2009’s 'Sherlock Holmes' wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Some enjoyed the rougher, unconventional approach to the classic detective; others found it too action-oriented, favouring the BBC’s more deductive (albeit awkwardly modernised) alternative. Like him or not, he’s back – and he hasn’t changed one bit.
'A Game Of Shadows' picks up several months after the end of its predecessor. After a series of mysterious bombings, Europe is in a state of political tension. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) links the crimes to Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), the shadowy puppet-master merely referenced and glimpsed in the last adventure.
Disappointingly, there is no direct link between the two films. As the story begins, Holmes is already hunting Moriarty. That the detective manages to identify the mastermind of terrorist attacks is no surprise, but it is unfortunate that barely any time is spent on his deductions. While this may initially seem lazy, it does allow for a more direct, streamlined narrative. Despite a 129-minute running time, the film never feels slow. This is due to the pacing (more on that later) and the calibre of the content.
The charismatic Downey Jr once again proves to be a perfect fit for Holmes, even if the writers do take certain liberties with the character. Jude Law, previously consigned to eye-rolling duties as Watson, is given more to do, which makes him more of an indispensible partner and less of a subordinate. The wonderful chemistry between the actors translates to their characters. Their relationship feels natural; their constant bickering is effortlessly convincing and absolutely delightful.
Moriarty is a worthy nemesis, as he should be. Harris gives an understated performance that puts to shame his overacting BBC counterpart. There is no moustache twirling; he is not a quirky evil maniac but rather a ruthlessly determined, morally questionable strategist – which is far more credible.
Moriarty's scenes with Holmes provide nail-biting tension that rivals anything the Bond series can offer. He provides a genuine sense of threat, a feeling that Holmes may be beaten – no mean feat considering how good RDJ is at playing Holmes the Omniscient.
Returning director Guy Ritchie demonstrates an excellent grasp of pace, engaging the audience intellectually and viscerally at precise intervals. The narrative generally alternates between Holmes’ one-on-ones with Watson or Moriarty, and the exhilarating action sequences.
There is occasionally a little too much rapid-cut editing, but this is balanced out by the periodic overuse of stunning ultra-slow motion. Unlike Zack Snyder, who seems to use slow motion as a form of punctuation, Ritchie’s application is very specific. More illustrative than aesthetic, ‘bullet time’ has not been used so well in years.
Occasionally, the film is too clever for its own good. A verbal game of chess, intended to illustrate the intelligence of Holmes and Moriarty, feels rather contrived. Likewise, a contest of deductions between Sherlock and his brother is less impressive than intended. The latter is easily forgiven, however, given Stephen Fry’s delightful extended cameo as Mycroft.
Other nit-picks include the handling of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), one of the more interesting characters from the last adventure. She is brushed aside rather quickly, replaced by a mysterious gypsy (an underused Noomi Rapace in her first major English speaking role). There is still too much action and not enough detective work. Ritchie’s trademark mini-montage sequences occur too frequently.
More of the good, with less of the bad - this is how sequels should be made. Ritchie may have tweaked the formula slightly but ultimately this is more of the same, refined. Those who enjoyed the first film are in for a stronger, more compelling adventure. For those who didn’t, the new series of the BBC alternative is just around the corner.
'Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows' is out in UK cinemas now.