Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Written By: Kieran and Michele Mulroney
Produced By: Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram, Susan Downey, Dan Lin
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry
Edited By: James Herbert
Music By: Hans Zimmer
Distributed By: Warner Bros.
Budget: $125 million
Runtime: 128 minutes
Some films are so good you hope they leave them be (Inception) while others not only set up a sequel but are well deserving of one. Sherlock Holmes is of the latter category, and Game of Shadows does not disappoint in the slightest. The original was somewhat of a surprise hit for Warner Bros., resulting in them fast tracking its sequel, pulling Downey, Jr. from Cowboys & Aliens, and going all speed ahead. Usually a rushed sequel doesn’t fare well, but all the right ingredients are here to create another Holmes story thoroughly enjoyable. GoS is, in ways, similar to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (click for review) in that the fun of the film is built around the chemistry between the cast, both old and new.
Warning: This review contains mid-level spoilers for the film
Rachel McAdams’ Mrs. Adler is in the film at the start but is quickly killed off to serve as an emotional jumping off point for Sherlock’s battle with Professor James Moriarty. Introduced during the first film, director Guy Ritchie wastes no time to pulling the shadows off of Moriarty and showing us Jared Harris’ face. He’s a master manipulator and careful planner, matched only by Sherlock, which makes Sherlock’s manic methods of trying to connect the smallest of dots seem unstable and insane. Along with newly married Watson and newcomer Simza (Rapace), they travel from London to Paris to Germany to Switzerland, racing the clock to stop Moriarty’s plan for world domination. Europe is on the brink of war, and Moriarty plans to rule it from the shadows.
Noomi Rapace’s character is good for what she’s there for, but there’s nothing special in her character. She has a small subplot surrounding her brother working for Moriarty, but beyond that she acts as needed. Detective Lestrade is only in the film briefly, which is slightly disappointing, but it doesn’t drag. Stephen Fry as Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, plays a larger role than expected, but it’s very much welcome. He’s funny in an outrageous way, and just he as an actor makes the character enjoyable.
This brings us to Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty. I was always a bit surprised by how non-secret they were about the character. Usually, even in the first film, Moriarty is the ultimate shadow, the type of character you would spend two acts of a film racing just to discover who he is and only then would you get around to foiling his plot. GoS shows us Moriarty within the first fifteen minutes, however, and Sherlock meets him face to face between the first and second acts. It’s a rather different way of approaching the character but I can happily say it works. Jared Harris does a great job of taking on a character who is not only intellectually powerful but also physically fit. Moreover, he plays perfectly off of Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock. Moriarty is a mastermind, but he’s also to the core evil and insane. Sherlock is insane in his own way, but it’s a horse of a different color compared to Moriarty. The film does a good job of showing this dynamic.
The back and forth between Sherlock and Moriarty is perhaps beat only by that of Sherlock and Dr. Watson. Holmes and Watson’s relationship, one of the shining moments of the first film, is further explored in GoS to great extent. Downey, Jr. and Law work great together and come across as true brothers with that slight level of romantic tension that makes their partnership all the stronger and intriguing. Both actors are quick witted and funny while also holding their own during the action sequences.
The action sequences are a good example of what makes GoS a solid well made sequel. Sequels are meant to take what was best about the original and build on them while also introducing a little bit of new material. One of the most exciting things about Sherlock Holmes was how Ritchie chose to visually portray the titular character’s thought processes: slow motion narration as he runs through each possibility during a duel and then actually carries them out faster than you can keep track. Add to this the popular dockyard scene with slow motion explosions and twisted hearing and you get a version of Holmes very much built around tools of modern filmmaking: quick editing, distortion of perspective, montage sequences, and flashbacks detailing how Sherlock pieced the clues together.
Game of Shadows continues all of these practices while both nodding towards them and taking them to a whole new level. Where it concerns Holmes’ style of combat, thinking all the moves out beforehand in slow motion narration, one instance of this charmingly cuts the combat short when Simza attacks the assassin with knives, showing her character as an unknown player in Sherlock’s plans. Even cooler, during the climax Sherlock and Moriarty partake in a rather awesome battle of the minds where each runs through the moves of combat as they play against one another. It’s very creative and fun to watch these two intense intellectuals battle physically and mentally at the same time.
One action sequence in particular, Holmes, Watson, Simza and some of her gypsy friends running through a German forest away from a massive arms factory, is of notable excitement. Most of the sequence plays out in slow motion with sweeping camera movements through the trees, moving up, down, sidewards, diagonally. It’s a bit overwhelming at times, but Ritchie makes up for it by the sheer coolness of watching a cannon ball zip through the air in slow motion. It’s a very well cut together sequence that accurately portrays the intensity of the moment to the spectator.
Both of Warner Bros.’ Holmes films are only partly defined by their stylized visuals as they are Hans Zimmer’s score, which, as expected, is just as awesome the second time around. The first film’s score was notable for its use of a reduced orchestra and focus on stranger, eclectic instruments that parallel Holmes’ mindset and thought process. GoS’ score heightens all of these while pushing in a deep, dark brass theme for Moriarty that places perfectly during the scenes of chaos and destruction. Both of these films are the sort where the score is very noticeable while watching, and it makes the scenes all the better and more exciting.
Overall, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows takes everything great about the first film and bumps it up a notch for the sequel. It introduces Holmes’ ultimate nemesis, the original super villain, James Moriarty and creates a true yet original take on the character fitting of the rest of Ritchie’s rendering of the franchise. GoS is funny and fun, filled with action and adventure and never a moment to cool down and grow bored before more explosions rock the theater. It’s the perfect family film for the holidays, hence the original’s tagline of “Holmes for the Holidays.” I think this motto is just as fitting this time around.