Review: 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows' is Familiar But Still Fun
by Jeremy Kirk
December 16, 2011
We know his methods. At least, that's what the tagline says, but don't let that fool you. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is anything but a rehashed mystery/adventure for Great Britain's most famed crime solver and his trusty partner, Dr. Watson. In fact, A Game of Shadows is more than just a smokey whodunit-and-why across the cobblestone roads and fog-filled skies of 19th century London. The action might be a little overly stylistic, even for returning director Guy Ritchie, the sense of discovery with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law playing the lead characters might be far behind us, and the story might have a few too many forks in its road, but A Game of Shadows is still a rousing good time for fans of the characters and series, old and new.
Downey Jr. returns as Sherlock Holmes, but he may have just met his match. After the events of the 2009 film, Holmes is eyeball deep in his quest for the elusive Professor Moriarty, brilliant mathematician and mastermind behind a series of bombings and murders throughout London. Dr. Watson, looking forward to a simple life after his coming marriage, reluctantly joins Holmes on his quest to discover what Moriarty's ultimate goal is and amass the evidence to bring the criminal mastermind to justice. There's also a Gypsy fortune teller (played by Noomi Rapace) looking for her brother who may or may not be helping Moriarty, but it's really Holmes and Watson's show here.
That's what makes A Game of Shadows, like 2009's Sherlock Holmes, such a fun ride. Long gone are the days of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson, respectively. Gone are the days where Watson is an adamant devotee of Holmes and his powers of deduction. Instead of being a glorified groupie for the detective, Law's Watson is continually annoyed by Holmes' eccentricities, which the detective still seems incapable of controlling. When Watson first appears in Holmes apartment, he finds the place sprawling with various kinds of flora and the detective carelessly drinking formaldehyde. The look of utter aggravation on Law's face says it all, and it only escalates from there.
By the time the duo are on a train headed through the countryside, the tension between the two, as well as between Holmes and the forces of Moriarty, has grown to a level of exploding. However, this film, like the first, shows the sense of ultimate respect the two have for one another. Even when it seems Watson can't stand any more of Holmes tactics of dealing with any situation, you get the understanding and, by the end, acceptance of the brilliant detective's mind.
Again, Ritchie has an interesting and stylish way of showing this, as well. As with the first film, there are moments in A Game of Shadows where we see Holmes working a situation out, plotting his actions in his mind and showing us every step of it before actually making a move. Not wanting it to be just a retread of the same gimmick, Ritchie and the film's writers, Michele & Kieran Mulroney, find ways of turning this technique on its ear so that not everything works out quite as Holmes plans it. In fact, the film's climax and the mental chess game that plays out is a perfectly logical way of expanding on the technique.
The mind games that play before our eyes and the camaraderie between Holmes and Watson are all well and good, but A Game of Shadows, to its detriment, doesn't seem satisfied with being a straightforward mystery. As the two country-hop and begin discovering bigger and more elaborate sets with which to bounce around, the simplicity of a mystery gets pushed aside for something more cumbersome. It ends up being more of a James Bond or Indiana Jones-esque action adventure with machine gun bullets flying, heavy artillery blowing up factories, and what amounts to a war movie battle sequence through the forests of Germany. Bloated as it ends up being, it's made all the more so when Ritchie flips the style switch. What amounts to maybe 30 seconds of action expands to minutes with all the speed-ramping involved, and you begin to wonder if Zack Snyder took the reigns on that particular day.
A Game of Shadows also slightly falls short of its predecessor in the sense of discovery we have with these characters. Moriarty is a great character, and Jared Harris brings him to maniacal life with wit and charm aplenty, but the surprise we felt when we first met this variation on Holmes and Watson is gone. The familiarity has all but set in. Even though their companionship grows, the individuals, Downey and Law, seem to have settled into the roles with comfort. Downey is quirky. Law is stoic. There isn't much change in any of that here.
Noomi Rapace, the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo herself, should be mentioned here if only to say she doesn't bring much of anything to the Gypsy role of Simza. Her character is important, even useful when the time comes, but the actress has little fire that might have made the character all the more memorable.
Bulky and familiar as much of the film may be, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is still a winning combination of direction, story, and character—the delightfully edgy Stephen Fry as Holmes' older brother, Mycroft, is a great touch to the film's more jovial side. The surprise with 2009's Sherlock Holmes has dissipated, but the expansion on scope here makes it the logical next step in the adventures of Holmes & Watson. As Watson's novel, which bookmarks Game of Shadows, suggests, there are many adventures and mysteries yet to tell with these characters, and this team is certainly welcomed back to tell them.
Jeremy's Rating: 7.5 out of 10