August 2022

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011)

DIRECTOR: Guy Ritchie


Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Kelly Reilly, Paul Anderson, Rachel McAdams


Following on the heels of 2009’s cinematic reboot of the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, Guy Ritchie reteamed with stars Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law for A Game of Shadows, which is a very close relation to its predecessor.  Those who enjoyed the first installment should be entertained by the second, while those who were unimpressed are unlikely to have their opinion changed here, except perhaps by the choice of villain.

When we pick up, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is on the trail of “the Napoleon of crime”, mathematical genius, former boxing champion, and college professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), who is using a former army sharpshooter (Paul Anderson) and a series of bombings to assassinate key international business and political figures and turn up the tension between Germany and France to the brink of world war.  He is also using “the woman that got away”, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), as a messenger, and when Holmes foils one of her deliveries, Moriarty decides the detective—whom he has thus far allowed to live out of respect for his intelligence—is becoming too big of an annoyance.  Meanwhile, Holmes’ only friend, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) is about to marry his fiancee Mary (Kelly Reilly), and is leaving Holmes to work this case alone, but finds that disentangling his life from Holmes’ is easier said than done.  Also lending assistance are Sherlock’s diplomat brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry), and the gypsy Simza (Noomi Rapace), who may have an indirect connection to Moriarty’s plans.

Guy Ritchie brings the same directorial traits he showed in the first outing; a lot of stylized action, and a restless, at times manic energy.  There are times when Ritchie’s frenetic style is exciting, especially during a chase through the woods where he uses slow motion to show bullets whizzing past our heroes agonizingly closely, and others where he makes the action a little overly “busy” (although the action here is not as disorienting as that in, say, the second and third Jason Bourne films).  He also retains what to me was one of the most inventive touches from the first film- using slow motion to show Holmes mentally premeditating and choreographing his every fight move before he makes them, then showing the entire fight in “real time”.  This is done to by far its best effect, indeed, quite possibly the most fascinating moment in the whole movie, when Holmes and Moriarty have their climactic mano-a-mano, and Moriarty’s mental ability to methodically plot out every step of his attack before he moves a muscle proves equal to Holmes’.  Speaking of the Professor, if there’s one thing about A Game of Shadows that is a decided step above Sherlock Holmes, it’s in the selection of villain.  While Moriarty appeared in only one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories (“The Final Problem”), his intellectual equality to Holmes has gained him a prominent place in Holmes lore and fanfiction, and he is generally-regarded as Holmes’ arch-nemesis (the movie is not based on “The Final Problem”, though it does borrow a couple plot elements from it, chiefly the climactic fall from Reichenbach Falls).   Moriarty’s grand scheme isn’t particularly original—the whole “start a world war” plot has been a favorite of evil megalomaniacs in everything from the James Bond series to comic books—but there are a lot of devious little touches to the way he’s carrying it out, and in the end, I felt justice was done to the intelligence of both Holmes and Moriarty.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law pick up as Holmes and Watson like they never stopped, Downey’s Holmes twitchy and frazzled and as obnoxious as he is brilliant, and Law’s Watson frustrated but ultimately always faithful to his friend, and their odd couple buddy movie chemistry is still strong and clear.  Jared Harris’ Moriarty is low-key and has limited screentime, but behind his unassuming demeanor the low-profile character actor holds his own in a couple verbal sparring matches with Downey, and brings a sense of calm, intellectual, almost Hannibal Lecter-esque menace.  He’s certainly a worthier and more memorable adversary than the first movie’s ho-hum Lord Blackwood (played by Mark Strong).  Noomi Rapace’s role is fairly superfluous, but the actress, best-known from the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, proves two things: she’s at least reasonably attractive when she’s not buried under tattoos, piercings, and goth makeup, and she seems comfortable in an English-speaking role.  Stephen Fry is his usual fatuous self, providing a little dry humor as Mycroft (and also casually strolling around naked, a sight I could have done without).

A Game of Shadows is a fun ride, but it’s not a perfect movie any more than its predecessor was.  Like the first movie, it’s so busy and at times frenetic, that between Holmes’ and Watson’s rapid-fire back-and-forth banter, Holmes spying an array of tiny clues, and the whiz-bang pace of the frequent action scenes, it’s sometimes a little hard to keep up with if you’re not paying careful attention.  There are a number of action sequences, including a chase at Watson’s bachelor party, a shootout on a train, the aforementioned chase through the forest, and the final confrontation, and some quieter intriguing moments (Holmes and Moriarty’s chess game while Watson scrambles to unmask the assassin at the peace summit), along with a cringe-inducing torture scene, but also moments when Ritchie tries too hard for unnecessary cheap laughs (especially Stephen Fry baring all).  Nonetheless, overall the stronger villain and his larger-scale plan leaves the movie feeling like a more complete experience than Sherlock Holmes, and those who enjoyed the first should enjoy coming back for the second.  Both movies have their share of sometimes annoying and distracting excesses, but both also offer a high entertainment quotient and a few scenes that require a commitment of attention without checking your brain at the door.

* * *