If a sequel’s sole duty is to maintain the essence of its predecessor, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows succeeds mightily. The filmmakers have charged forward with the same enthusiasm they brought to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, blithely unaware that any aspects of the first film could have been improved upon. While avoiding the mirror-image-plot syndrome that plagues so many sequels, they have made a movie that’s enjoyable in the same ways that the first was enjoyable, and fails in the same ways the first failed.
On his second visit to 221B Baker Street, director Guy Ritchie produces the same middling product—mostly inoffensive, amusingly acted and ultimately tiresome. This time, he includes a little less mystery and a little more action. It only makes sense, as this particular imagining of Sherlock Holmes is essentially an eccentric, coked-up action star who happens to be a detective. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law again prove to be the main attraction. The film owes a lot to their performances as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous deducing detective and his loyal friend Dr. Watson, who bustle through fast-paced repartee as they travel Europe and get into trouble.
The first film’s mystery revolved around a series of supposedly unexplainable phenomena. But when the big reveal came, the solution to every puzzle was shockingly obvious. Anyone who failed to guess was probably trying to think of a twist that was actually clever. The new film’s screenwriters Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney avoid such an anti-climax by not including much of a mystery at all. Holmes uses his deductive skills to figure out where he and Watson must travel for the next action scene.
The film opens as Holmes is hot on the trail of Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), the most popular of all his adversaries. (While Game of Shadows doesn’t credit any specific stories as its source material, Holmes fans will recognize elements from “The Final Problem.”) The sinister professor orchestrates an elaborate crime ring while leaving behind no evidence and operating completely off the radar of law enforcement—until, that is, Holmes catches his scent.
When Dr. Watson, on the eve of his wedding, comes to meet his tripped-out genius of a best man, he finds him in a manic state. Next door to his sitting room-turned-zoo, Holmes has diagramed his office wall with a web of intrigue that spreads across the globe. All the threads lead to Moriarty, who, Holmes suspects, is the real man behind a recent series of anarchist bombings, as well as a growing conflict between two countries that, as Holmes’s brother Mycroft puts it, “speak French and German.”
The plot, however, isn’t of much importance. This is not a Holmes mystery that the audience is meant to ponder. Like the first film, Game of Shadows floats along on zany comedy. Downey Jr. attacks the role with such strong commitment that even the most absurd gags work. Holmes, a master of disguise, wears some of the least-convincing outfits imaginable, with accessories like unglued bald caps and non-fitted fake beards. “It’s so overt it’s covert,” he explains to Watson when pressed about his attention-attracting getup. Law fills the straight man’s part well, even if the story of the put-upon friend is wearing a bit thin. A warm and jovial Stephen Fry provides another face in the madness, portraying Sherlock’s brilliant but lazy brother Mycroft, who works somewhat mysteriously for the British government.
While the male actors are all quite entertaining, the women are again an afterthought. The franchise’s biggest failure may be its unforgivable waste of the potential of Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler. The first Holmes film turned the fast-thinking criminal mastermind into a generic pretty face and left the talented McAdams with little to do other than look worried. Whether that was a motivating factor in her limited screen time in this sequel, it’s impossible to say, but Noomi Rapace takes over the duties of the token female for most of Game of Shadows. She plays a gypsy fortune teller whose brother is in league with Moriarty. Once she learns of the investigation, she tags along for the entire adventure, hoping to track her brother down.
Game of Shadows’ action sequences work best when less grandiose. When Downey Jr. and Law have the freedom to inject their personalities into the material, good things happen. Banter and entertaining tricks buoy a train sequence in which Holmes saves Watson from an ambush. But such charm is nowhere to be found in a large-scale scene in a German weapons factory. The action deteriorates into a tedious mix of super-slow-motion shots and incomprehensible quick edits. Ritchie repeats the technique of slowing down fights to show Holmes’ pugilistic cunning, and even throws in some nice twists, but otherwise quickly slides into generic fight scenes that lose sight of the fun.
Ritchie also employs rapid montage sequences to show the hero’s deductive prowess, most enjoyably when he locates a secret passageway by envisioning its construction. There is no need for the traditional explanation to Watson of how he reached his conclusion. We see the thought process go by like a lightning bolt. But therein also lies the problem. In the world of Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, if a thought can’t be summed up at lightning pace, it won’t be explored at all.
Director: Guy Ritchie
Writer: Michele Mulroney & Kieran Mulroney
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace & Stephen Fry
Release Date: Dec. 16, 2011