Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is not nearly as clever or as polished as it should be. Narratively, it’s a bit of a mess – the story is a bit clunky and unfocused at times. And the evil plot hatched by the villain leaves quite a bit to be desired. But thanks to the stylish direction of Guy Ritchie and great performances by Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law and Jared Harris, it is an incredibly watchable, if overall lackluster, film. You are likely to enjoy the ride, but forget most of the movie by the time you make it to your car.
The film follows up on Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes film, once again having Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) team up with his faithful (though somewhat reluctant) sidekick Watson (Jude Law). Watson arrives on Holmes doorstep for what is supposed to be Watson’s bachelor party, but it quickly becomes clear that Holmes has ulterior motives and is actually investigating a case.
Holmes ulterior motives add a fun wrinkle to the film. In the first film, Watson was already reluctant to serve as Holmes’ sidekick, so tricking him into doing so again is a fun plot device. Plus, Downey Jr. and Law, who have great chemistry together, are at their best when they are bickering with each other. And any excuse to have Holmes dress in horribly unconvincing drag so that he can crash Watson’s honeymoon is a welcome one.
The case Holmes is investigating is one that fans of the original Sir Author Conan Doyle series of novels will be excited for. It is the highly anticipated first meeting of Holmes and his greatest nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Moriarty is just as clever as Holmes, but he uses his deductive powers for evil instead of good. Making matters worse, the professor is well-respected in the community, meaning that only Holmes is suspicious of his true motives.
Moriarty’s plan is a bit convoluted and it seems like a ham-handed way of the film’s writers to tie the movie into current events. First, Moriarty purchases all of the munition plants and medical supply facilities around England, then he conspires to start a war so that he may profit off of the carnage. So he’s something like a Victorian Halliburton.
Of course, Moriarty’s plan is ultimately just a MacGuffin to give him and Holmes a reason to square off against one another. And on that level, the film doesn’t disappoint. Robert Downey, Jr. has created a fun and unique portrayal of Holmes. He’s a genius, but he’s also a drunk and a bit of an unstable mess. He needs Watson to keep him going as functional member of society. He’s more like TV’s Dr. Gregory House than the original depiction of Sherlock Holmes. So Jared Harris’ Moriarty becomes an interesting contrast to that character. Moriarty is polished and refined in all the ways Holmes isn’t. He has a much more reserved and outwardly charming persona than Holmes, but he’s just as smart, which makes him extremely dangerous.
Even though the movie stoops to one of the biggest clichés in Hollywood – having the hero and villain literally play a game of chess against each other – the scenes where Holmes and Moriarty are face-to-face are easily the best moments in the film. (And there is at least a clever twist on the chess cliché – halfway through the game Holmes and Moriarty step away from the table and begin telling each other their moves without looking back at the board or moving the pieces. It becomes a mental game of chess.) Holmes ability to game plan a fight in his head before it begins – which Ritchie stylized beautifully in the original film – is used to great effect in Game of Shadows when we discover that Moriarty also has this skill.
Speaking of Ritchie, the director gives us several great set pieces, including an early battle on a moving train and a big shootout in a forest. Ritchie is great at slowing down the camera to let you focus on a particular moment in a fight scene – like someone throwing a brutal punch or firing a gun at a precise target. I much prefer his style of directing to what has become the norm in Hollywood – the shaky camera, quick cut style fight sequences that make it impossible to keep track of what’s going on. Ritchie’s sequence pack more of a punch and seem more brutal because of how he chooses to selectively slow down the action.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows may not be a great film. It’s not nearly as clever or as polished as the original Doyle penned Holmes stories. But thanks to solid performances by the lead actors and visually-pleasing direction by Guy Ritchie, it is a perfectly serviceable popcorn film.