Sherlock Holmes has just thrown his companion Watson’s wife off a train speeding toward their honeymoon in Brighton. There has been lots of gunfire, an explosion, some cross-dressing japery. Holmes and Watson sit despondent, ragged and dishevelled, as the train carries them away. And yet, when the next scene begins, my first thought is not “what will happen next?” but “where did they get those shiny new outfits from?”
This was a recurring theme while watching Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Guy Ritchie’s sequel to 2009’s reimagining of Conan Doyle’s classic detective. I was uninvolved enough in the story to worry about trivialities like this, while at the same time I longed for the frivolity of the first film – for some wit, for some fun. Because I enjoyed the first picture, even if it was heavily flawed, but this follow-up sits, sadly, in its predecessor’s shadow.
We pick things up in London, where Holmes is trailing Irene Adler – Rachel McAdams’ femme fatale from the first film – for some as-yet-unknown reason. Her delivery of a parcel doesn’t exactly go according to plan, and neither does her meeting with previously unseen benefactor Professor James Moriarty (Jarred Harris), whose name will be immediately familiar to fans of the books, and indeed probably to many who have never read them. This is Holmes’ great nemesis, his intellectual equal, his sternest challenge. This, we are lead to believe, is the test of all tests. Holmes and Moriarty are just beginning their war of the minds in Ritchie’s film, but thankfully the script doesn’t try to keep them apart for long. Indeed, there are a few confrontations between the two in the film, and they play out as some of the strongest scenes, as Holmes’ usual eccentricities are played to a more serious note in the face of this steady, unflappable opponent, performed well by Harris, who sneers and exudes cleverness in an effectively restrained way.
What an unforgivable shame, then, that Holmes’ greatest opponent is not given a script that is worthy of him. Come to think of it, the script doesn’t serve many of its characters particularly well. Casting Steven Fry as Holmes’ brother Mycroft was perhaps the biggest misstep, because although he’s only on screen for about five minutes, he steals enough of the limelight away from his brother with a few lines to make us realise that something is sadly missing from all of this. The central bromance – more homoerotically charged than ever – between Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) is still present and correct, and still likable, but their banter isn’t as witty or interesting as in the previous film, and crucially the attempts at humour fall flat more frequently than they did before.
Jarred Harris’ performance as Moriarty is wasted criminally. The script doesn’t give him an interesting motivation or ultimate goal (indeed, it’s one we’ve seen before from countless lesser screen villains) and the mind games hinted at throughout the film are crushingly anticlimactic. The big reveal we hope for never really comes, and although the final confrontation at a Swiss castle perched atop a crashing waterfall, featuring both Holmes’ chess game with Moriarty and Watson’s search for an assassin, is handled decently, the payoff is hardly worth the journey.
That journey is part of the problem. Although we begin in London, the film eventually plays out like a country-hopping action film, and by the time we reach Switzerland (after two hours), a lot of good will has been squandered. The less palatable elements of the first film – mainly Holmes’ slow motion forward planning and calculation – were at least kept in check for the most part in Ritchie’s first film, but here he can’t help himself. Even the face off between Holmes and Moriarty degrades into a fist fight, albeit a hypothetical one. Not only are these slow motion sequences largely uninteresting, but the times in which Holmes’ predictions are shown fail to provide any real sense of revelation or excitement. A protracted sequence in which Holmes, Watson and new supporting character Sim (an underused Noomi Rapace) escape from a munitions plant and into a snowy forest is excruciating; Ritchie cuts loose with his off-kilter camera flourishes, Zack Snyder-esque slow motion and stylised bullet time, effectively killing any drama in the scene and reducing the whole sequence to an unpalatable mess.
In the end, this film shoots itself in the foot by diminishing the charms of the first one and beefing up most of its flaws. There are fewer laughs and more slow motion punch-ups, less genuine detective work and more explosions; it’s gone from an action franchise with identity to something mostly generic and uninspiring. If there is a third film, and there probably will be, then the talent behind this franchise (who at least maintain the visual style of the first film) need to remember what made it endearing in the first place. Game of Shadows has promise at times, but those moments only serve to highlight how much of a better film it could and really should have been.