Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth was stylishly updated for 21st century audiences in 2009’s Sherlock Holmes as a fast-talking, ass-kicking Victorian-era hero. Though it had its moments – Robert Downey Jr.’s nutty performance and his chemistry with co-star Jude Law in particular – the film was a frustrating mess that felt like a well-decorated setup for something grander, bolder and more refined. Now, two years later, the entire team is back to give it a second shot in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and though my thirst for a bolder vision remains unquenched, there’s enough in this similarly over-stuffed yet boisterously entertaining sequel that should kept most fans of the original satisfied.
Set not long after the events of the first film, A Game of Shadows opens with London being ravaged by a series of bombings set to look like works of anarchists – but Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr.) knows better. Holmes believes the bombings are merely the first wave in a complex plot orchestrated by the mysterious Prof. James Moriarty (Jared Harris) that may involve all of Europe! But what is Moriarty up to and what does he aim to get out of it?
When Holmes’ investigations lead him to a gypsy named Sim (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo star Noomi Rapace) whose missing brother holds the key to Moriarty’s plot, he realizes that it’s going to take more than his opium-riddled mind to get to the bottom of this mystery. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t long before he once again seduces the love his life, the straight-arrowed Watson (Law), from his beloved (Kelly Reilly) and into his world of debauchery and tomfoolery. Soon the duo are traveling all over Europe to unearth clues whilst crashing headlong into a new batch of problems on the way including seedy assassins, explosions, red herrings, and more explosions.
If it wasn’t evident from the trailers, A Game of Shadows is your archetypical Hollywood sequel: it’s bigger, louder, crazier and more action-heavy than its predecessor. But that’s not a complete jab as everything I enjoyed about the first film also works here: Downey Jr. and Law once again rise over the convoluted plot with their charismatic turns as the hilarious bickering couple. Like in the first, their homoerotic bickering remains the film’s highlight as does Hans Zimmer’s infectious score which brings gravitas to the proceedings, doing the hard work of instilling the film with urgency and adventure.
The clever slow-mo fight sequences in which Holmes prognosticates every move of his opponents with scientific precision continue to be exciting even if they get redundant after awhile. Ritchie’s skills as an action filmmaker have matured significantly too. The rapidly-cut, chaotic and bombastic set-pieces could belong in a Michel Bay film, which depending on your opinion of Bay may either give you a kick or a headache. A forest chase sequence in particular is remarkably orchestrated although like the fist fights, it too overstays its welcome.
Among the new additions, both Jared Harris and Stephen Fry make an impression as key members from the Sherlock Holmes universe. Fry is delightfully mischievous as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s flamboyant older brother, while Mad Men star Harris makes for a far more menacing and worthwhile foe as Holmes’ arch nemesis than Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood. Only Noomi Rapace fails to impress in a severely underwritten and unnecessary role that could have been excised completely. You’d think the filmmakers would make better use of a talent of her caliber.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is the bigger, louder and more bombastic sibling of Sherlock Holmes. Although there’s nothing remarkable about it, the terrific chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, a stronger villain and better action help keep the film afloat and render it a much better film than its predecessor. Still, with far superior options available in theaters this Holiday season (The Adventures of Tintin, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol), I’d wonder why you’d spend your money on this film.