While it might not have been what Arthur Conan Doyle had in mind when he first put pen to page, 2009s Sherlock Holmes was a rip-snorting action picture that was hugely popular with audiences and critics alike. Two years later and to the surprise of no one, Hollywood has decided it’s time for a sequel, reuniting director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) with stars Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man 2) and Jude Law (Contagion) and setting Holmes and Dr. Watson – as well as ticket paying audiences – off on another globetrotting nineteenth century adventure. What does come as a surprise is that, unlike most Hollywood sequels, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows does not disappoint, but rather delivers on all the humour and excitement (and vaguely homoerotic banter between its leading men) that made its predecessor such a delight.
This new Holmes adventure sees the obsessive detective (Downey) face off against his greatest foe: Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris; TVs Mad Men), a cunning criminal genius that matches Holmes’ own intellect. With the reluctant assistance of the recently married Dr. Watson (Law) and a fortune-telling gypsy (Noomi Rapace; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) that he saves from an assassins blade, Holmes’ pursuit of Moriarty takes him from Baker Street London to the opera houses of Paris and the snow covered mountains of Switzerland, as he races to unravel an international conspiracy that could throw all of Europe into a cataclysmic world war.
Not unlike Brad Birds’ Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, there is a refreshing sense of brevity to Ritchie’s Holmes films that set them apart from so many other recent Hollywood franchises. Blame 9/11, Columbine, Jason Bourne or Christopher Nolan’s gritty take on the Batman franchise, but the twenty-first century action hero is a very serious fellow, too busy brooding to ever crack a joke, flash a smile or acknowledge the sheer absurdity of the situations he constantly seems to find himself in. But there is always a twinkle in the eye of Sherlock Holmes, and from his tongue the jabs fly thick and fast. Between Sherlock Holmes and Iron Man, Downey has revamped his career playing the part of the eccentric debonair. Law, meanwhile, is having so much fun as Watson that he can scarcely keep the smile from his face.
Proving a worthy adversary for Downey’s Holmes is British character Jarred Harris, who plays the diminutive Moriarty with gleeful soft-spoken cockiness. A foil of a very different sort comes in the form of Steven Fry (Alice in Wonderland) as Holmes’ oddball brother Mycroft. By comparison Rapace’s performance is rather unremarkable; truthfully the character doesn’t feel particularly necessary, although at least the screenwriters never try to fashion her into a love interest. That said, you’d need a butcher’s cleaver to cut through the sexual tension between the sleuth and the doctor, whose bickering is far and away the most entertaining part of the film.
As he tends to do, Ritchie shoots the movies’ many action sequences with an unabashedly frenetic style, loading the film with enough slow-mo and speed-ramping to put even Zack Snyder (300, Sucker Punch) to shame. It’s over the top, but appropriately so, and comes to an operatic and actually rather artful climax in a chase scene through a German forest. Hans Zimmer’s off-kilter score bounces along through early scenes with barnyard merriness, before taking on shades of his more full bodied orchestral work, as heard in The Dark Knight and Inception.
Yet for all the visual and aural bombast, Holmes’ deductions are just as much a part of the action as the gun-battles and the fisticuffs. Game of Shadows boasts a genuinely witty script, and listening to Downey casually unravel puzzle after puzzle, however absurd, never stops being entertaining. And while one could never accurately describe Ritchie’s Holmes franchises as a “smart” series, it at least gives a cursory nod to intellect, a quality most other Hollywood blockbusters are all too willing to ignore.
Where A Games of Shadows will suffer is in comparisons to another, undeniably superior take on the Sherlock Holmes mythos: the fantastic BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, which premiered its second season just seven days ago. But perhaps the lodgings at 221B Baker St are big enough for two. Just like the first movie, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a frolicking adventure film that flies by in a flash.