Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenplay: Kieron Mulrooney, Michele Mulrooney
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Rachel McAdams
BBFC Certification: 12A
Duration: 129 mins
In amongst awards season, Mission Impossible 4’s mainstream competition is the Sherlock Holmes sequel: a franchise with another festive release following 2009’s new year battle with Avatar. Despite going up against James Cameron two years ago – and Guy Ritchie’s sinking reputation following the off-kilter Roch N Rolla and the pretentious regurtitated philosophy goulash of Revolver – the first Sherlock Holmes was a box office and critical success for its mix of occult Victorian mystery and bitey bro-marriage bickering between the rejuvenated Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. (as Dr Watson and the eponymous Holmes).
Also, with Ritchie kept away from the script his recent trend for convoluted nonsense was wisely avoided, and his talent for visual flair, tempo and crime fun shone brightly through, and generated $500 million (at a cost of only $90 million plus marketing) at the box office.
However, while there are posters announcing Game of Shadows to be bigger, funnier and better, be warned: this is untrue.
Game of Shadows plays out in the context of rising Victorian anarchy and the looming threat of world war. However while the original was clearly about Lord Blackwood’s impossible rise from the grave with Watson’s engagement mixed in, the sequel is incredibly … complicated is the wrong word ….but messy is probably right.
There is a lot to like – more humorous chatter between Jude Law and Downey Junior, take them or leave them visual pyrotechnics from Ritchie, and a stronger third act - but overall the outing is vastly disappointing compared to the original.
First Game of Shadows can’t quite make up its mind about what it is. First it is about the playful jostling of Holmes and the returning Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) over the ownership of a letter - with the mysterious Moriaty (Jared Harris) waiting in tow. Then it is about the marriage of Dr Watson, his stag party, and Moriarty’s attempts to kill the newlyweds as revenge for Holmes’ meddling. Finally it is also about the assassination attempt on a fortune telling gypsy (Noomi Rapace – the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), the intended recipient of the earlier letter, and how this ties into Moriarty’s grand design.
In itself, this would work fine, but Game of Shadows/em> effectively rotates the “story in situ” for every scene without ever indicating what is the true, simple drive of the film. Worse, it also changes the tack of Sherlock Holmes entirely, and like a barrel-stuffed Victorian rifle - this backfires loudly. For while the original had an eerie, play-along how-dunnit mystery – long since Sherlock Holmes’ main appeal – Game of Shadows trades in all of this kudos for a station to station action adventure. There is a mystery element – what will happen next? – but Game of Shadows keeps so much back to the end that it is hard to care for this key plot line in the story, and clues that that are flashback-ed to by Holmes were not only impossible to spot – e.g. surgically “created” twins - but irrelevant at the time they were shown.
So, somehow, Game of Shadows is simultaneously dumbed down and made more complicated, which is a rare feat indeed (although strangely not one for Ritchie).
Much of the disappointment is that the original showed Sherlock Holmes done this way could be so much better. Once again Jude Law and Downey Junior take enormous pleasure bouncing off one another, but without a clear and engaging story those banter scenes no longer have a natural feel.
Ultimately the problems can be traced down to jumbled sense of purpose in Holmes in the script. Yes there are bombs going off and Watson has been threatened, but why does the antisocial Holmes really care about the bombs? This is a man that thrives from the sport of showing up the police or solving the unsolvable, but both are apparently missing. And while bullet time pre-fighting is back, also gone is Holmes’ antisocial dissections of people on meeting, which is a pity. A lack of care also concerns the plot – why should the audience care about a brother being sent to assassinate someone when we’ve never even met him, barely scratched the surface of the sister, and the human consequences of Moriarty’s terrible plot only ever told to us in dialogue, and never shown.
This missing key motives is a shame in particular as the set up gives Holmes one VERY LARGE reason to chase Moriarty to the grave, but this discovery barely seems to stir him at all, and the motivation is ignored. It feels wrong when he doesn’t follow up on the prologue in the first place, but worse when he barely reacts to the news. If nothing else the failure to deal with this issue is not only distracting, it also reduces Holmes to little more than a man doing things because that is what the script tells him to – instead of exploring what the brilliant, historic and mysterious character might feel. It also makes the end of beginning sequence redundant, when it should be a key moment in the film.
While it has problems - that have hit its box office, though probably not enough to stop a third film - Game of Shadows has its positives and will likely improve on second viewing. The action and Holmes’ constant forward planning is cleverly designed (if told in awkward, jumpy fashion), there is great confidence in the direction and writing, and the final third is an improvement, in particular the game of chess between Holmes and Moriarty as Watson and Noomi try to avert disaster indoors. Law and Downey Junior settle into their same roles and a surprising, revealing, and light-hearted performance is given by the lovable legend Stephen Fry as Holmes' government official brother, Mycroft (although his presence has always seemed much better suited to the smaller screen). Noomi Rapace is essentially Little Miss Plot Device, but it is good to see her getting recognition as her breakout role is prematurely overwritten elsewhere. Moriarty is also connivingly played by Jared Harris, who many may recognise from US series such as Mad Men and Fringe,
Overall, however, this does not compensate the shortcomings of Game of Shadows. Yes the adventure has scale, Reichenbach Falls makes a presence, and the story does end wonderfully, but it lacks the effortless charm of the 2009 debut – which was by far its strongest feature. Instead it dilutes too many good bits of Holmes, swaps a well told mystery for slow-motion tree explosions, and jumps from place to place with puzzle pieces that aren’t cleverly disguised - even if one did care about the grand Moriarty scheme, they’re still pretty much hidden from view.