Here’s the story so far: as a long-time Sherlock Holmes fan, I put off watching the first Robert Downey Jr. film for a long time, before finally seeing it a year later and surprising myself by finding it perfectly enjoyable. It didn’t strike me as remotely a Sherlock Holmes film, mind you, but that didn’t stop the film as a whole being great fun and very entertaining.
Now we have the follow-up sequel, with Downey returning as Holmes and Jude Law as his faithful sidekick John Watson. A handful of the first film’s co-stars (Kelly Reilly as Watson’s fiancé Mary, Eddie Marsan as Inspector Lestrade, Geraldine James as Mrs Hudson and Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler) return in brief cameos but they’re not around for long, and instead we’re joined by Stephen Fry as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft and Jared Harris (from Mad Men and Fringe) as Professor Moriarty, along with Noomi Rapace (Sweden’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as gypsy fortune teller Madam Simza and Paul Anderson as Moriarty’s right hand man Colonel Sebastian Moran.
Having established his ambitious idiosyncratic visual storytelling style in the first film, director Guy Ritchie is free to recap them early on (which comes close to making the film start to feel like it might be veering too close to a retread) – before then turning on the afterburners to fire things up to a whole new level. As a result, the film is hugely impressive on the visual side, with a new confidence and swagger that lets it show off but with an underlying intelligence that ensures all the tricks actually have a point and relevance to them.
For example, the “inside Sherlock’s pre-planning process” concept is re-introduced early on; but at the climax, this mental process is then joined by the equivalent thoughts of his opponent as we see how Moriarty anticipates and plans to react to Holmes’ moves. Back and forth the parrying goes, probably the best and most inspired cinematic representation we’ve ever seen of a genuine battle of wills between two well-matched opponents out-thinking each other at lightning speeds. It’s certainly a perfect way of conveying Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original canon text: “‘All that I have to say has already crossed your mind,’ said he; ‘Then possibly my answer has crossed yours,’ I replied.”
In the film, Sherlock’s innate ability to perceive small details and process them is represented by hyperkinetic editing, showing us the visual clues and then paying us the compliment of assuming we’re smart enough to follow with only the sketchiest of verbal exposition. And then at other times the action is slowed right down into extreme slow-motion, never more effectively or beautifully than in a shoot out in the forest which is just jaw-dropping, like watching a skilfully choreographed ballet of destruction of the highest order. Other directors would want this scene to be all violent, shaky camera moves, fast cuts, loud bangs and unintelligible editing to bombard our senses; but Ritchie goes to the other extreme, keeping the sound to a muted omnipresent rumble while letting us see and take in every bit of detail which not only keeps it coherent but also actually accentuates the spectacle.
This sequel really pushes the boat out in terms of production design as a whole, with some beautiful locations and less overt use of CGI as the action escapes from London and heads across Europe to the inevitable climax above the Reichenbach waterfall – entirely different in detail from Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem” but agreeably within the overall spirit of that tale. This journey gives the sequel an impressive new epic scope to play with, but at the same time it doesn’t make the mistake of trying to out-do the first film across the board: instead, it reigns much of the previous film’s mise-en-scène back in, creating a far more down-to-earth setting of European politics, civil unrest, anarchist bombings and political assassinations threatening an outbreak of war than we got in the first outing with its trappings of Black Magic, Dark Arts and the Occult.
While those parts of the first film were ultimately proved by Holmes to be the product of rational smoke and mirrors, they added a grand guignol topping to that film which was embodied by the delightfully full-blooded if not outright ripe performance of Mark Strong as antagonist Lord Blackwood who seemingly rose from his grave to commit his crimes. By contrast, Game of Shadows has the far more low-key Jared Harris as Moriarty – an equally effective threat, to be sure, but a very different and far more realistic style.
Equally, there’s less overall fun in this movie, which is distinctly more sombre than the first – which is by no means a bad thing, actually. Noomi Rapace’s character is one-note intense and somewhat superfluous to the plot for a lot of the time, getting no laughs at all: Rachel McAdams is far more fun and playful in her short time on screen, and even Kelly Reilly supplies more sunshine and purpose in the minor role of Mary. That leaves all the humour in the film to come from Downey’s performance as Holmes and his bromance with Law’s Watson. Certainly the homoerotic theme is turned up to full in this sequel, with Downey even appearing in drag at one point (“I agree it’s not my best disguise, but I had to make do”) and inviting Watson to come and lay down with him – albeit in entirely non-sexual circumstances, naturally.
The thing is that draining away the fun from the rest of the film and concentrating it onto Downey’s Holmes and his relationship with Watson does rather highlight that the central performance is increasingly out of step with the rest of the endeavour. While everything else here is a smart, intelligent and realistic film growing ever more faithful to the Conan Doyle canon, you have Downey at the centre of it who is still simply Downey having fun and not being Sherlock Holmes. Even his wavering English accent increasingly comes across as more at odds with everything else in the film.
This is not to criticise Downey’s performance per se, as he’s very good, warm and engaging. Without him you’d have a considerably weaker film and doubtless a far less successful one at the box office. He’s simply not Holmes, which didn’t matter nearly so much in the original film with its over the top trappings, but does here when the film is taking itself more seriously as a whole. For example, in Stephen Fry it’s got perhaps the most perfectly cast, definitive Mycroft Holmes of a generation; it’s impossible to fault Jared Harris as Moriarty; and it’s by far the best and most memorable cinematic outing for Colonel Sebastian Moran that we’ve ever seen. Plus ironically, in just a short cameo here, Rachel McAdams gets to put in a more faithful and accurate portrayal of “The Woman” than she was able to in the whole of the first film.
And in Jude Law, it’s got perhaps one of the best portrayals of Watson we’ve seen on screen, right alongside Martin Freeman’s in the current BBC stories. Here’s a man who is brave and resourceful; who is normal enough to be infuriated by Holmes’s outrageous quirks but who at the same time clearly has a great fondness for him and a believable rapport; a Watson who is able to act independently and come up with his own innovative solutions to problems, and who would in any other film be the swashbuckling action hero without a doubt. That such a standout character is ultimately overshadowed by Holmes does not belittle this Watson, but only serves to further enhance the extraordinary abilities of the great master detective. Which is exactly as it should be.
At the end of the day as the curtains close on the final titles, the pluses of this film far outweigh any minor quibbles I might have: it’s a more impressive and enjoyable film than the first to my mind, which is no small feat at all when it comes to cinematic sequels which are invariably inferior. Not so here; and if the improvements in Game of Shadows simply make some of the remaining things that I liked less from the original stand out more in contrast, then it seems unfair to count those against the overall success of this latest film as a whole.
On the Blu-ray: the picture looks fine and detailed throughout, as you’d expect for a modern big-budget blockbuster. I can’t recall any flaws at all throughout the entire two hours. Extras-wise seem a little thin on the ground, consisting of seven short ‘Focus Point’ featurettes that tend to veer more to the EPG-fluff side of things; but I confess I haven’t yet been able to rewatch the film with the “Maximum Movie Mode” turned on, which incorporates Downey into the running to chat about the making of the film and explain various details with the aid of production stills, etc. There’s also an iPad app to run alongside this mode, an interesting development to extend the film-viewing experience even further.