Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
By Matthew Huntley
December 19, 2011
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a high-profile Hollywood sequel in just about every sense of the phrase. Going in, we know it’s a studio tent pole being released in the heart of the holiday movie-going season, and so we watch it and enjoy it on those terms. But even if we weren’t privy to this context, we’d still appreciate the movie because it’s so well made. This is a mainstream production that utilizes its hefty budget to provide a kinetic and entertaining experience, and that’s mostly what we ask for.
On the whole, the movie is about as good as the original Sherlock Holmes, which was fun, energetic and sort of jolly. A Game of Shadows has those same qualities but is a little less simply for the fact it’s not as fresh and the screenplay doesn’t go out of its way to try anything new or different. It’s more of the same, but “the same” in this case still has enough juice in it to be satisfying. And like James Bond or Indiana Jones, this is the type of series where each installment acts independently of the others, and so the focus is less on story and character development and more on villain and plot.
Lucky for us, the villain and plot in A Game of Shadows are actually quite good. It’s 1891 and Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr., still a formidable choice for the role) is investigating a series of bombings and assassinations in France and Germany. Crudely disguising himself, he tails his on-again off-again flame, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who’s surreptitiously delivering packages for Professor James Moriarty (deliciously played and made memorable by Jared Harris). Moriarty is an author and mathematical genius and Holmes spends two sleepless days creating a diorama that makes him the prime suspect for all the recent terrorism. In the meantime, he overlooks his best man duties for his old pal and former assistant, Watson (Jude Law), who’s getting married to Mary (Kelly Reilly).
On the night of Watson’s stag party, Holmes’ investigation leads him to Moriarty’s next potential victim, a fortune teller named Simza (Noomie Rapace), who fills the role of strong female sidekick this time around. Holmes, Watson and Simza make their way to Paris to thwart Moriarty’s next strike, but for the first time, Holmes feels outsmarted, which is where his brute fearlessness and ability to endure pain come in handy.
For a movie that centers mostly on action and style - director Guy Ritchie throws in his usual motion effects and epileptic editing techniques - we do find ourselves getting wrapped up in the plot. Downey deserves much of the credit because, as Holmes, we take pleasure in hearing him talk and explain things to us. He’s so charming and droll that we marvel in his theories, not to mention his quick exchanges with Law, who’s a good match because he brings a convincing sensibility to the part of Watson. Their chemistry and back-and-forth banter is a real treat and it’s one of the main reasons to see A Game of Shadows, along with the battle of wits between Downey and Harris, whose Moriarty is a sophisticated and developed villain. He’s not just a run-of-the-mill bad guy, or at least Harris doesn’t make him that way.
Rapace, unfortunately, gets overshadowed. She mostly sits in the background and functions merely as a device for the plot. It’s a shame she wasn’t allotted more time to develop quirks and idiosyncrasies because she fully embraced them in the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Here, she seems under-utilized.
I've never read any of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novels or short stories in which Holmes appeared, but as a film series, Sherlock Holmes is a solid one and so far two for two. If you were a fan of the original, you can assume you’ll like A Game of Shadows. And while I did enjoy it, I think if the franchise wants to keep going, it has to shake things up a bit, perhaps by introducing a new director with a different style or a plot that is more far-reaching and risky. Granted, they’re good here, but we’re in an era of cinema where ideas are so thin that filmmakers can only rely on “the same” for so long before they become tired. But based on the first two installments, I’m confident that if the same energy and enthusiasm are demonstrated with subsequent Sherlock Holmes movies, there's little reason to think audiences will not follow him in future adventures.