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Warner Bros.’ 2009 hit Sherlock Holmes ended with a cliffhanger as audiences learned the mysterious Professor Moriarty had masterminded some of the film’s events. The case is reopened nearly two years later as Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows hits theaters Dec. 16. This brilliant and explosive sequel not only picks up the story threads to position Moriarty as Holmes’ greatest foe, it firmly establishes Sherlock Holmes as a franchise worthy of the action-adventure hall of fame.
The film opens with a voiceover from John Watson (Jude Law, reprising his role as Holmes’ companion) as the good doctor records memories of his “last case” with Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.). As Watson narrates, Europe is rocked by a series of seemingly unrelated bombings, while across the globe industry tycoons and drug kingpins turn up dead. Those events aren’t so random in Holmes’ eyes, however, as his investigations find them all connected to one man: the much-esteemed Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris).
After an entertaining cameo by Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), we switch to Watson on the eve of his wedding to the charming Mary (Kelly Reilly). Ready for a stag night to remember with Holmes, Watson unfortunately discovers his best man is far more interested in uncovering Moriarty’s plans than with celebrating Watson’s nuptials. Cajoling Watson into helping him on one “last case,” Holmes then hosts what amounts to the world’s worst bachelor party as he excludes Watson’s other friends, invites along his weirdo brother Mycroft (played by the hilarious Stephen Fry) and gets into a struggle with an assassin bent on killing the one woman who might shed light on Moriarty’s plans, Gypsy fortuneteller Sim (Noomi Rapace).
The next day Holmes accepts an invitation to visit Moriarty and confronts the professor with his knowledge of his plots, arrogantly expecting to impress his foe. Instead, Moriarty shows Holmes and the audience how very, very deadly his game of shadows is, and Holmes realizes not only is he clueless about Moriarty’s plans but that everything he holds dear is now in the professor’s crosshairs. At this point the movie ramps up, transforming into a race across Europe as Moriarty schemes and Holmes attempts to unravel the mystery behind the bombings while keeping himself and Watson alive.
Exciting, hilarious and chock-full of gorgeous action sequences, A Game of Shadows is one of those rare sequels that exceeds its predecessor. Wife and husband screenwriting team Michele and Kieran Mulroney pull out all the stops, imbuing the script with the same madcap humor as the first film while giving it a distinct point of view. Besides incorporating Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle’s original dialogue whenever possible, A Game of Shadows uses the time period itself to raise the stakes. Holmes and Watson live in a world on the brink of violence, from the bomb-happy anarchist movement to the ever-shifting political alliances of Europe. The audience comes to realize that if Moriarty doesn’t kill Holmes and Watson, the rest of the world just might.
If the first Sherlock Holmes was director Guy Ritchie letting us know he can deliver a big-budget holiday blockbuster, then the sequel is Ritchie assuring the audience he can make it as weird and artistic as an independent film. His stamp is all over the movie, from Holmes’ interior monologues visualizing how to take down his opponents to the action scenes in which Holmes and company move at near-Melancholia levels of slow motion. These shots add a dream-like quality to the fight choreography and set up an intriguing parallel with Holmes’ inner thoughts; Ritchie seems to be asking what’s more real, the ordered inner landscape of Holmes’ mind or the chaotic outer landscape of 1890s Europe.
Moreover, virtually every second of the film is filled with detailed symbolism, such as the recurring visual theme of the devil whenever Moriarty is mentioned. Ritchie’s cinematic palette runs dark, a grimy grayness settling over the scenery as if the entire globe is covered by gunpowder. The only splashes of color are in the homes of the wealthy; there the colors are rich and vibrant, underscoring the disparity between Moriarty’s rarefied circle and the world of Holmes’ travels, one comprised of working-class anarchists and impoverished Gypsies. Even the movie’s constant use of songs from Don Giovanni lends meaning, as the opera is about a brilliant but arrogant nobleman who eventually encounters the one foe that he cannot out-think or out-fight — a perfect parallel for Holmes and Moriarty. This isn’t the fun steampunk world of the 2009 film; this is Europe on the edge of madness.
Equally as strong as Ritchie’s directing choices are his casting choices. Selecting Fry for the somnolent Mycroft Holmes is a stroke of genius; the air between Fry and Downey crackles as Downey tries to one-up his brother, and it’s fun to see Fry take the genetic Holmes-family nuttiness and makes it his own. Reilly plays Mary as a woman with a similar streak of eccentricity who exudes childish joy as she’s drawn into Holmes’ plots (it’s a tragedy we don’t get to see more of this capable actress). The same can be said of Rapace, who plays Sim, a Gypsy beauty determined to track down her missing brother. She’s enthralling, radiating intensity of purpose and surprising even Holmes with her actions.
The real scene-stealer, however, is Royal Shakespeare Company alum Jared Harris as Moriarty. Simply put, Harris is building a character destined to become one of cinema’s greatest villains. While it would be easy to play Moriarty as a deranged sociopath, Harris imbues his character with a benevolent air that’s far more frightening. Moriarty is an affable professor, a charming middle-aged man, your favorite uncle who just happens to see the human race as expendable in his pursuit of material wealth. Indeed, Harris’ Moriarty is a villain for the Occupy generation, all the dangers of unbridled capitalism rolled into one man. Harris’ playful approach to the “Napoleon of crime” also creates some fantastic scenes between he and Downey. The game of shadows is a game the way Downey and Harris play it, and even when issuing dire threats both actors cannot help but smile at their opponent’s cunning.
Of course, the real draw of A Game of Shadows is the bromance between Holmes and Watson. Although Watson is the one getting married, it’s his relationship Holmes — a fraternal partnership filled with jokes and occasional attempts at strangulation — that we care about. The film also takes a hard look at the inequities of this relationship: Although Holmes is Watson’s best friend, Watson is Holmes’ only friend. Downey’s Holmes is a more vulnerable man this time around, seesawing between interfering in Watson’s life and emotionally withdrawing just when Watson needs his moral support. Downey and Law carry the movie with deft comedic timing and a genuine appreciation for each other, magically making a two-hour running time feel inadequately short.
While the first Sherlock Holmes was concerned with establishing itself as a franchise, this sequel is Ritchie, Downey and Law throwing restraint out the window and making the movie they want to make. A Game of Shadows is a film with grander ambitions than being just a solidly entertaining romp. It is a parable for our times, exploring what happens when technological advancement goes hand in hand with greed — and whether friendship, love, and the world’s greatest detective are enough to set things right.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows opens Dec. 16 nationwide.