All the best characters have them. Batman has The Joker. Superman has Lex Luthor. James T. Kirk has KHAAAAAAN!! But Sherlock Holmes has perhaps the oldest and most famous arch-nemesis in literary history in Professor James Moriarty. The first Sherlock Holmes film hinted and teased at Moriarty as a dark figure pulling the strings behind the scenes, but in the sequel the professor emerges and it makes all the difference. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is able to build on what worked in its predecessor and add to it by providing a stellar villain for Sherlock to face off against resulting in the rare sequel that lives up to and in some respects outdoes the original.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a ton of fun. I’m not one of the jaded people that found the first film to be “too much” or “insulting” to the Sherlock character and his world. It was a heightened popcorn version of the genius sleuth we know in varying degrees and it was a damn good time. The sequel doesn’t change up the formula too much. There’s still the awkward yet somehow still funny homoerotic sexual tension between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and Watson (Jude Law). There’s still the slow-mo shots of Holmes using his intellect to beatdown or outsmart his enemies. And definitely still the exciting over the top action set pieces with the eye-catching backdrops. But the thing that really makes this film work is the introduction of Jared Harris as Moriarty…
No offense to Mark Strong, who played the villainous Lord Blackwood in the first film with creepy swagger, but Holmes never really seemed threatened by his opponent. Moriarty, on the other hand, is quite a bit more than our smug Holmes can handle, and Harris absolutely owns the role. It’s very satisfying to see Holmes taken down a peg or two while generally being outmaneuvered at every turn. Hats off to the casting choice, because the knee-jerk reaction would have been to cast another younger attractive male actor as the villain to compliment Downey Jr. and Law. I heard serious rumors dating back to the first film that Brad Pitt (no stranger to working with director Guy Ritchie) wanted the role of Moriarty and almost cameo’d in that movie. But Harris brings an aged class and cerebral intensity to the role that makes the audience truly believe he is every bit the superior to Holmes.
The story in the sequel is also larger in scope this time around and explores the days leading up to WWI across England, France, Germany and Switzerland. The script, based on a story by Guy Ritchie and screenplay by Kieran & Michele Mulroney, gets fairly clever with the way it ties into the conflict leading up to start of the war and how Moriarty and Co. had a hand in shaping it. Also it feels like the reigns were loosened a bit and Ritchie was given more room to let loose to showcase some of his visual flair, especially in the expertly-shot action sequences.
The film also has a wide array of colorful supporting roles to carry the load. Rachel McAdams reprises her run as Irene Adler with a surprising turn for the character that propels the overall story forward. We’re also introduced to Sherlock’s wealthy slightly off-kilter brother Mycroft played with a perfect subtle ambivalence and humor by Stephen Fry. It’s Mycroft and his butler that continually got the biggest laughs of the film. You’ll see. Finally, the last new major cast addition is Noomi Rapace as the gypsy Sim who is mostly used to get the Holmes and Watson where they need to be in the story and is generally underwritten and forgettable. Outside of a somewhat slow start to the film that felt like a retread of the original, most of the scenes that dragged revolved around her character.
Guy Ritchie certainly has something here in this modern Sherlock franchise. The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Law continues to endear these characters to the moviegoing audiences with its charm and humor. Like all good sequels should do, this film elevates the stakes while sticking to what worked in the original. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a witty, fun, intelligent and action-packed ride that’s sure to entertain audiences this holiday season. It’s elementary, my dear Watson, that if the quality can stay at the level of this film I’d gladly come back around for another sequel.
FINAL SCORE: 8.5/10