One of my favorite films of 2009 was Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. I saw the first (of probably many) sequels to that film this weekend. Now, I have to admit that I was kinda worried about Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. As much as I loved the first film, it definitely had the feeling of being a happy accident. There were so many obvious ways to screw the film up that I found myself suspecting that that’s exactly what would happen with the sequel and I worried that a bad sequel would make it impossible for me ever to really enjoy the first film. Well, having seen Game of Shadows, I can see that no, it’s not as good as the first film. However, it’s still pretty good.
Game of Shadows picks up the story a bit after the end of the first film. Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) is still doing cocaine and solving mysteries in London. Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is still his best friend and is still planning on getting married and, not surprisingly, Holmes is still not happy about the idea of losing him. Holmes is also still investigating the mysterious criminal mastermind, Dr. James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Holmes discovers that Moriarty is behind a series of world-wide anarchist bombings and, with the world on the verge of war, Holmes and Watson attempt to both figure out why and to thwart Moriarty’s scheme. While I haven’t read enough Sherlock Holmes to say for sure (I read the Hound of the Baskervilles in high school and that’s about it), I get the feeling that, plotwise, this film was probably more James Bond than traditional Sherlock Holmes. But no matter, it’s an intriguing enough plot and director Ritchie wisely doesn’t spend too much time trying to hammer home that similarities between Moriarty’s scheme and certain modern-day conspiracy theories.
If the first Sherlock Holmes was a comedy with some action scenes, this sequel is definitely an action film with a lot of comedic relief. Whether or not this increases or diminishes your enjoyment of the sequel really depends on how you feel about the action genre in general. To be honest, most big budget action films bore me several shades of silly and Game of Shadows pulls out all the usual tricks — slow motion explosions, fist fights full of jump cuts so quick that it becomes impossible to really keep track of who is actually fighting who, and the whole zooming into the barrel of a gun just as the trigger is pulled routine. And yet these action sequences didn’t inspire my usual eye rolling, if just because it was obvious that the film itself understood just how over-the-top and silly all of it was. The film has the decency not to demand that I take it seriously and for that, I’m more willing to accept the predictable parts than I would be with a film like Battle L.A.
Besides, even with the increased emphasis on action, the filmmakers still understand that what made the first Sherlock Holmes work was the chemistry between Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law. Seriously, Downey and Law have some of the strongest chemistry in the movies today. Certainly, there a more believable couple than Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher. (It’s probably not a coincidence that the film, very early on, establishes that Watson is getting married and that Holmes is still mourning Rachel McAdams from the previous film.) You buy their friendship and it’s just fun to watch these two actors bouncing lines off of each other. Downey still comes across more like Robert Downey. Jr. than Sherlock Holmes (and that’s just fine with me) but Jude Law actually gets a chance to act in this film and he brings a lot of life to a character who, on paper, would just seem to be the prototypical sidekick.
Joining the cast in this installment as Jarded Harris as the evil Dr. Moriarty and Noomi Rapace as the gypsy fortune teller who gets caught up in Moriarty’s latest scheme. Now, you may be surprised to hear this with the current efforts to brainwash us all into being Rooney Mara-compliant but Rapace was the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and, regardless of the film establishment’s attempts to revise history, she is the one who made Lisbeth Salander into an icon. Unfortunately, Rapace doesn’t get to do much here but I was happy to see her if just to know that the Hollywood establishment hadn’t succeeded in erasing her from history. As Moriarty, Jared Harris doesn’t have a lot of scenes but he still totally dominates the entire film. Harris’s Moriarty is truly serpent-like, outwardly smooth and calm but, on the inside, always ready to strike. He makes Moriarty into such a memorable, genuinely threatening villain that he ends up giving the film an extra dimension that otherwise wouldn’t be there. It’s a great performance and hopefully, when the inevitable third Sherlock Holmes film is made, Moriarty will be back and Harris will be playing him.