Season’s Greetings to all you blog surfers and many thanks for taking the time over the festive period to peruse this humble little review source. That darned review congestion has hit me so hard that I’m deliberately avoiding watching new films such as Happy Feet 2 and Puss in Boots so they don’t get in the way of my still-in-progress Skyward Sword review which is on the way, I promise. Reviews for those three animated films I keep mentioning will now likely appear some time in the new year. One film I wasn’t going to wait to watch was this sequel to Guy Ritchie’s 2009 adaptation of the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous sleuth starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law.
The runaway success of the first film inevitably birthed a franchise that, for once, makes perfect sense, after all Sherlock Holmes was a franchise character that starred in numerous novels and short stories and gave rise to a great number of other adaptations down the years. The untraditional depiction of the character, visual style, focus on action and director’s trademark flourishes caused many of the more militant purists to cry foul but Sherlock Holmes was perfectly in keeping with the escapist spirit of the original writings and lays down the character vividly and more faithfully than many realise. RDJ’s Holmes is as flawed, difficult and erratic as Doyle’s, maintaining the character’s mastery of disguise and martial arts and his drug use and correctly never wearing a deer stalker. The real triumph of the first film was the brilliant chemistry between Downey and Jude Law as Watson and the well-balanced examination of their amusing bromance. Thankfully the sequel doesn’t go down the Pirates of the Caribbean route by removing the fun in favour of a grim mood and unnecessary and unwanted character complexity but sticks to the winning formula.
Sherlock Holmes is hot on the trail of Professor Moriarty, a criminal genius with an intellect to equal the great detective, whom he suspects to be behind a series of seemingly unrelated happenings in Europe such as bombings blamed on anarchists. Meanwhile Holmes’ partner Dr John Watson is preparing for his nuptials, an event that could jeopardise the regularity of their friendship. The trail takes Holmes to Europe which is fast approaching a state of war as tensions escalate between France and Germany. Holmes and Watson, relieved of his honeymoon enlist the help of a gypsy woman (Noomi Rapace) to track Moriarty down.
It’s a solid story with enough twists and turns to keep things interesting but it doesn’t feel like as much of a mystery this time around. A Game of Shadows is more of a boy’s own adventure featuring some Bond-like globetrotting, exciting action and bromantic character comedy. After a slow and moderately shaky build-up the film finds its pace with a thrilling and hilarious set piece set aboard a train – something every adventure story should have and it never looks back rattling from one memorable moment to another. Ritchie’s distinct and vibrant visual style lends the period setting the same steampunk edge that gave the first film its strong character and makes for some dazzling sequences. One such strikingly graded sequence that sees the heroes fleeing from heavy artillery fire through a European forest stands out as the highlight of the picture and one of the best action scenes of the year.
As before it’s the central relationship between the eccentric hero and his straight-man sidekick that proves the most consistent delight. Law’s Watson is great as he makes his way through early scenes in a state of perpetual incredulity at Holmes’ lifestyle and disregard for his upcoming marriage. Watson’s reaction to Holmes is a mixture of disgust and admiration and his loyalty is stirring. Holmes meanwhile is as aloof and guarded as ever, his unpredictability and focus subtly masking what is clearly a powerful need for his friend. And yes things do get a bit homoerotic particularly in one scene in which a topless Holmes invites Watson to lie down with him (to avoid a hail of bullets) but this aspect of the comedy is not strong or frequent enough to spoil things. It’s a good balance.
The supporting cast are largely strong, particularly Jared Harris as Professor Moriarty, channelling his father vocally and giving just enough balance to lend the film’s other critical relationship much needed weight. In Moriarty Holmes has met his match and his complex and ambitious plot delivers urgency to the narrative. Scenes in which the two meet are loaded with significance and the sense of mutual respect is satisfyingly intact. Noomi Rapace’s character is the weak link as she looks uncomfortable with her first English speaking role. It doesn’t help that her character has little real depth but she does just enough with very little not to end up a complete washout. Rachel McAdams returns briefly and has even less and her involvement in the story winds up rather anticlimactic particularly given her significance in the first film. Better is Paul Anderson as Colonel Sebastian Moran, a character from the original fiction and makes for the most well-developed and interesting henchman I’ve seen in a film in a long time. Then there’s Stephen Fry as Holmes’ older brother Mycroft, doing sterling work with a role that turned out to be more important to the plot than I had expected. Though Fry doesn’t have the same chemistry with Downey as Law his own wit and presence are more than enough to justify his inclusion and one revealing scene of his will live long in the memory.
Some have criticised the Ritchie-directed franchise for valuing style over substance but I don’t see that. This sequel might not be tremendously deep but it is very rich not least because it draws on substantial and iconic source material. I’ve even heard the phrase ‘brainless’ aimed in the film’s direction which is truly puzzling given the nature of the script and the ideas it has fun with. Take the returning concept of Holmes mentally planning fist fights before they happen, an original, entertaining and clever idea if ever there was one and one that is kept fresh here by pitting Holmes against a villain that can do the same. The bottom line is that Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows is a pacey and consistently entertaining romp with a very strong identity, confidently made that never strays beyond the purity of what makes good escapism and that’s getting harder and harder to find, particularly in sequels.
Despite a running-time in excess of two hours this breezy, fun and consistent sequel rattles along at a brisk pace that never lets you get bored. Anchored by a great central chemistry and drawing upon a rich mythology of mystery fiction it’s a rock-solid sequel that might not be as rounded as its predecessor but is just as diverting.