A Totally Biased Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

It’s everything a sequel should be: funnier, faster, bigger, and just plain better than its terrific predecessor.

The strength of certain genres is usually found within the requisite parts for their respective idioms. For example, any sports film is only as good as the underdog-turned-superstar at the center of the story, as well as the overwhelming odds he faces, i.e. a spectacularly talented team he’s going against. For any action film, the odds are stacked against the hero in a different manner, where there’s a desperate race against time to save someone, something, somewhere, or whatever else from some sort of catastrophic, cliché event. Thrillers were only as clever as their main-character sleuth, and only as scary as their villain. At least, that’s how genre-films used to work.

Fortunately for us, we’re living in a time where the lines have blurred to the point of becoming almost invisible, if non-existent. Action films can be as funny, if not funnier, than most comedies. Dramas can be more tense and suspenseful than some thrillers. And some romantic stories can be more action-packed than the action stories of yester-year.

Such is the case with Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the sequel to 2009’s surprise hit, Sherlock Holmes. The first film took the director’s quirky abilities and applied them to a larger scale Hollywood type film, with the eponymous hero’s bizarre, clever nature highlighting that quirkiness with a healthy, hilarious dose of his own. The film was, to some extent, simply a vehicle to set up this film’s villain. Unlike the first film, this movie is more of an event-driven action film, though it is both funnier than most comedies and smarter than most thrillers, thanks largely in part to the returning, immensely talented cast, lead by the always-entertaining Robert Downey Jr. in the film’s leading role, as the greatest and most brilliant detective to have ever lived, Sherlock Holmes. His faithful partner, Dr. John Watson, following the events of the first film, is set to wed, and has disbanded the partnership with Holmes. To pass the time, Holmes has taken to gathering clues on his new nemesis, the equally brilliant but nefarious Professor James Moriarty, played by the bearded Jared Harris. It is from these two characters, and by extension their actors, that the film draws its considerable strength. Both men are able to uncannily anticipate one another, creating a tense, sometimes violent, almost literal game of cat and mouse, where only their equally genius level intellects can save them. It’s a testament to both men that their characters not only look and sound like two of the most brilliant minds ever, but that they seem and feel like they are, as well. Their talent gives weight to the characters that we might not have had if other, less convincing actors had been cast.

The first film managed to maintain a quick, witty, sharp pace thanks largely in part to Downey’s demeanor and personality, both of which seem to be large pieces of the Sherlock Holmes pie, and despite that, there’s never any question as to who is onscreen. We never stop to reflect on watching Robert Downey as Holmes. He simply is Holmes. And that is the mark of a job well-done. So natural is Downey in the role, we feel as though he may actually be Holmes, their personalities mirroring one another perfectly, where Downey’s flippant nature gives way to wry, sardonic humor, but also a well-hidden, troubled interior, boiling and rolling beneath the cool, calm, collected exterior. I can’t help but think it’s no wonder Downey was cast as the sometimes shady Holmes, who in the books was prone to binge-drinking and chemically enhanced episodes. Given Downey’s own past, it doesn’t take a detective to see that he’s channeling it into the role, delving into the demons of his past to give Holmes a troubled, conflicted aspect that would be lost on a lesser actor. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes is a troubled man, one whose brilliance has left him to himself, with no real friends besides Watson, who he is quickly alienating with his vehement protests to the wedding, as well as no real love-life besides the criminal Irene Adler, played by Rachel McAdams, who, up until Moriarty, was the only person to ever outthink Holmes. Twice. Make no mistake, neither this film or the first would have been nearly as watchable with another actor at the helm.

The supporting cast is also very, very good. As the good Doctor, Jude Law maintains an air of sophistication and seriousness around the irreverent Holmes, whose quickness and nimble-mindedness sometimes clashes with the disciplined, ex-military man Watson. Despite, or perhaps because of, their constant bickering, the two have a great chemistry together, and when the on-screen action ramps up, both men are able to more than carry their weight, with Holmes doing so literally in one case. They also both turn-in nuanced, carefully crafted performances that hint at the men’s history together, without directly defining it. The acting is enhanced by the writing, as well as vice versa, where everyone who owns screen time is given something important, funny or clever to say, with very little in the way of wasted dialogue.

One particular bright spot of the supporting cast is the always exceptional Stephen Fry, whose stint as Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, is both hilarious and bizarre. In perhaps the film’s funniest scene, Mycroft makes an appearance in the vein of Austin Powers, where the foreground is used to great effect.

