THE PERFECT SEQUEL AND CHANGE OF COURSE FOR GUY RICHIE’S ”SHERLOCK HOLMES” FRANCHISE
Now this is what I love getting when I go to the movies: being absolutely and delightfully surprised. Superior in every way from its menial predecessor, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is engrossing, smart, and fun all the way through without a single hitch in tone or plotting. Director Guy Richie has officially changed course here, turning what appeared to be a workman action romp into a genuinely riveting adventure a la Steven Spielberg. This is fun without being brainless. I don’t feel guilty or ashamed saying I loved the film and that it blew away any and all expectations.
The plot is simple in its main mechanics. Enough time has passed since the first film that Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is right at the heels of his elusive chief antagonist, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Holmes, seeing the personal and global costs of Moriarty’s continued planning being far too great to ignore, picks up Dr. Watson (Jude Law) for one “last” grand adventure before Watson’s impending nuptials hat spans the globe in an effort to stop Moriarty before his plan can come into play. Oh, and this plan? It is really a plan big enough that it could, as Holmes puts it, “lead to the collapse of Western civilization.”
To understand my feelings on the sequel, you must first understand my thoughts on the first film of the franchise in 2009. My main problem with the first “Sherlock Holmes” was how it wasn’t just a mediocre version of the famed Victorian sleuth – it was also a mediocre action romp altogether. Barely passable without being particularly memorable in the slightest. I can’t remember anything about the film outside of Mark Strong’s presence, Moriarty’s lack of presence, the interesting-though-unrelenting directorial style, and the witty banter between Holmes and Watson. It was also far too safe. We knew that nothing would happen to Holmes, Watson, or the girl-of-the-week. We knew they would win out in the end and everything would go back to normal. Ugh. I hate safe movies. It felt more like a weekly serial than a big motion picture. Holmes was never truly challenged and that made it feel like the film catered to Holmes’ own narcissistic hype – he was always the smartest man in the room. Now tell me: where’s the fun in that?
That’s why I love “A Game of Shadows.” What “A Game of Shadows” does that “Sherlock Holmes” failed to do is relinquishing predictability, upping the stakes, and acquiring a far greater foe worthy of Holmes’ intellect. Things actually get serious and personal. The best decisions “A Game of Shadows” makes include two especially brilliant storytelling choices – one near the beginning and one huge one at the end that avid Doyle readers should be able to guess – that make the film as at-the-edge-of-your-seat-worthy as possible. There are three sequences in particular which elevate it to a whole new dimension for me. These sequences were, without question, visually and emotionally flawless. From a fast-and-furious forest chase to Holmes letting Watson take the lead on the Method to the outstanding final 15 minutes (one of the greatest scenes to involve a chess game outside of “The Seventh Seal”), the memorable moments keep on coming. The ending alone is worth a standing ovation. It proved that we haven’t seen anything yet. In fact, things get so wild and out-of-hand that we truly don’t know for sure whether Richie is gutsy enough to kill some very important characters off or not. When you get to that point for a franchise, it’s a magical thing.
Where sequels are concerned, we should already “get” who our main characters are – only more so. We get what we expect and like from our main duo. Robert Downey Jr. is appropriately manic and witty (only this time actually seems as smart as he should be) while Jude Law boasts the very best of straight-laced gentleman with a sly caustic wit. They work far better together now. As for the film’s main newcomers, they are without complaint. I applaud the casting and the characters.
Professor Moriarty (“The Napoleon of Crime”) is, of course, the most recognized name in Holmes’ rogues’ gallery for a reason. Jared Harris makes us believe the hype. Cold, calculating, and malicious, this is a Moriarty where we believe he’s capable of making good on his threats, no matter how grand or unlikely. He’s a genuine threat who is able to hit Holmes right where it hurts the most – both mentally and physically. He even gets to join in on the Holmes-planning-fighting-moves-out-before-he-does-them thing (which is especially cool). Where Mark Strong was more of a cartoon caricature, Harris is as menacing as he should be. From what I’ve seen of Harris in “Mad Men” and now seeing him here with a far bigger role to play, I’d say his abilities before now have been vastly underestimated. I see the makings of a Gary Oldman-level antagonist in Harris and I’d love to see it further explored. I must say, though, that I’m a bit jaded on needing every “brilliant” villain to have a master plan on par with the Joker from “The Dark Knight.” Don’t go in expecting that. Christopher Nolan has no equal.
All other aspects… the action is more precise and viewer-friendly without being as oppressive to the viewing experience as the first one, while the characters are allowed far more time to breathe and banter. There is a far better camaraderie between Holmes and Watson this time around. Han Zimmer’s music is magnificent as usual (especially and most noticeably at the end). Basically, I have no complaints. I can’t think of a better way the film could have gone. I enjoyed every single minute of it.
Armed with far better plotting, banter, and choice of villain, this is what I had hoped the first film was going to be. While mediocre would be my choice word to describe “Sherlock Holmes,” “A Game of Shadows” is a surprisingly extraordinary film that doesn’t even have that word in its vocabulary.