Bombastic, comical, and action-oriented, Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows isn’t likely to win any converts, but it’s an especially fun ride that just about equals its predecessor, 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. This version gains extra points for more explicitly referencing an Arthur Conan Doyle story, The Final Problem, and for inspired casting in two key roles: Stephen Fry as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, and (especially) Jared Harris as arch-nemesis Moriarty.
Robert Downey Jr. returns as the great detective, with Jude Law reprising his role as the soon-to-be-married Dr. Watson. As Game of Shadows opens, a package is being delivered by Holmes’ love interest, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). She’s in the employ of a certain Professor James Moriarty, who demonstrates the extent of his influence when meeting Adler in a public restaurant: he taps his glass, and a hundred or so patrons immediately exit the room, leaving him to his own devices.
The package Adler was delivering, we learn, contained a bomb: one in a series of terrorist attacks masterminded by Moriarty and deduced – and only deduced – by Holmes. While maintaining the guise of treating Watson to a bachelor party on the eve of his wedding, Sherlock actually follows his only lead: a letter obtained during the last attempted bombing that brings him to gypsy Simza Heron (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Noomi Rapace).
With Holmes – complete with personal vendetta – gaining ground on Moriarty, Moriarty in turn takes an interest in Holmes, and dispatches a group of assassins to interrupt the honeymoon of Watson and his new bride, Mary (Kelly Reilly). This leads to a memorable gunfight aboard a train, and Watson’s grudging acceptance of assisting Holmes “one last time”.
The action leads to a Paris opera house to a German munitions factory to a peace summit atop Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls, and rarely lets up along the way. The action scenes in the Sherlock films are some of the most innovative in modern blockbusters – not because of Ritchie’s style, which is as herky-jerky and quick-cut as any – but because of the way they are carefully scripted out.
We are shown, usually in explicit detail, where the characters are in relation to their surroundings, and what they are planning to do. In other words, we understand what, exactly, is going on.
This is most noticeable during the fisticuffs, where we (again) see Sherlock carefully play things out in his mind before actually committing to the fight. But I was delighted to find this level of detail apparent in the other action scenes, one of which actually inserts a flashback into the middle of a gunfight to show us how a round of ammunition was sabotaged, and then carefully monitors the round in the chamber and the preparations of the character who knows where it is.
Kudos to writers Kieran and Michele Mulroney (the husband-and-wife team who also wrote and directed the underseen Paper Man), and also to Ritchie, who realizes that an actual explosion isn’t as exciting for us to watch as the cause and effects of said explosion.
The cast is a lot of fun, with Downey Jr. continuing the hot streak he’s been on since Iron Man: his Holmes is witty, acid-tongued, a master of clever (and sometimes ridiculous – think Chevy Chase in Fletch) disguise. He’s a high-functioning drug-addled scatterbrain: a cerebral version of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master. It may not have been Arthur Conan Doyle’s intention, but this Holmes is certainly one of the more interesting versions out there.
Law, again, has a more substantial role than I was expecting: his Watson is a proficient ex-military man, not Holmes’ bumbling sidekick but an integral part of his operation. Harris (an offbeat choice, best known for his role on Mad Men these days) makes for a perfectly reptilian Moriarty.
Fry, as Mycroft, is relegated to comic relief – which he delivers with gusto, whether strolling around in the nude (with Austin Powers-style obscuration of his genitalia) or calling after his doddering butler, Stanley. Rapace can’t compete with her previous role as Lisbeth Salander here, but she shows that she’s completely comfortable working in this realm.
One minus: Eddie Marsan’s Inspector Lestrade, who was a wonderful foil for Holmes in the earlier film, makes only the briefest of appearances this time around.
Among the great Sherlock Holmes adaptations, the Guy Ritchie films really don’t belong among the 1940s Universal films starring Basil Rathbone, the 1980s Granada TV series featuring Jeremy Brett, and the Russian-produced 1980s TV films directed by Igor Maslennikov and starring Vasili Livanov (both the TV versions featured memorable versions of The Final Problem, climaxing atop the Reichenbach Falls).
But if you can put aside notions of a literary, intellectual Holmes adaptation, and embrace the large-scale Hollywood blockbuster, these films deliver among the best of them. I was surprised to read that The Baker Street Irregulars (some of them, at least) approved of the first movie. I think they’ll like this one even more.