What exactly has happened to Guy Ritchie in the last decade? The fact that his only truly good work in this period has been a gangster film (Rocknrolla) goes a way to reinforce every bad word said about him, that he’s a one trick pony who compensates for this with vapid over-direction. His first stab at Sherlock Holmes in 2009 resulted in sporadic, stifled amusement, driven by two very assured performances yet undone by a patchy script which neither adequately services the source material nor establishes itself enough as its own interpretation; it is sort of stewed awkwardly in the middle. While Richie’s deference towards a slickly commercial Holmes is disappointing given his potential to tap into the gritter, more sinister facets of the character, one can say that on its own merits, this is a slightly sounder, albeit still disappointing take on the famed sleuth.
A Game of Shadows sees Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) preparing to become a solo act, as his sidekick Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) is to marry longtime love Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly). However, when Holmes gets wind of a complex plot by criminal genius Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) to start a World War, Watson’s honeymoon is promptly disrupted and he is pulled kicking and screaming back into the fray to put a stop to it. Along the way, the duo make acquaintance with Sim (Noomi Rapace), a gypsy fortune teller who has a personal investment in getting to the bottom of Moriarty’s scheme.
It’s fair to say that there is an audience for this sort of film – owing to both the original film’s $500m+ gross and the sheer existence of this bigger-budgeted sequel – and also that those very people will probably enjoy this one. However, Richie has done little to address the inherent problems in his formula, again failing to adequately reflect the eponymous character’s intellectual prowess and instead creating breathlessly convoluted situations for the detective to then effortlessly and absurdly breeze through. What makes it slightly more tolerable this time around is that Holmes is matched with a more effective and imposing villain, one who in more certain terms seems to be his intellectual equal. The foremost problem, though, is exactly the same as before; overlaying a generic and relatively charmless story with cutesy gags and endless aestheticisation does not make an outwardly entertaining or cohesive film. It’s a genuine shame, as Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law are especially trying their hardest here, yet Richie cannot form a strong enough narrative around them; it is a simple join-the-dots, follow the leads crime story, dressed up with exhausting, stylised action and admittedly impressive production design.
While it’s difficult to knock the central turns, the supporting appearances tend to be a mixed bag; Rachel McAdams perfunctorily waltzes in and out of the film within ten minutes as Holmes’ old flame Irene, while Stephen Fry, playing Sherlock’s snobbish brother Mycroft, dispels any and all appeal by showing more of his naked body than you are ever likely to want to see. Rapace, meanwhile, is good in a limited role, and she positively deserves the push after her good work – surpassing the films themselves, in fact – in Stieg Larsson’s Milennium trilogy adaptations. Pleasantly, her character doesn’t slide into either the damsel-in-distress or love interest archetypes that you might expect; she can hold her own alongside Sherlie (a pet name used for him by his brother) and Watson. Jared Harris meanwhile has a mischievous face suited to villainy, a natural fit for criminal mastermind Moriarty, though his menacing effort is too-often undermined by the clumsily ineffectual scripting.
Action, meanwhile, occurs much like the first film, in fits and starts, such that only one scene – a hyper-stylised escape from Moriarty’s compound through a forest – can even be described as a set-piece. This wouldn’t matter so much had Richie pointed an ounce of his attention paid to the visuals towards an interesting story. The climactic stand-off – in which Moriarty shows himself as adept at foresight as Holmes, envisioned through that familiar stylised flourish – is surprisingly tense, and frustratingly satisfying given the highly uneven nature of the rest of the film.
Much like the first Sherlock, the good work by Downey Jr. and Law is largely undone by flat humour, stilted action and a dull, breadcrumb-following plot unbecoming of Doyle’s beloved detective. The ending, though, is much better than the film deserves.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is released on Friday December 16th.