever lifting a finger.
As I mentioned above, the action has been significantly amped up in this film. The plot centers around a series of bombings meant to bring about war in Europe and the explosions and gun battles are plentiful. This is an obvious departure from Conan Doyle’s works, which almost always imply violence rather than describe it, but Ritchie does everything with such a classy and spectacular visual style, that you forget that this is not your grandfather’s Sherlock Holmes.
A good friend of mine has written a review of the film which you can read here. I tell you this because I’m about to disagree with him, even though he is much more qualified to comment on cinematic issues than I am. He states that the end of the film provides us with only a “mixed bag” rather than the closure that one might expect from the original source material, but in thinking back on the film, I’d have to say that the end closes things up nicely. What seems lacking from the end of the story, a scene in which Holmes ties everything together for an intellectually bewildered Watson (see the first film for an example of this) is simply dealt with differently. The audience is presented with all the pieces as the story moves along, better even than in the first film, and we get to build the puzzle along with the characters. In this sense, A Game of Shadows is classic Conan Doyle storytelling and a whole lot of fun to watch.
My recommendation: if you enjoyed the first one, you will enjoy this one. And if you enjoyed the original stories, I think you will find A Game of Shadows to be a step in the right direction.