Among recent reworkings of the Sherlock Holmes mythology, Warner Bros.’ bigscreen version starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law was at best a middling effort. Its success, however, made a sequel inevitable, and this one, subtitled “A Game of Shadows,” actually has the significant advantage of featuring Holmes’ preeminent adversary, Professor Moriarty, as played with reptilian charm by Jared Harris. So while director Guy Ritchie’s excesses and modern concessions — among them a lot of explosions — remain intact, the parts of this second “Sherlock Holmes” are considerably more rewarding, promising a healthy run through its holiday window.
The cerebral aspect of Holmes — what primarily distinguishes him from every other crime-fighting character — takes an inevitable beating by transforming him into an action hero, now owing as much to Ian Fleming’s literary efforts as Arthur Conan Doyle’s. Nevertheless, anyone who saw the 2009 pic won’t be surprised by Ritchie’s over-stimulated approach, and will likely be pleased by some of the more traditional elements introduced via scenes where Downey’s eccentric Holmes faces off against Harris’ Moriarty, clearly the movie’s highlight.
Set in 1891 and globe-trotting across Europe at a frenetic pace, the disjointed plot (in a script by the husband-and-wife team of Kieran and Michele Mulroney) centers on a string of bombings that have escalated international tensions between France and Germany. Yet Holmes sees a hidden hand pulling the strings: the nefarious Moriarty, who is hiding in plain sight as a respected academic and author.
As for Holmes’ semi-reluctant partner in crime-solving, Dr. Watson (Law) is preparing to marry to his fiancee (Kelly Reilly), and it gives away little to say the imperative to stop Moriarty throws a sizable monkey wrench into their honeymoon plans.
Also sucked into the plot is a gypsy fortune teller, Simza (Noomi Rapace, the original “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), who joins them to seek her missing brother after Holmes rescues her from an inordinately acrobatic assassin.
Ritchie’s visual innovation of slowing down the action to illustrate Holmes’ powers of perception certainly adds a level of pizzazz to the proceedings, though his tendency to employ the technique in conjunction with other action sequences is more deadening than exciting. The film only really sizzles, in fact, in its quieter moments between Holmes and Moriarty, two brilliant foes with a grudging admiration for each other. Amid the pantheon of screen Moriartys, Harris manages to make his version suave, erudite and menacing all at once — in essence providing the audience the mental dexterity of Holmes, times two. (For those who remember the signature Basil Rathbone movies of the 1930s and ’40s, Henry Daniell comes to mind.)
Actually, make that times three, occasionally, with Stephen Fry also lending welcome comic relief as Holmes’ brother Mycroft, whose ties to the British foreign office dovetail with the massing threat of war.
For purists, of course, there’s almost certainly too much gunplay and noise (including Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score), but this is a Holmes designed to appeal as much to the “Transformers” generation as those steeped in his literary or even past cinematic exploits.
By that measure, Warner Bros.’ new Holmes adventures must pursue a larger bounty than previous incarnations of the character. And with this improved sequel, the game is indeed afoot.