The film that brought Guy Richie’s name back to an arena that mattered after Madonna-gate was Sherlock Holmes. That 2009 film was so successful we are now met with a sequel in the dying embers of 2011 with A Game of Shadows with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprising their roles as Holmes and Watson.
His existence was referenced throughout the original film as a figure shrouded in darkness with a sequel baiting introduction akin to the joker’s at the end of batman begins. Transparent that may have been, we now get to see one of the great rivalries of literature in Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty make the translation from page to screen. Elsewhere we see the continuation of a sub narrative; Watson has moved out and is going to marry his fiancée, Mary (Kelly Reilly). Holmes is now flirting with insanity as he wrangles with Moriarty to find the truth behind a series of explosions in Germany & France. Add to that the re-appearance of his one true love Irene (Rachel McAdams) and we have a smorgasbord of events and people who all tie together in some inexplicable way. Despite the films spectacle and blockbuster qualities, the mystery is still the most important component.
To that end, the story of the original film was better as it included a sleight of hand and ingenuity in the antagonist’s modus operandi, which demanded genuine investigative skill. Contrarily Game of shadows becomes self-contradictory under scrutiny. The story might be poor, taking often travelled alternative history tropes and implanting the rivalry between Holmes and Moriarty in the middle, yet all other facets of the writing were superior. Everything that was good about the original is better here. The dialogue is funnier, the banter between Holmes and Watson is more engaging without going missing for huge stretches of time and finally, the set pieces are far more expansive and memorable.
To dwell on the humour as the films greatest strength, the comedy comes through a number of means, whether that is the exhibition of Holmes’ mania with hilarious consequences whether it’s his brilliant line of disguises or a recurring urban disguise suit many laughs are had. The real stroke of genius is the inclusion of Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock (or Shelly’s) brother. A less brilliant version Sherlock who has less tact, wit and far more disgusting habits all with the inimitable and much-loved delivery of Fry, he steals every scene he stars in.
Downey Jr. and Law reprise their roles from the first film and it’s much of the same thing but the interaction between the two is utilised better, playing up the homoerotic bromance with better results. Individually, Downey Jr. has settled into the accent more with a script playing up the natural energy he has as a performer. There is still that one issue in his character, for some inexplicable reason Holmes knows Wing Chun (a style of Chinese Kung Fu), while everybody else flurries their way through the many fight sequences. It’s a stylistic flourish that will never sit easy in such period pieces. Jude Law is better than he was in the first film on the simple premise that he has more to do this time around. The more fundamental truth in his performance is that you can the glow in his eyes; you can see how much fun he is having compared to other roles where he is merely going through the motions.
The admittedly small female cast is less well served with McAdams only appearing briefly in the opening thirty minutes to serve as a continuity tool between the two films. Kelly Reilly is there to play up just how eccentric these characters are. New cast member Noomi Rapace stars as Madam Simza who’s there to guide the story, telling characters where to go and who certain people are. She runs a lot too, other than that it would be easy to forget that Rapace is in the film.
Issues with the pacing still exist, with a riveting first and final third and a middle which slows the pace down to crawling pace making the film feel longer that it actually is. The same is true of the stylistic flourishes; there are certain camera tricks that are ostentatious to say the least. They might be vaguely necessary but visually they lack the flair present elsewhere with their questionable marriage between slow motion and kinetic high energy movement, it’s an uneasy shooting style.
Lazy alternative history aside, game of shadows is a riveting if problematic piece of entertainment that never looks down on its audience. Whether it is the comedy, drama, tension of excitement of the set pieces, Ritchie’s film delivers like few others. Holmes might be another great addition to a great year for blockbuster cinema; hopefully this is their final adventure as any more would only erode their successful formula.