Guy Ritchie scored the biggest success of his career with 2009’s Sherlock Holmes. The casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes was questioned before the movie was released, but it proved to be a bit of genius. The movie also was strengthened by Jude Law’s Dr. Watson. The portrayal, with energy and virility, was close to the original books, and miles away from the comedic fuddy-duddy that Nigel Bruce portrayed to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes in the 1940’s series of Holmes movies.
Now Ritchie has released the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. The results are mixed.
In 1891, a series of bombings and assassinations have pushed Europe to the brink of war. Holmes sees behind the attacks the hand of the noted intellectual and secret crime lord, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). He follows Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), his paramour from the first film, as she retrieves a note for Moriarty. The payoff to the seller turns out to be a bomb, but Holmes quickly intervenes to prevent its explosion in a room full of people. He can’t save the seller, though. Holmes finds the man just outside the building, felled by a poison dart. Adler must face Moriarty’s wrath when she loses the note to Holmes.
Watson’s wedding to Mary (Kelly Reilly) is fast approaching. Holmes, as the best man, is in charge of Watson’s stag party. Instead of the standard gathering of friends, he drags Watson along with his brother, Mycroft Holmes (Stephen Fry), to check out a lead from the letter at a cutthroat bar. He saves a gypsy fortune teller, Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace, the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo from the original Swedish-language film), from a Cossack assassin. Holmes does manage to get Watson to the church on time (barely) for his wedding.
Holmes confronts Moriarty in his university office. In the cat-and-mouse interview, Moriarty reveals Adler’s fate and that he has marked Watson and Mary for death. Holmes secretly boards the train that the couple is taking to their honeymoon destination. After getting Mary out of the line of fire, he and Watson defeat a platoon of soldiers sent to murder the couple. Then the two friends are off to the continent to discover Moriarty’s plans and stop him from starting a World War.
The original movie did a better job of capturing the brilliant deductive skills of Holmes, especially when faced with the seemingly demonic killings engineered by Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood. Holmes’ logical explanations for what appears amazing are just like reading Conan Doyle’s original stories. In the new movie, though, the detecting is secondary to physical fights and gunplay. Ritchie overuses the “mental preparation for a fight” visual that was an effective showpiece when used once in the original movie. That said, Ritchie does know how to film an exciting action scene. A sequence where Holmes, Watson and Sim are escaping through a forest has thrilling gunplay and slow-motion choreography that makes it a ballet for bullets. Near the end of the movie Holmes does employ his deductive skills to unmask an assassin, and that scene is intellectually thrilling.
As with the first movie, Downey and Law are delightful to watch in their roles. Their sharp interplay is one of the best parts of the series. Noomi Rapace, though, is under-utilized as Madam Sim. The first sequence she appears in gives you a taste of what Rapace can do, but after that she’s relegated to being an obvious device to move the plot along rather than an integral player on the team. Harris plays Moriarty in a frost-cold, Criminal Mastermind 101 way. You don’t feel the personal menace that you did from Lord Blackwood in the first movie. Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly have only short (though worthwhile) scenes. Fry was an inspired choice to play Mycroft, though of all the actors in the film, he’s the only one with a nude scene
While the movie as a whole is far removed from the original Holmes stories, in other ways it’s wonderfully faithful. Colonel Moran (Paul Anderson), Moriarty’s sharpshooting lieutenant, does appear in “The Empty House,” the opening story in Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes. You also have the climatic fight at Reichenbach Falls, as it was in “The Final Problem,” though it plays out much differently.
While the movie has its fun parts, on the whole you’ll find yourself wishing it kept closer to the feel of the first film. Instead of surpassing the original, like The Bourne Supremacy or The Godfather Part II, you have Jaws II, a serviceable sequel but not as good as the original.