One could say disparaging things about Guy Ritchie. Prior to Sherlock Holmes in 2009 his work consisted mainly of people with stupid names like ‘Nicky Da Nose’ who beat each other up and said fuck lots, so, on face value, he would seem an unlikely contender to pull off a movie boasting blockbuster sensibilities. Yet against all odds, Ritchie proved that he was more than a one trick pony. Whilst the first Holmes adventure carried an abundance of flaws, it had a knowing sense of humour in its ludicrousness, not least in the ‘old married couple’ dynamic of Holmes and Watson (Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law respectively).
With the sequel, Ritchie and co take the if-it-aint-broke-don’t-fix-it approach and deliver a film that strives to be breezy popcorn entertainment and nothing more. It’s a surprise then to find that A Game of Shadows is one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year, elevating itself above its fun yet stilted predecessor to become a superior product.
Effectively following on from the first film, A Game of Shadows sees Holmes and Watson on the trail of one Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris); a man just as brilliant as Holmes is eccentric and is equal parts genius and lunatic. Whilst the full scale of his deeds are not known until the final third, Holmes and Watson’s investigations take them through London, Paris, Germany and Switzerland, where they avoid death as best they can and bicker constantly.
On the outset, there is little difference in tone between Sherlock 1 & 2. Both light-hearted in banter and hard hitting in violence, you’d be forgiven for thinking this latest offering were a mere continuation of the original, a two hour deleted sub-plot rather than a fully fledged sequel, yet it quickly becomes apparent that this sequel is playing to the first film’s strengths. Primarily, it understands that the heart of the story is the bromance between Holmes and Watson and keeps any interaction with the female characters to a minimum. A downside to this is the wasted talent of Noomi Rapace as gypsy fortune-teller Sim. Making do with what she’s given, it is a thankless role that could have been excised from the film without detriment to the narrative.
However, what elevates A Game of Shadows from breezy fun to near blockbuster status is its confidence. Having never directed a big budget studio film before, it almost seemed as though Ritchie held back first time round. The visual flair found during many of the original’s set-pieces are present here yet they’re pulled off with additional panache. Only a confident director would stage the film’s major set-piece predominantly in super slow motion, a visual trick that could be derided as a device to mask a lack of substance (see anything by Zach Snyder and you find the very definition of the style-over-substance approach to film making), yet Ritchie manages to quash any doubters with the sheer bravura of these scenes, a filmic flair that is as visually stunning as it is exciting, whilst never losing any sense of place.
There are some problems with the film: the aforementioned lack of any memorable female characters, the inevitable silliness of Moriarty’s dastardly plan and the fact that Holmes’ impeccably brilliant detective skills can reduce the build-up of tension (the man literally thinks himself out of any impossible situation) yet, as with the best entertainment, these flaws can easily be set aside. In being bigger and bolder, Ritchie and co have also honed in the formula to make it better than the original.
He may have morphed Holmes and Moriarty into a turn of the century Bond and Blofeld but one must ask: is that necessarily a bad thing?
Best scene: The climax. Holmes and Moriarty, who both respect and loathe each other, settle their differences over a game of chess.
Robert Downey Jr. was due to star in Cowboys and Aliens but dropped out in favour of A Game of Shadows.