The director, Guy Ritchie, whose previous work includes quirky films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, seems more at home in this second Sherlock Holmes flick than he did in the first, where the extended action sequences were a bit more barebones and claustrophobic than here in the sequel, where large, grandiose set pieces and chase sequences punctuate slow-building sequences of discovery and betrayal. The pacing is quite good, and some nifty camera work shows off Ritchie’s growing comfort with scenes of this nature, where the frantic action seamlessly moves in and out of slow motion, highlighting beautiful explosions and squib work. The culmination of all this high-tech, savvy, and exceptional camerawork is seen, most notably, in a spectacular chase sequence through a forest. Ritchie was out to prove something with that particular set piece. At least, I think so, anyway.

As with the first film, some of these sequences are shown at super slow motion, where Holmes carefully plans his attack step-by-step, explains his reasons for each movement, and the effect it has on whoever he’s engaged with, carefully and methodically dissecting their defenses. And, just as with the first film, these quick sequences are one of the coolest aspects to the film, showcasing Holmes as not only having a nearly superhuman sense of perception and intuition, but also as a nearly lethal combatant, capable of detecting and exploiting his enemies weaknesses. Every one of these sequences is lighting-fast, brutal and exciting, and a couple of them hold some of the film’s biggest surprises and laughs (UPDATE!: these sequences are apparently called “Holmes Vision,” which is a pretty dumb name for something so cool. But, what can ya do?).

Few laughs are as good as when you first catch Holmes in some of his brilliant disguises, from an old, bearded man to a tall, unsightly woman to a chair, a CHAIR, they’re all well-done given the film’s period setting, as well as each one being a surprise and a complete hoot. To think, that there may actually have been men back in the 1890s that act the way Holmes did, cavorting around in disguises while spying on others. The thought, in and of itself, is pretty hilarious. Again, just another testament to Downey’s considerable talent, that his character fits into the film’s world so naturally, despite his bizarre behavior.

Despite all the frenetic action and exciting camera-work, the film’s best scenes revolve around the two eponymous men meeting and exchanging words. Their dialogue  showcases their obvious genius, and as they speak, it becomes clear that their words are almost literal, if not just clever analogies that disguise their motives and intentions, even as they analyze one another’s every detail, anticipating each other’s moves with unerring accuracy. It is in these sequences that their true character reveals itself, as Moriarty is found to be a bloodthirsty, manipulative warmonger and Holmes is shown to be a just, righteous, fiercely loyal man. Make no mistake, this is nearly as much Moriarty’s story as it is Holmes’, and on both accounts it is about the way the two men play with one another in their lethal game of cat and mouse or spider and fly, avoiding death at every turn, trying to undo what the other has already done. Holmes is, more than ever, shown as a capable protagonist, despite Moriarty being portrayed as calculating and malicious. It’s quite a thing to consider that Harris makes the Professor cruel and terrifying without ever being violent or maniacal.

The film's cast and dialogue help it transcend the boundaries of genre, making it thoroughly enjoyable on all levels.

The film’s highs and lows nicely punctuate one another, and neither one suffers in spite of the other, thanks in large part to the stellar cast and the witty, clever dialogue. The humor is also of the typical, ironic, sarcastic British nature, rather than the boring, one-dimensional slapstick type comedy of the US. Indeed, the punchline often comes before the joke, and it gives the characters an even quicker, humorous sensibility than they may otherwise have. It’s these hilarious, lightning-quick jokes that stand in such stark contrast to the thrilling action sequences, as well as the film’s exceptional, tense moments where it’s hero and villain square-off directly. The returning cast and crew have managed to one-up themselves in almost every aspect to the original, which was already a fun, funny flick that I found immensely enjoyable.

If you liked the original at all, you more than owe it to yourself to take the time and see this splendid sequel.

Make sure you let me know what you thought of the flick, or leave me a comment or concern in the comment box below!

4 Responses to “A Totally Biased Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows”
  1. Vivian Yattaw says:

    You make the movie sound really interesting. Moriarty and Holmes make for great storytelling. Holmes is my all time favorite fictional character. Wasn’t too happy about Downey playing Holmes, but now can’t imagine anyone else playing him. Love the connection and comraderie between Holmes and Watson. And you’re right, there is a deeper, darker side to Holmes that Downey nails perfectly. Can’t wait to see the movie!!!!!

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