Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (United States, 2011)

December 13, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Poster

It can be argued that few things embolden a filmmaker more than success. When Guy Ritchie re-invented the world's best-known detective for his 2009 Sherlock Holmes, no one knew how the movie would be received. Ritchie's vision was validated by a strong world-wide box office. For the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Ritchie's more confident style betrays his assurance. No longer as reliant upon visual flourishes and spastic camera movement, the director allows the story to be the primary source of propulsion. A Game of Shadows is a stronger, better realized movie that builds upon the strengths of the original and jettisons some of the weaknesses.

For the nearly 120 years since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced the character in the 1893 story, "The Final Problem," James Moriarty has been a fan obsession. Holmes' equal-but-opposite, Moriarty is the perfect foil for the consulting detective - a brilliant mathematician whose intelligence matches that of his adversary. Moriarty appeared in only one of Conan Doyle's 60 Sherlock Holmes stories (the aforementioned "The Final Problem") but has become a staple of Holmes lore and is frequently employed in the ever-growing non-Conan Doyle library of the detective's adventures (Reichenbach Falls notwithstanding). It makes sense, therefore, that Ritchie would bring Moriarty to the screen - what better rival for Robert Downey Jr.'s incarnation of the detective than a man who can match him in deduction, gamesmanship, and physicality?

A Game of Shadows is not an adaptation of "The Final Problem," although it borrows elements from the story. It sews closed the holes left in the patchwork cloak that was the narrative of the 2009 film. As the movie opens, Holmes and Moriarty (Jared Harris) are already crossing swords, although not directly. That changes when Holmes begins interfering with Moriarty's nefarious schemes. The endgame of the master criminal's plotting is invisible to Holmes, but the immediate results are not. He is using anarchists and an ex-military sharpshooter to carry out assassinations. He is also employing Holmes' "ideal woman," Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), as a messenger; Moriarty is displeased when she fails in a mission as a direct result of Holmes' intervention. Meanwhile, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), Holmes' assistant and lone friend, is about to embark upon a matrimonial adventure with his beloved Mary (Kelly Reilly). To celebrate the impending nuptials, Holmes (in his duty as the Best Man) arranges a "stag night" for Watson that involves the company of Holmes' elder brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry), and a lot of drinking. While Watson is playing cards, Holmes visits the gypsy Simza (Noomi Rapace), who may have knowledge about Moriarty's plans.

A Game of Shadows contains a number of standout action sequences, including a four-on-one encounter between Holmes and some thugs, a chase-and-escape at Watson's bachelor party, fireworks on a train, a torturous sequence involving a meat hook, and an artillery-impeded race through a forest. There are also plenty of explosions and secondary fights, all of which gel to make this unlike any previous Sherlock Holmes adventure (except its immediate predecessor). Holmes does not wear his deerstalker cap nor utter the word "elementary," but he smokes pipes upon occasion and dresses up like both an elderly lady and the upholstery of a chair.

Ritchie's signature style is in evidence, but is not as overpowering as in the first movie. He uses slow-motion shots to detail Holmes' advance mental choreography of fights. The most inventive instance of this occurs when Holmes and Moriarty square off. Since each has the ability to plot out the steps of the battle in his mind, their moves and countermoves are shown before any physical grappling begins. Slow-motion is also in evidence during the flight through the forest, in which exploding shells and whizzing bullets are shown hitting trees and missing humans in a deliciously protracted fashion.

A Game of Shadows feels like it was adapted from a graphic novel, even though it was not. This is how Ritchie has chosen to re-invigorate the 124-year old hero - by tossing away the stodgy, stick-up-his-ass image of the detective and replacing him with a man who is as dangerous physically as he is mentally, and who is unafraid of participating in death-defying feats. Ritchie's edgy sense of humor is also in evidence. Even in his darkest moments, Holmes is apt to utter a quip and, when Robert Downey Jr. isn't doing something that warrants a chuckle, there's always Stephen Fry. Fry bears all just to get a raised eyebrow and a laugh (although, this being PG-13, the camera is judicious about what gets captured on film).

Downey Jr. has grown into the role. In the first film, there were instances in which he appeared to be trying to channel Jeremy Brett in action hero mode (a bizarre confluence if there ever was one). Here, he's more relaxed; he has found his rhythm as Holmes. Jared Harris might seem to be an odd choice for Moriarty (especially after Brad Pitt had long been rumored as Ritchie's first choice), but the low-profile character actor provides a sense of cultivated menace. He's not as good as Alan Rickman in Die Hard, but he's from the same school of low-key villainy. Noomi Rapace goes far afield from Lisbeth Salander; the part is superfluous but it allows Rapace to show that (1) she's an attractive woman, not a pierced freak, and (2) she has a good command of English. Jude Law returns as the reliable Watson (a thankless role if there ever was one; he's Robin to Downey Jr.'s Batman), and Rachel McAdams rounds out the returning cast.

I wrote of the 2009 film that it seemed like fan fiction. The same criticism cannot be leveled at A Game of Shadows, which has a polished, self-contained screenplay. The ending is clean, paying homage to "The Final Problem" while closing out the story and leaving a few hooks available for a future installment. Even though Moriarty's scheme in the movie has nothing to do with the one he masterminded in Conan Doyle's story, it's worthy of a man of his vision and intelligence and makes him more interesting than a warmed-over, 19th century Blofeld. In fact, the presence of a strong villain and the intriguing way in which he is used are two primary reasons why A Game of Shadows trumps Ritchie's earlier Sherlock Holmes. The 2009 movie offered fun with a lot of annoying distractions. This one reduces the irritants while maintaining a high enjoyability quotient.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 2011-12-16
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1