“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” Review
I feel guilty saying this as someone who considers himself to be a “true fan” of Sherlock Holmes, but A Game of Shadows is pretty great. While it still falls short of what a real adaptation of Conan Doyle’s stories should be, it is as excellent as can be for an action comedy romp. It is equal parts thrilling and hilarious while surpassing its predecessor in all aspects.
How do you take Holmes and make him bankable and relevant to today’s audiences? Well that’s easy. Update him to the 21st century and have Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman play the duo. Mix with just the right cocktail of irreverence and respect for the the source material. Make it witty, sharp, and fresh. It’ll be an instant success on BBC One. But what if if you’re hell bent on making Holmes into an action hero? Then you could much worse than casting the charismatic Robert Downey Jr. and dependable Jude Law and pitting them against Jared Harris as Professor James Moriarty.
Set at the turn of the century, Holmes finds himself up against new technology in weaponry, acrobatic Cossacks, and the birth of modern terrorism. Europe is tense, after a series of bombings across the country, diplomacy is about to break and war will soon follow. It is up to our hero, Holmes, to put down his glass of embalming fluid and solve the mystery at hand. Which is never much of a mystery actually, more of a conspiracy. Moriarty, Holmes’ equal in intelligence and his antithesis in morality, has swept across Europe leaving a trail of inexplicable murder and destruction in his wake with not a shred of usable evidence. So how, then, will Sherlock ever solve this one? Fortunately he “sees everything” as he puts it, even if we do not.
The film thrives on a game of deception with the audience. A careful balance of what is shown and what is withheld for later dramatic reveal. Several times our heroes were put in grave danger only for the film to flash back to earlier events that chronicle how Holmes predicted this danger and worked to prevent it. It’s a tactic that largely works even if it is a bit silly. The audience is forced to play catch up with Holmes, for we of such limited mental capacity will never operate on the same plane as the great Sherlock. These flashbacks coincide nicely with the Holmes-vision of the previous film, which is present here as well, being used now for comedic as well as dramatic effect.
Where this game with the audience doesn’t quite work is when it is used to reveal key pieces of information to the mystery that the audience could almost never pick up on. In the climax of the film the twist comes with, as far as I could tell, almost no foreshadowing, making it feel cheaper than the audience deserves. Thankfully the entire sequence is handled superbly, and the dramatic finale is by and large the best part of the film. The screenwriters decided to stick to the canon of Holmes and Moriarty, and it pays off nicely.
As was clearly evident in the first, Downey Jr. and Law are having a blast playing this bromatic version of Holmes and Watson. Their chemistry is undeniable and they are a joy to watch. Harris as Moriarty is fine casting. He brings just the right combination of brilliance, amorality, and psychosis to the role, making him an enemy to be feared as well as respected. His scenes with Downey Jr. are the film’s absolute best.
The writing is sharp and clean. The plot, while convoluted, never gets too tangled up. And the action sequences feel like a natural extension of the story, with a few exceptions. While some drag on too long, the film revels in these action set pieces. The best of which takes place in an alpine forest as Holmes and co. are fleeing a barrage of mortars and heavy artillery. Director Guy Ritchie effectively uses speed ramping to heighten the tension and turn the sequence into something even more frenetic. Trees burst into smithereens in glorious slow motion as Watson and Holmes do their best to escape certain death. It’s an impressive display of action filmmaking.
Perhaps the greatest part of the movie is the fact that Holmes is not given an easy time. The writers put him through his paces. He’s out smarted, out gunned, and even tortured. By the end of the film he is nearly broken and it is good, dramatically speaking. Moriarty will always be his greatest adversary, and it is clearly illustrated in this film. A Game of Shadows does right by the Holmes/Moriarty dynamic, staying truer to the characters than the first, while mixing in a more modern sensibility, and a whole lot of humor. The film is a fun time with some fine set pieces and a good plot with an excellent resolution.