‘You know my methods,’ Sherlock Holmes remarks in A Game Of Shadows. Although he addresses to his loyal companion Doctor Watson in the second installment of his cinematic modernization of the old Arthur Conan Doyle tales, we know his methods, too. As James Bond has done so many times in the past and will do again in Skyfall come November, Robert Downey jr. has returned as Holmes and Jude Law once again plays Watson. So what’s new about A Game Of Shadows then?
See it as akin to Christopher Nolan’s updated Batman series. There are undeniable parallels between the two. Both are gritty, fast-paced updates of a universe revolving around one iconic vigilante of sorts. The first entry into each establishes our hero (Batman and Sherlock, respectively) and his sidekick (butler Alfred and the Victorian physician) and pits them against pale and essentially unconvincing villains – whereas the follow-up of Batman Begins as well as Sherlock Holmes significantly ups the ante. Enter the super-villain.
While the masked man from the comics has to face the morbid Joker in The Dark Knight, the great detective from the 19th century has to deal with the ‘Napoleon of crime,’ as Conan Doyle’s super snoop describes his enemy in the original stories as well as the film. We learn from the first seconds how effective Professor Moriarty’s (Jared Harris) sick plans prove to be. A Game Of Shadowsstarts with a bang. Bombs explode and demolish houses. People die. What initially looks like the work of anarchists to stir a war between the European powers actually bears someone else’s handwriting – and Holmes senses whose.
The movie can be seen as split into two acts. The first one would be your typical action-laden crime flick. Ritchie is certainly no stranger to that territory. We’ve seen Madonna’s ex-husband pull it off masterfully as early as in his first two features Lock, Stock & Two Barrels and Snatch with the likes of Brad Pitt, Benicio Del Toro, Jason Statham, and Vinnie Jones. In fact, Downey jr.’s kickboxing and peculiarly athletic version of Sherlock would probably fit in well with the crooked characters from those films.
In the second half, things become more traditional, as the movie increasingly focuses on the riddles so essential to the original Holmes stories when our eccentric hero and his sidekick close in on their archenemy. The chess game between the sleuth and the professor in particular should satisfy traditionalists, as it hints at the egghead spirit of Conan Doyle’s tales from the Victorian days. Holmes and Moriarty both plot and scheme to outwit their respective opponent with their moves.
A Game Of Shadows basically continues the trend established in the first movie, but there are also some noteworthy changes on the character level apart from the introduction of the super-villain. Sherlock and the doctor aren’t as close anymore as they were at the beginning of the series, courtesy of Watson’s marriage to Mary Morstan (Kelly Reilly) that Holmes consistently tries to sabotage.
Our heroes lose some female company for good as well. Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the great detective’s criminal American on-and-off girlfriend, is involved with Moriarty and has to pay for it with her life early on. Her replacement is the fiery gipsy Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace) who has her own reasons to join Holmes and Watson on their quest to eliminate the professor.
While Scotland Yard officers were rendered as incompetent imbeciles in the earlier film, they are almost completely absent in A Game Of Shadows. Inspector Lestrade is no longer a real part of the universe. Instead, we’re treated to Sherlock’s idiosyncratic older brother Mycroft, played masterfully by English actor Stephen Fry. He also appears in Doyle’s stories as a brilliant thinker, maybe an even more brilliant one than his younger sibling, but one who investigates because he doesn’t want to move to make the effort to visit the crime scenes.
Eventually, Moriarty and Sherlock face off against each other in a vicious showdown at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. The location is taken directly from the original Holmes tale The Final Problem, where the great detective and his archenemy both fall from the majestic heights of the frightening cataract and into their death – or so it seems. In this sense, Sherlock Holmes is a bit like Her Majesty’s super-spy James Bond. Both will return, regardless of how hopeless their situation may look.
Doyle tried to kill his hero off because he had grown tired of him, but public demand forced him to bring him back. A Game Of Shadows already gives the producers the option to let Sherlock come back. The end already reveals that he hasn’t died, and that’s probably a good thing. Audiences seem to have enjoyed his and Watson’s second modern adventure, and it’s definitely among the more enjoyable Hollywood blockbusters of late.
As in the case with Ritchie’s first entry into the series, A Game Of Shadows definitely has its flaws. Some will complain that it’s not close enough to the original. There’s some truth to that argument, although the films try to incorporate a great deal of elements from Conan Doyle’s stories. As a matter of fact, by letting Holmes fight Moriarty, they have already included a major component of the tales. The update for the big screen seems to be necessary, as modern viewers are probably not too interested in the puzzles and the Victorian homilies from the originals.