Thanks to a more compelling villain, better pacing, and more action, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a big improvement over the first film in this series. With more serious end of the year fare taking over the box office for the remainder of the year, the latest adventure of the world’s most famous detective provides a solid mystery, great banter, and the same loveable characters that made the first film in this series so entertaining.
The relationship between Holmes and Watson is one of the most fascinating elements in this franchise. It’s not breaking new ground or anything – Holmes takes issue with Watson’s new bride-to-be, realizing it could be the end of their adventures together – but this subplot is so well-handled that it feels fresh. Much of the conflict goes unspoken between the two friends, each coming to grips with the inevitability that one day; their partnership will come to an end. This kind of communication could be interpreted as homoeroticism by some, but I choose to read it just as two friends who have worked together through countless adventures and have a detailed understanding of the other’s methods. Holmes legitimately cares for Watson far more than he lets on, as revealed in his first meeting with Moriarty in which he asks for Watson and his new bride to be excluded from their deadly game of wits. Watson cares as well, evidenced in the story he writes about his friend. It’s a Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday dynamic, and one that is rarely explored as interestingly on screen.
Noomi Rapace, who brought an intense physicality and commitment to the role of Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, falls flat here, essentially playing the Penelope Cruz role in Pirates of the Caribbean 4. For the most part, her character Sim is an inactive observer, serving no other purpose than to lead our main characters to the MacGuffin (her brother, an anarchist who is the final piece in Moriarty’s puzzle). Rachel McAdams reprises her role from the first film, but she’s not nearly as involved this time around. It’s a shame; Irene Adler is a far more compelling character than Rapace’s Sim. As the femme fatale in the first film, Irene was just clever enough to provide problems for Holmes, and seeing him flustered and distracted by her was a welcome obstacle on the way to accomplishing his larger goals. Much of the first film hints at Irene’s relationship with Moriarty, and as an audience, we wonder how she became involved with him and what role she plays in his grand plans. I was hoping we’d get even more of this type of interaction, but…let’s just say that doesn’t quite happen in A Game of Shadows.
In the first movie, we never saw Moriarty’s face because the filmmakers weren’t sure who would play him in the sequel (Brad Pitt was rumored at one point, due to his previous working relationship with Guy Ritchie). Here, Jared Harris from “Mad Men” steps out of the shadows and plays a terrific Moriarty, the perfect antithesis of Holmes and a truly worthy adversary. While Lord Blackwood’s satanic magic was spooky in its own right, I never got the feeling that Holmes was stumped by him. The same cannot be said here, as Moriarty puts Holmes’ back against the wall at every turn. Harris as Moriarty is the best part of this film; he does a great job making the audience believe he’s actually smarter than Holmes, which gives the hero an underdog status that we haven’t seen from him yet. The filmmakers know that if it was too easy for Holmes, the audience would lose interest, so bringing on his arch nemesis this early in the game is a wise move.
The pacing is great; with Ritchie and his writers doling out action sequences or intellectual reveals every few minutes to keep us entertained along the way. There’s even a bit of subversion of expectations as Holmes goes into his patented slow motion fight mode and is interrupted by Rapace’s character hurling a knife into Holmes’ opponent. The setup without the payoff works as a comedic moment, a more involved rehashing of Spielberg’s iconic scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana Jones, exasperated, pulls out his gun and simply shoots a swordsman. There are big action set pieces that work well, too – a train sequence in which an attempt is made on Watson’s life, and an excellent woods escape that uses speed ramping that should make Zack Snyder stop what he’s doing and come take a look.
Prolific composer Hans Zimmer also returns, continuing his storied career with another solid score. His work here sounds like the jangly theme song for “Dexter” (especially in the gypsy-heavy sequences) blended with his score for Rob Marshall’s Pirates 4. I found it odd how much Zimmer uses those gypsy-inspired sections throughout the film even though the corresponding characters are so bland on screen. This isn’t close to Zimmer’s best work – not even his best work this year, since that honor belongs to Rango – but for a big studio sequel, it gets the job done.
With an increase in humor, a better mystery, and a more intricate villain, A Game of Shadows improves on the first film in nearly every way. It’s fun to watch Downey and Law build these characters and banter with each other, and even more fun to watch the character of Sherlock Holmes face an opponent who is his intellectual equal (or who may be even better than he is). Looking to the future, my only concern is with the ending; while the first film ended with a clear direction for a sequel, I can’t help but wonder where the series can go from here. That’s the problem with bringing in a story’s most famous villain in the second movie, an issue Christopher Nolan faces as he wraps up his Batman trilogy. We’ll see how both of those series handle that pressure in the coming months and years; we don’t have much longer to wait for The Dark Knight Rises, and it’ll probably take a couple of years before we see another Sherlock Holmes because of Downey’s commitments to Marvel (Iron Man 3, an Avengers sequel, etc). But even if we have to wait a few years, I’m still looking forward to seeing more adventures of Holmes and Watson on the big screen. Until next time…