As much as I loved the character interactions and insane chemistry between Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, I was very much let down by Sherlock Holmes when I first saw it a few years ago. It was a really stylish and well-made film, but the storyline bored me to tears. I came in incredibly excited to see it, and left wishing it had ended sooner. With the obvious sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows upon us, I figured I would go in with much lower expectations and brace for something along the same lines.
Europe is at the brink of war, with many little seemingly unconnected events occurring across the nations. Sherlock Holmes (Downey Jr.) believes it to be the work of the brilliant Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). He enlists the help of his sidekick, Watson (Law), to help him uncover the truth, before it is too late.
With less of a focus on the occult, a stronger plot and a significantly more interesting villain, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows outdoes its predecessor in many respects. It ups the thrills and the action, continues the fun, and delivers one of the better sequel going experiences this year.
Even though the story is a bit wonky in certain respects (more on that in a moment), I feel A Game of Shadows manages to feel a lot more grounded than the original. There is a clear storyline, and an even clearer path of where the film wants to go. It stalls here and there, as I imagined it would, but it never lingers like the original did. The art direction is just as incredible as it was, and the special effects seem to have been improved greatly. Where the first film flopped around, this film picks up the slack.
While Downey Jr. and Law are just as impeccable and well matched as they were the first time round, the film benefits greatly from the addition of Harris as Moriarty. The character's presence was felt throughout the first film, but the film noticeable lost its edge by simply referring to him in passing and hinting at what a sequel could have had in store. Bringing him into the fold, he immediately is tenfold better than Mark Strong ever could have hoped to be. Watching Harris match wits with Downey is simply astounding, and makes for the most wildly enjoyable parts of the film. There is never a dull moment when he is around, and instead of making the film drone on, he invigorates it with an immense amount of energy. Harris knows exactly how to look deceptive, even with a wide grin and dialogue that does not even hint at ulterior motives. His looks are downright terrifying in a lot of instances. This is his first major film role, and I can only hope filmmakers continue using his dastardly skills for antiheroes and villains alike.
I think the film's biggest hurtle, and the one that hurts it the most, is that there are simply too many characters and too many of them did not need to appear in the first place. Rapace's character is nothing more than a plot device, used to connect certain sections together and forgotten almost entirely all too often. The practically blink-and-you- will-miss them moments for Rachel McAdams and Eddie Marsan feel more like Richie peddling to the fans, as opposed to actually serving a real point to the film. It is fun seeing them show up again, but considering they have little to no effect on the plot, they could have easily just never showed up at all. But the far worst offender of not serving any purpose is Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes. He brings a ridiculous amount of humour to the film, and he is a welcome addition on the onset. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear he is merely there simply to make the film even more ludicrous and silly than Downey Jr. makes it. When the inevitable third film drops, I hope they actually use him effectively, instead of making his appearance feel like a mere tease.
What also hurts the film is Richie's incessant need to use slow motion in every action sequence. While it works insanely and surprisingly well for the film's centrepiece involving a foot chase through a forest, it feels like overkill in almost every other instance. We understand from the first film that Holmes likes to evaluate the moves of both his adversaries and himself before he makes them, but watching him plot it out helps drag the film out longer than it needs to be. It is fun and worthwhile when it is used sparingly, or used to draw attention to something specific. But when Richie is one-upping Zack Snyder in the worst possible way, it begs the question of whether he learned any mistakes from the first film or not. At just under 130 minutes, I feel like a good fifteen minutes of slow motion could have been sped up, and would have looked just as great. Hell, Richie potentially could have shown off a bit of his own style too, instead of just what he cribbed from everyone else.
While the film still has its problems, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is an enjoyable ride from start to finish. It maintained my interest, where the first film had me counting the excruciating minutes before it would end. Richie still has a lot to learn about as a filmmaker (and even more as a man who creates his own style instead of Tarantino-ing from others), he does know how to make a crafty film. Now if he can stop hinting at future installments and just give us a film that sticks to being about the story at hand, then maybe we might just get the perfect rendition of this legendary detective.
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