Guy Ritchie | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
If 2009’s Sherlock Holmes was Batman Begins — a re-introduction to a well-known hero and his entourage of secondary characters as they tackle a (second-string/unheard-of) menace in their home city — then A Game of Shadows is The Dark Knight: a globe-trotting epic against the famous, formidable nemesis attempting to drive the world to destruction. Unfortunately, the analogy doesn’t extend to the film’s extraordinary step-up in quality.
Before the first film’s release, accusations flew that Ritchie’s take on Holmes wasn’t faithful enough. Some of these persist, but as I noted in my original review I think they’re pish: yes, this series gives a blockbuster action/comedy spin on the character, but it remained a Sherlock Holmes tale. This is less true of the sequel. There’s still some detective work, but it comes in brief flashes here and there. The big denouement does pick up on scattered (deliberately-)easily-missed clues from throughout the film, but only to provide a standard Explain The Villain’s Grand Plan scene. A ballroom scene where Sherlock looks around the room, seeing “everything” through a series of quick-pan fast glimpses of stuff, highlights an inferiority to other current versions — where those certain others let us in on what Holmes is learning from his quick glances, here we just see some stuff. In short, it’s not Sherlocky enough.
Most of the other elements that made the first film a success are present and correct though. The banter between Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson zings as well as it did first time, though perhaps not always as memorably, and Ritchie crafts an array of interesting action sequences. Some still accuse it of being a sub-Matrix rip-off, which I personally think shows a lack of attention or imagination on the part of those viewers — there’s more to what’s going on here than that. There’s a wit The Matrix films never had, for one thing, and more twists on the format. The trick of having Holmes explain what he plans to do as we see it in slow-mo, before executing it at full blistering speed, is repeated but also subverted in multiple ways.
Plus the action is just finely staged full-stop — there’s a fun alleyway fight to open proceedings, a sprawling brawl around a London gentlemen’s club, a fun duel around a moving train (much seen in the trailers), and a stunningly unusual race through some woods away from a German munitions factory (coincidentally (I imagine) a bit like Captain America, but with better CGI; and also much seen in trailers). Those are the big numbers, but smaller-scale sequences come and go throughout. In many ways it pings from one action scene to another, a plot cropping up occasionally to provide a link between them.
Yet for all that, that climax is a game of chess: Sherlock and Moriarty come face to face while in the room next door Watson and gypsy Simza try to spot an assassin. It’s one of a couple of scenes where Downey Jr.’s hero comes face to face with his nemesis, played by Jared Harris, and these scenes are definitely some of the film’s high points. Harris makes a perfect addition to the cast, the only disappointment being that we don’t get to see even more of him. Downey Jr.’s become such a Movie Star recently that it’s easy to forget he’s a multiple Oscar-nominee, and he and Harris give as good a hero-villain act-off as you’re likely to find in a blockbuster.
Other big-ticket cast additions include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo herself, Noomi Rapace, seriously underused as the aforementioned gypsy fortune-teller Simza, who turns out to be central to the plot. The size and scope of her role actually fits the story, pretty much, and it wouldn’t have mattered if they’d cast a European ‘unknown’, but by making a fuss of casting That Acclaimed Actress From Those Acclaimed European Films and giving her third billing attention is drawn to how little she has to do.
Better served is Stephen Fry as Mycroft, a role normally rendered as a brief cameo. And indeed it’s little more than that, but there’s more of him than I was expecting (certainly so in one (pointless aside of a) scene that I’m sure you’ve heard about), and Fry of course excels — it’s the kind of role he was made for. Meanwhile the award for best agent goes to Eddie Marsan’s: Lestrade appears late on for all of two shots, but Marsan is still billed high enough to be on the poster, above most of the cast.
A quick mention also for Hans Zimmer’s score. I enjoyed his work on the first film and he delivers again here. Zimmer’s one of those big Hollywood blockbuster composers whose work can all sound the same (I watched The Lion King just the other day and could definitely hear Piratical elements in there), but here he injects a bit more variety into his oeuvre. It’s not just the departure from his usual style that works, it’s that there’s a mixture of styles within the movie itself, each well suited to their own sequence while still blending as a whole.
A Game of Shadows comes out as a fun ride with several stand-out moments, but not as a particularly exceptional version of Sherlock Holmes. It’s very enjoyable as a comedy-action movie with amusing characters and entertainingly-staged action sequences, but while my affection for the first has grown to make it one of my favourite movies, this is just an entertaining follow-up.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is out on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from today, and in the US from June 12th. Ha-ha.