If “Sherlock Holmes” was the first movie to properly capitalize on Robert Downey Jr.’s career resuscitation after “Iron Man” became a mega-success, then “A Game Of Shadows,” its follow up, is the first sequel to understand how to sustain his appeal without allowing him to eat away at the scenery. Taking an “if it ain’t broke…” attitude towards the original’s combination of snooty deduction, seismic action and borderline silly bromance, Guy Ritchie’s stylish over-plotting actually works to a film’s benefit for once, because it keeps Downey’s febrile charisma in check even as the film expands the visceral, intellectual and even political stakes of its Victorian-by-way-of-MMA universe.
The film picks up pretty much exactly where the first film left off, with Holmes (Downey) channeling his OCD attention to detail into one case after another while Watson (Jude Law) gingerly attempts to extract himself from their partnership and be with his future bride Mary (Kelly Reilly). After the duo successfully thwarts a terrorist attack, the two men part ways and Watson goes on his honeymoon while Holmes enlists his brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) to help pore over suspects and evidence. But when Holmes visits the man he holds responsible, the impossibly calculating Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), he discovers that their new adversary is as unscrupulous as he is brilliant. Racing after Watson to rescue him and Mary from assassination, Holmes quickly falls into an escalating game of cat and mouse with Moriarty, and the former partners are forced to reunite in order to stop their foe’s dangerous machinations – which may have global implications if they come to pass.
Exactly why Warner Brothers hired the duo responsible for the little-seen 2010 film “Paper Man” (and nothing else) to write a sequel to one of their biggest recent hits is unclear, but Kieran and Michele Mulroney mostly succeed in preserving the key narrative and thematic concepts that their four-plus predecessors conceived for the original. Specifically, they create opportunity after opportunity for Holmes to showcase his intellect and his physical acumen, often simultaneously, while keeping the set pieces tethered to previously established relationships between characters, and more fundamentally, a plot mostly worthy of having multiple layers. Simultaneously, the dynamic between Holmes and Moriarty is so clearly established – and augmented by Moriarty being a foe worthy of Holmes’ considerable gifts – that the only real mystery is how and when their “game of shadows” will manifest itself.
Unfortunately, part of that mystery is driven by a lackluster sense of urgency, or perhaps more accurately, the distracted focus of a filmmaker himself gifted more with a keen eye for character details and plot digressions than dramatic momentum and narrative cohesion. Between reintroducing the characters, setting up relationships whose dynamics most viewers will already be familiar with, and creating a couple of effectively exciting action scenes, it takes a solid hour for the story to find its focus, which feels like a little too long, and it may be why some viewers are slightly confused – surely I’m missing something important, right? (Sadly, you aren’t.) Meanwhile, Ritchie fetishizes supporting roles and smaller details that enrich the world he’s creating, but they don’t always enhance the intensity of what’s actually supposed to be happening, or clarify why you should care.
Surprisingly, this actually doesn’t adversely impact the film, because what Ritchie doesn’t do is just allow the actors to exercise their improvisational muscles; rather, even when the scenes lack an urgent sense of purpose, Ritchie’s emphasis even on pre-existing chemistry keeps them interesting, and manages to distract the audience from the fact that the plot, well, isn’t going anywhere. But the other problem with the story is that it’s more a theme or a metaphor than a concrete, A to Z timeline. By the time Moriarty reveals the machinations of his grand scheme, you’re not just starved for what’s really going on, but for why, and his ambitions are far more firmly rooted in current events than classical ones, even if the Mulroneys find an historical context in which to couch their parable.
But again, the characters and their relationships with one another are so strongly conceived – or perhaps more accurately, inherited – that you’re seldom at a loss for something fun or entertaining to watch. By now, Holmes and Watson’s friendship has become the stuff of homoerotic fan-fiction, with Holmes as the jealous companion who feels cast aside for another. The film’s acknowledgment of that, if not indulgence, almost creates the movies’ first post-bromance, a bittersweet celebration of two male friends who struggle to recognize that there are other companions who will eventually have to take priority. And it certainly helps that Downey and Law are fully committed to playing that emotional dynamic in a way that viewers can imprint it with whatever interpretation they choose.
Meanwhile, the action is like in the first film top-notch, with Ritchie completely indulging his own creativity to bolster cleverly-written set pieces and make them exciting and memorable. (That said, he seems to have forgotten to remind Law that he’s supposed to walk or run with a limp, because about halfway through the film he’s mysteriously able to dance, run and in some cases literally kick ass without the slightest hiccup.) Downey is more focused here than he was in, say, “Iron Man 2,” perhaps because of the anachronistic context, and he continues to give Holmes a convincingly contemporary physicality without purely turning either himself or the character from the first film into foppish parody. And the new cast members, including Fry, Harris, and Noomi Rapace (the original “Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”) almost all manage to distinguish themselves without taking any of the attention away from the two leads.
Ultimately, 'Game Of Shadows' is more complex than the first film, but it’s also a little less focused, and while the two qualities seem at odds with one another, the end result feels like a solid ‘70s or ‘80s movie where the filmmakers just aren’t in as much of a hurry, rather than a contemporary action-thriller that lacks steam or energy. Of course, it remains to be seen whether audiences as a whole will agree with that assessment – they’ll either embrace the bromance or balk at its context – but as a whole, Ritchie’s film rewards fans of the first film without merely duplicating its choices. Overall, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” doesn’t quite qualify as a great film, but it’s a solid, engaging sequel, and the right sort of antidote to the season’s stuffier competition. [B+]