Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is almost as much fun as it predecessor but it may have been a mistake using Holmes’ greatest foe – Professor James Moriarty [The Napoleon of Crime] – so soon.
Guy Ritchie’s first Holmes movie won much praise for combining a more than usually accurate Holmes [Robert Downey Jr.] and Dr. John H. Watson [Jude Law] with a very Conan Doyle-esque mystery involving a seemingly supernatural foe. Now, he’s turned his attention to Professor James Moriarty [Jared Harris], mathematics genius/author [The Dynamics of an Asteroid]/Napoleon of Crime.
A Game of Shadows opens with Watson visiting a more than usually manic Holmes, and scenes pitting Holmes versus Irene Adler [Rachel McAdams] in a fun battle of wits and an encounter between Adler and Moriarty. There’s the murder of a prominent medical innovator and an attempt by a Cossack to murder a Gypsy woman named Sim [Noomi Rapace – the original Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo] in a club where Holmes is allegedly holding Watson’s bachelor party along with his brother Mycroft [Stephen Fry].
Somewhere along the line, Holmes ruins Watson’s honeymoon while dragging the good doctor into one last adventure – the prevention of a world war! Moriarty is nothing if not ambitious!
Borrowing liberally from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Adventure, A Game of Shadows is much less of a mystery than Ritchie’s first Holmes movie. There is no suspense generated by the search for a nameless villain. Instead, both the villain and his plot are pretty easily revealed. The suspense comes from the chess game between Holmes and Moriarty as Sherlock attempts to thwart his greatest foe.
There are flaws here – the homoerotic subtext of the first film has moved to campy overkill for the sake of cheap laughs, for one example, and Adler is horribly misused, as another – but there is much that works. The device that Ritchie used to show how Holmes was several moves ahead of his opponents in the first film is given some extremely effective tweaks here, in a way that really pays off in the climactic encounter between Holmes and Moriarty, and there’s more of the dark energy of Ritchie’s earlier films [like Lock, Stock and Two smoking Barrels, and snatch] here.
The plot is properly complex for all that there is no actual mystery, and writers Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney should be commended for the way they weave actual Conan Doyle elements into the tale – and for the fun ways in which they depart from them. The way they involve the new Mrs. Watson [Kelly Reilly] is also pretty spiffy, though Holmes treatment of Inspector Lestrade is altogether wrong
Jared Harris really shines as Moriarty. His cool, collected and thoroughly menacing gentility is a nice foil to Downey’s flamboyance as Holmes. Noomi Rapace has a reasonably substantial role and her Sim is both charismatic and capable.
The real hero of piece, performance-wise at least, is Jude Law. His ability to produce multiple variations of exasperation, frustration and restrained anger enables Downey to get away with a performance that wouldn’t fly without some kind of grounding. Even more than in the first movie, his Watson gets to be smart and effective in unexpected ways. Conan Doyle would probably enjoy his Watson.
Philippe Rouselot’s cinematography is a match for his work on the first Holmes movie. Somehow, he makes a palette of mostly grays and browns beautiful.
Despite its flaws, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is mostly good fun, but playing the Moriarty card so soon makes me wonder what could possibly make a satisfying encore.
Final Grade: B