In some ways, Warner Brothers’ revisionist take on Sherlock Holmes is more faithful to the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Gone are the great detective’s stoic manner and meticulous behavior along with the Meerschaum pipe and deerstalker cap that became pervasive from earlier adaptations. However, it’s doubtful Doyle ever dreamed of his most famous character karate kicking villains in the chest or dodging machine gun bullets and mortar shells. Indeed, Holmes as played by Robert Downey Jr. is an eccentric man of action, who can solve problems with his fists as well as his mind. But, the powers of deduction aren’t as cool looking as CGI explosions.
Ironically, the BBC’s modern day version with Benedict Cumberbatch is more in line with the traditional Holmes. Showrunner Steven Moffat and director Paul McGuigan have also found a way to maintain the cerebral tone while also making detective work visually interesting. If whiz-bang effects and big name stars are more your style, then Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is right up your alley. The sequel, once again directed by Guy Ritchie, expands on the formula of the previous film and ups the ante with more action, new characters, and a mystery that takes the heroes outside the confines of London as they travel to France, Germany, and Switzerland.
Since the events of the first film, Sherlock Holmes has been diligently connecting a string of mysterious deaths to Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), nicknamed the “Napoleon of Crime.” The Machiavellian plans of Moriarty involve plunging all of Europe into a world war. At the Moriarty’s side is his chief henchman, Col. Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson), a former military sharpshooter. Holmes’s only clue to stop him is a gypsy fortune teller named Simza (Noomi Rapace), whose brother is a member of a terrorist group under the employ of the villainous mastermind. A newlywed Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is unable to enjoy his honeymoon with Mary (Kelly Reilly) as he’s dragged along on an adventure that culminates in a showdown at Reichenbach Falls as originally depicted in “The Final Problem.”
A Game of Shadows benefits greatly by opening the world of Sherlock Holmes up by bringing in more characters from Doyle’s stories. Stephen Fry joins the cast as Sherlock’s older brother, Mycroft, who happens to be even smarter and more eccentric. Fry, a noted Holmes enthusiast, is perfectly cast as Mycroft complimenting Downey’s manic performance with a hoity attitude and wry wit. Then, there’s Jared Harris, who turns in a menacing performance as Moriarty without going over the top.
Noomi Rapace is one of two stars from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, along with leading man Michael Nyqvist (in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), making her Hollywood debut just a few days before the release of David Fincher’s remake. Unfortunately, her role isn’t nearly as compelling as the goth hacker Lisbeth Salander. As the bland Simza, Rapace doesn’t have much to do aside from running from peril alongside Downey and Law. She’s doesn’t get to verbally spar with Holmes the way Rachel McAdams (who returns briefly) did as Irene Adler. You wish they had given a meatier role to Kelly Reilly.
The screenplay by the husband and wife team of Kieran & Michele Mulroney (who also wrote and directed the little seen indie flick Paper Man) follows the same formula as the first Sherlock Holmes. It’s not wildly innovative or particularly clever, but the actors are able to elevate the material. The real problem with A Game of Shadows lies with the hyperactive direction from Guy Ritchie. The director of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch is known for being a filmmaker who is more style than substance. This is never more apparent than a muddled action sequence involving the heroes fleeing through a forest while chased by German soldiers. Ritchie changes speeds on a dime, going from fast to slow motion. He zooms into the barrel of a rifle and follows the bullet’s trajectory. The camera never stays in one place long enough for the audience to figure out what the hell is happening. A Game of Shadowsdoes feature better action scenes such as Holmes and Watson battling Moriarty’s men on a speeding train and a unique take on Holmes’ pre-visualization before a fistfight against his archnemesis.
Despite some messy direction from Guy Ritchie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is actually an improvement on its progenitor. The superior sequel largely succeeds due to the presence of a formidable villain, higher stakes, bigger set pieces, and the chemistry between its leads. Downey and Law have transformed the Sherlock Holmes series into a Victorian-era buddy action/comedy.
Film Rating: 8/10