The world’s greatest detective and his long suffering sidekick return again to save the European continent in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. If you hated Guy Ritchie’s over-amped, slap stick-y approach to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, you’ll detest this movie. If you liked it, you should like this. A Game of Shadows is essentially more of the same, but with flashier action sequences and a more convoluted plot.
This movie contains everything you would expect from a Guy Ritchie helmed sequel to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr.’s manic Holmes careens around a grimy, fog-draped Victorian London, trading blows with muscle bound thugs whilst he and Jude Law’s Doctor Watson bicker like an old married couple. Those hoping for a more thoughtful, less action packed take on Holmes will have to remain satisfied with the made-for-television movies and series that the BBC continues to crank out each year.
This quickly assembled sequel shares all of the strengths of its predecessor. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law both turn in predictably strong performances and share an excellent chemistry; the production values are high; the action set pieces are intricate and inventive; and the dialogue is snappy. This installment hits all the same beats as Sherlock Holmes, however, a sense of staleness pervades the production this time around.
The biggest problem with A Game of Shadows lies with the treatment of Professor Moriarty, the film’s antagonist. With Professor Moriarty, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle not only produced an inverted shadow of his protagonist, he invented literature’s first super villain; Moriarty is the Joker to Holmes’ Batman, the Lex Luthor to Holmes’ Superman. Therefore any depiction of the evil genius needs to be compelling.
Unfortunately, this particular incarnation of Moriarty isn’t particularly engaging. For whatever reason, the screenplay doesn’t seem interested with the good professor. We come to learn that he intends to kick start a world war between Germany and France. Why? Well, because he’s positioned himself to make a fortune off of a global war, and…because he’s evil. We know he’s evil because Sherlock Holmes essentially states it out loud for the audience, and from that point on the story leaves Moriarty confined to the shadows. He rears his head every thirty minutes or so to spin the plot off in a new direction, but he’s never properly developed as a character; he remains a two-dimensional, Victorian James Bond villain for the rest of the movie. As a result, the great Professor Moriarty doesn’t even feel like an adequate sparring partner for Holmes, let alone his greatest adversary.
This is particularly troublesome when you take into account that Robert Downey Jr. plays the hero. He has a tendency to swallow every production he’s in through his sheer talent and charisma. Even a great actor in a well-developed role would remain hard pressed to wrest the spotlight away from Downey Jr. within his own star vehicle, and in this underwritten role, actor Jared Harris isn’t up to the task.
That isn’t a knock on Harris by any means. He does fine job conveying intelligence and maliciousness, and in any other film he would be an asset, but this job calls for someone that can go toe-to-toe Downey Jr. with minimal screen time. Only acting heavy hitters like Gary Oldman or Ben Kingsley could possibly (possibly) pull this underdeveloped role off, and Harris never rises to their level.
So we’re left with a movie that is far from terrible but is a little too familiar and predictable to qualify as “good.” Instead, A Game of Shadows is a perfectly satisfactory distraction, full of spectacle, action, and humor. Guy Ritchie doesn’t strive for greatness here, but he does manage to deliver a generally pleasant (if forgettable) experience.