When an old and often redone story hits mega-success the way that Sherlock Holmes did in 2009, a sequel is inevitable. And just as every sequel must top the success of its predecessor, so must it also engage viewers in a plot that will without a doubt involve some sort of world-affecting conflict. Such is the case with the explosive A Game of Shadows where Holmes and Watson reunite (albeit reluctantly for Watson) for another adventure of narrow escapes and near-death experiences.
A Game of Shadows picks up very closely where the first film left off, with Watson on the brink of marriage and Holmes on the trail of yet another foul fiend. The first film's closing lines led into the introduction of the infamous professor Moriarty, who finally appears here in the second film. A Game of Shadows is predominantly a stand-alone movie rather than a sequel, fleshing out its own plot with very few tie-ins to the first movie. Most audiences familiar with Holmes are equally aware of his arch-nemesis Moriarty, therefore the fact that the professor makes his debut in A Game of Shadows is satisfying and strategic. In some strange way it had a certain Dark Knight quality to it, in that the filmmakers deliberately did not introduce the most famous enemy to the protagonist until the second movie.
The stronger points of the first Sherlock Holmes movie are repeated in A Game of Shadows. Part of what made the first movie so enjoyable was the witty chemistry between Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr., who faithfully reprise their roles here. Watson remains the reluctant best friend to Holmes, but he is neither useless nor perfect. He is unfailingly faithful to his less than considerate friend, but is human enough to vocalize his justified complaints about Holmes' tactics-- most notably the complete ruin of his bachelor party and honeymoon. Holmes remains characteristically ignorant of everyone else's needs and is relentlessly focused on the case at hand. Though considering the stakes of the case at hand one could hardly blame him.
Suffice to say that Robert Downey Jr.'s quirky interpretation of the classic sleuth remains solid, and Jude Law as Watson continues to deliver. It is the newcomers that garner the most attention-worthy performances here. The most interesting newcomer is also fairly fresh to the Hollywood scene in general. Coming from her success in the European film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace brings to A Game of Shadows an intriguing female supporting role. Not only is her role as a gypsy Madame Sim creative, her motives are believable and sympathetic, and her lifestyle and background are consistent with her self-defense skills. Another newcomer is none other than celebrated British comedian Stephen Fry as Holmes' brother Mycroft. Fry's function in the movie is not necessarily needless, but his nude scene is.
The catalyst to any good movie is a solid villain. As Professor James Moriarty, Jared Harris takes the reins of one of literature's most iconic antagonists, and steers the character to new levels. In examining Harris as Moriarty it is extremely difficult to allow his interpretation of the character to stand apart from the many predecessors that have also been the professor. All these things aside however, it cannot be denied that Harris unquestionably possesses the grace and charm to be Moriarty. True to the spirit of the character, however evil his actions are, he cannot be convinced of his wrongdoings or asked to question the ethical dilemma of sacrificing a few for the good of many. He accurately communicates almost mad genius, while still maintaining a certain degree of charisma and control, even as he swings a skewered Holmes from a meat hook. Harris' Moriarty is edgy, but faithful to the books. He is brilliant, motivated, driven, arrogant, and retains his aristocratic manners at all times.
Moving to the film itself, A Game of Shadows has to be accepted at a specific level in order to be enjoyed or appreciated. It should not be looked at as a period drama, an action movie, or a comedy, but an even combination of all three. The quality of the story falls short of greatness, but as pure entertainment it succeeds well. While the characters are enjoyable to watch, the movie is not a character movie, as it focuses more on circumstances and action sequences than character development, and plays out more like a comic book movie than anything else. People (like me) that enjoy digging beneath the surface will not find much in A Game of Shadows, which leads me to conclude that it therefore must be taken at surface value or left alone altogether. As a story, A Game of Shadows has enough twists and turns to be interesting, but it would be generous to call any of these devices unpredictable or surprising.
When the original Sherlock Holmes movie was released, speculation abounded as to the real nature of the relationship between Holmes and Watson-- namely, gay or nay? Such speculation is unfounded by any obvious content in either film, but it would seem that A Game of Shadows attempts to either derail or fuel the speculation by completely overdoing the implications. Holmes, for example, refers to Watson as his partner on more than one occasion, causing Watson to cringe. Holmes and Watson are only partners as concerns their cooperative efforts on solving cases, but the film-makers are clearly cognizant of how modern audiences will attempt to perceive the relationship, so rather than eliminating the suggestion altogether, they overplay it. This is especially evident when Holmes is forced to botch Watson’s honeymoon in order to save the couple’s lives. Once Mrs. Watson is removed from the honeymoon car, the next scenes find Watson furiously tearing at Holmes’ clothing as they scuffle on the floor of the train car, with Holmes is dressed as a woman. It is by no means a scene that suggests any sort of homoerotic connection, but it is no accident on the part of the director to depict Holmes as an unwanted substitute for Mrs. Watson.
As previously mentioned, A Game of Shadows must be taken at face value in order to be enjoyed. While the continual sequences of slow-motion are undoubtedly creative, they do get a bit old after a while. Sometimes this device works extremely well and other times seems like unnecessary pomp. Under of all the glitzy camerawork and grand explosions is an interesting enough story with some good laughs along the way and a few good twists. The characters have believable motives, and even Moriarty’s grand scheme to topple the delicate balance of the world is not implausible, but A Game of Shadows is not a realistic movie and it is not meant to be. Sherlock Holmes’ newest adventure is altogether enjoyable, succeeding as a fairly decent combination of action and comedy.