I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes.” Sure, it had wit and pizzazz to spare (and Robert Downey Jr. was fantastic in the leading role) but overall, the film lacked a real emotional core. An expensive, slickly packaged product (I’m looking at you, “Transformers'”) does not a good film guarantee. Still, it was entertaining and clever…and good enough to justify a look at its sequel, “A Game of Shadows.”
Picking up shortly after “Sherlock Holmes,” “A Game of Shadows” pits Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) against the brilliant criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Moriarty, much more of a Bond-villain type than the first film’s antagonist, has malevolent designs for all of Europe…and of course it falls to Holmes to save the day. Cue a series of elaborate set pieces involving hand-to-hand brawls, giant explosions, and slow-motion gun battles.
First, the good…
The relationship between Holmes and Watson is the true touchstone of the film. Their “bro-mantic” bond is at times both hilarious and touching – and it’s obvious they’re both willing to make great sacrifices for one another. This leads to another of the film’s strengths: it finally shows viewers a vulnerable Holmes. The brilliant, invincible genius of the first film takes a serious beating in the sequel, both physically and emotionally. Although some of these elements could have used better development, it’s still a step up from its predecessor.
The action scenes are also remarkably well-executed. A “bullet time” sequence in a snowy forest is particularly stunning, as are the (numerous) scenes in which Holmes rapidly plans out his techniques for dispatching an attacker. In a Hollywood that seems to rely more and more on recycling old clichés, it’s refreshing to see some creatively choreographed fisticuffs.
Most importantly, however, the last act of the film is simply sublime. Ritchie finally manages to integrate his story with Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic tales, resulting in a breathtaking climax that redeems the entire movie. It’s clever, tense, and yet heartfelt – an almost impossible balance to strike in a film like this, but Ritchie nails it. When the credits rolled, I found myself grinning ear to ear – as a longtime fan of Conan Doyle’s work, I appreciated such a brilliantly executed finale.
That’s not to say, however, that “A Game of Shadows” is perfect – not by a long shot.
The film is horribly paced. Viewers are hit with an incoherent barrage of action and plot exposition within the first half-hour, which quickly gives way to an agonizingly dull midsection. For much of the movie, the plot is borderline incomprehensible – things only become clear as the film reaches its conclusion.
Unfortunately, Ritchie can’t resist the temptation to insert a homoerotic subtext into the Holmes/Watson relationship. Though there’s nothing overtly questionable here, there’s plenty of wink-wink subtext pandering to a juvenile demographic (Holmes briefly shows up in drag, and a wrestling match between him and Watson results in clothes getting torn off). The director isn’t trying to make a creative point about the repression of homosexual rights throughout history…he’s going for adolescent sniggers.
Finally, the depiction of Moriarty is somewhat less intimidating than it should be. Without spoiling any major plot points, Moriarty’s motives are simply too simplistic for such a multifaceted character. Throughout Conan Doyle’s work, Moriarty is an entirely sociopathic master criminal who takes pleasure in thwarting the law. In the end, Ritchie’s Moriarty needs more Hannibal Lecter and less Gordon Gekko.
So, should you see it?
From a worldview standpoint, there’s little of note…aside from a particularly memorable quip by Moriarty that reflects a cynical – yet biblical – understanding of human nature. While fleeting, it’s more than viewers get from most hyperkinetic action films. And as previously noted, there’s the whole “gay” dynamic between Holmes and Watson, but that’s employed exclusively for lowbrow laughs.
When all’s said and done, the last twenty minutes of “A Game of Shadows” are so good that they make up for the film’s deficiencies. It’s good Christmas-break entertainment – there won’t be any Oscar nods here, but it’s still probably worth seeing for fans of the original.
An imperfect yet entertaining sequel.
Normalized Score: 3.4
Addendum: Yes, there is a trailer for “The Dark Knight Rises.” Yes, it is spectacular.