Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes was kind of a pleasant surprise. It latched on to some of the darker aspects of the character, delivering a radically different but strangely faithful take on the Holmes legend. Though it had its share of blockbuster tendencies, it triumphed due to its commitment to exploring the madness of the character. The sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows takes a rather different tack. Here, character takes a backseat to the action, much to the film’s detriment. It is still occasionally clever, but that cleverness can be hard to hear over the explosions.
Police consultant Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is hot on the trail of his greatest adversary: the genius criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Holmes’ faithful companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is expecting to retire from the game once he gets married, but he gets dragged back into the detective’s troubles when Moriarty targets him and his bride. Holmes and Watson are forced to travel across Europe, tracing the mad professor’s footsteps and hoping to prevent his schemes, which could potentially plunge all of Europe into war.
This sequel raises the stakes, but makes it all feel less substantial. Holmes and Watson are thrown from one action set piece to another, leaving little room for actual detective work. There are lots of clever bits littered throughout the story, but it doesn’t quite come together as a cohesive whole. Much of that cleverness is drowned out by the film’s insistence on explosions. The previous film found more energy in exploring the darkness of the Holmes character, digging into his struggle with having to see the world in a different way. This film skips on all that and has him mostly dodging bullets.
The action sequences do feature a large amount of technical wizardry on the part of the production. There’s a lot of zippy editing tricks and slow-motion to add some spice to the proceedings. The production design and the lively score provide the texture. It can pretty impressive, but it all feels like a distraction, a means of making up for the fact that the plot doesn’t really make a lot of sense. It has a bunch of supposedly intelligent characters making dumb choices, ignoring common sense for the sake of setting up some sort of grand cinematic climax.
The cast makes up for some of the film’s shortcomings. The heart of the film still lies in the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law have a fine chemistry that brings all that to life. They do feel a little bored with the roles, but they are entertaining enough in them. Stephen Fry takes a welcome turn as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, bringing his unique sense of effeteness of this troubled brew of characters. Jared Harris is quite wonderful as Moriarty, bringing enough cackling charisma to make you want to root for the villain.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows definitely feels bigger than the first movie. Holmes faces a more formidable foe, travels around Europe, and finds himself in several life-or-death situations. But as with many things, bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better. The bigness here doesn’t leave a lot of room for the smaller moments that made the first film so charming. And the nonstop assault on the senses actually gets tedious after a while. Guy Ritchie still brings quite a spectacle to the screen, but there’s a lot less behind all of it.