It’s been two years since Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr., and Jude Law teamed up to create a new vision of Sherlock Holmes. Stripped of his polish and refinement, Ritchie’s vision brought a new direction for the master detective, complete with a complicated bromance (a word I suspect Holmes would detest as much as I do) between Holmes and Watson. The real shame of Sherlock Holmes is that now, two years later, I couldn’t really remember my take on the film. I thought I liked it, but had to go back and read my own review as a reminder as to how I responded to the film – a picture I haven’t revisited since its 2009 release. Even the thought of a sequel didn’t compel me to revisit the original, just my own review.
While it may be a shame that I didn’t feel compelled to revisit the first picture, maybe that’s for the best. Ritchie’s sequel is a much stronger picture, building on the foundation of the original movie where Holmes’ eccentric behavior was established and taking that behavior a step further as Holmes (Downey Jr.) becomes obsessed with chasing down his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). That obsession brings Holmes back into conflict with his buddy, as Moriarty sees Watson (Law) and his new bride as easy targets for retribution in the game between the criminal mastermind and the world’s leading detective.
Much like the 2009 picture, Ritchie brings an interesting visual style to the world of Sherlock Holmes. The style of the first picture was one of the things I really liked, giving a feeling of squalor in the streets of London at the same time as bringing the excitement of the upcoming Industrial age – an era Holmes certainly was willing to embrace. That design continues here with great effect. Even as Game of Shadows moves into the countryside and spends time among French gypsies instead of London commoners, the grungy, pulpy feeling pervades, making the visuals feel like they could easily have been ripped from a novel.
The rapport between Downey Jr. and Jude Law is once again at the center of the story, although Watson is a lot more supportive this time around and Holmes is a bit crazier, if such a thing were possible. Downey Jr.’s approach to Holmes feels like it’s cut from the same mad, pure energy that gave birth to Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow. Both characters are heroic, devoted to their individual pursuits, and carry an intellect that could be considered quite mad. Much like Depp’s Sparrow works for his franchise, Downey grounds the character enough that it fits into Ritchie’s dirty reality, although some of that comes from his relationship with Law’s Watson.
Poor Rachel McAdams doesn’t quite make the cut for Game of Shadows – a bizarre twist considering I felt like the primary purpose her character served was to set up a potential sequel. The actress is kind enough to appear in the first ten to fifteen minutes of this picture, giving her character’s story a sense of closure before the leading lady baton is tossed to Noomi Rapace, a gypsy fortune teller who is unintentionally included in both Moriarty’s plot and Holmes’s plan to expose the criminal. She isn’t a romantic interest for Holmes, which I think I like better; the character feels more complete without a romantic pursuit, and Rapace is a good match for her character – not as good a match as Stephen Fry, who puts in time as Holmes’s equally eccentric brother, Mycroft, and completely steals at least one of the scenes he is in.
Ultimately, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows comes down to two pivotal relationships: Holmes and Watson, which was built excellently in the first movie and carries on well enough here, and Holmes and Moriarty, a brilliant symbiotic relationship between master criminal and master hunter. Every time Downey and Harris share the screen, the tension between their two characters becomes almost tangible. Unfortunately, that time on screen isn’t long enough, with the two characters kept separate by the plot for most of the story. Harris carries that tension with him whenever you see him – the frustration and excitement of being pursued by London’s best – but the same can’t quite be said of Downey, who has to spread his attention and energy to other matters and interactions over the course of the story. Still, it’s a stronger antagonistic relationship than Sherlock Holmes carried, and I almost wish they had brought Moriarty in sooner, or at least given the audience a more concrete feel for the character as played by Harris working behind the scenes there. What we get here is just too brief a treat.
There are still things about Ritchie’s portrayal of the leading detective that I don’t care for – the frenetic filming of some of the action, for example, but I think Game of Shadows is a much stronger film than its predecessor. Can Holmes and Watson endure another chapter? I hope so, but only if Moriarty or an equally compelling villain can play opposite Downey’s Holmes.