The title is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and indeed, it’s all about the shadowy arts of cleverness and deception. This is to be expected when you have an adversarial relationship between two supremely intelligent men. I am, of course, referring to detective-for-hire Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), both engaged in a deadly battle of wits in 1891 Europe. They’re each faced with the monumental task of being one step ahead of the other, which requires a thought process and an attention to detail that most would consider inhuman. For Holmes, it comes as second nature. We’ve once already seen his ability to make highly accurate deductions simply by analyzing the little things most people take no notice of. He finally admits that he notices absolutely everything, and that it’s just as much a curse as it is a blessing.
A Game of Shadows is, naturally, a sequel to the 2009 blockbuster Sherlock Holmes. Both films are directed by Guy Ritchie, allowing for some rather interesting spins on the original stories and novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For these reboots, the title character is a bit more bohemian, the plots are a bit more action-oriented, and the special effects are a bit more showy and expensive. Ritchie turns up the volume in A Game of Shadows with a story intended to be funnier, trickier, and literally more explosive than its predecessor. That it’s a great deal of fun, there can be absolutely no question. One wonders, though, if some audiences will find the plot a little difficult to follow, as it works in twists, turns, and misdirection the way artists work in oils or acrylics.
The first film brought full attention to some of the quirky mannerisms Doyle created for Holmes, including his hyper analytical thinking skills (which some contemporary scholars convincingly attribute to Asperger’s syndrome), his affinity for bare-knuckle boxing and martial arts, and his inelegant style of dress. This new film draws on other quirks, most notably his ability to disguise himself and his occasional use of cocaine. Ritchie and screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney take it one step further – in one scene, he downs a glass full of formaldehyde. I have absolutely no idea what that does to a living body, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter. His 221B Baker Street flat continues to be the center of his eccentric behaviors; in this particular case, we see he has filled it with jungle foliage and specific types of animals. He continues to perform strange experiments on Watson’s dog, and they always do less harm than they probably would in real life.
I’m going to describe the plot in hurried, vague terms, as I don’t want to ruin the intricate mystery for you. Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) are drawn into a complicated web of crimes that seem to connect back to Professor Moriarty, who, as you may remember, was the stranger who kept himself hidden in shadow in the first film. They eventually involve a fortune-telling gypsy named Sim (Noomi Rapace), one of Moriarty’s targets. Why does he want her out of the way? It might have something to do with her missing brother, who not only worked for Moriarty but was also once affiliated with a radical terrorist group in located in Paris. The unexpected death of a prominent businessman, masked by a deceptive explosion, leads Holmes to Germany, where they discover a massive arms factory. Clearly, Moriarty has invested in large-scale weaponry. But why? And how does Sim’s brother fit into all of this?
All leads to a final sequence that’s a triumph of plotting, pacing, and editing. It even works in an especially well-known turn of events, and if you’re at all familiar with Doyle’s original stories, then you probably already know what I’m referring to. During this scene, there’s an especially well-written scene involving Holmes and Moriarty, who engage in a chess game that starts out with physical moves but eventually escalates to verbal one-upsmanship. There’s an indescribable satisfaction that comes with watching one-on-one displays of intellectual prowess; I almost feel as if I’m being invited to probe deeply into the characters’ minds, to determine for myself what it is they’re really thinking and feeling at that very moment.
Intertwined with this is a subplot involving Watson, his new wife, Mary (Kelly Reilly), and Holmes’ equally eccentric brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry), who without explanation will wander his estate naked, even in the presence of servants and guests (the former are clearly used to this, whereas the latter most definitely are not). It should be noted that the entire film is actually a memoir being written by Watson, which further connects the film to Doyle’s original stories. While a bit plot heavy, and although some of the action is overplayed – just wait for the scene of Holmes, Watson, and Sim running slow motion through a forest being blasted apart by gunfire – Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is an engaging and enjoyable mystery film. Like its predecessor, it remains faithful to its source, and yet it isn’t so bogged down by insider references that it alienates modern audiences.