A Game of Shadows
Kudos to Guy Ritchie and his creative team for waiting until the second Sherlock Holmes film to reveal Professor James Moriarty. Sometimes, holding back can be a good thing so that the pay-off can be glorious, and indeed, Jared Harris' portrayal of the Napoleon of Crime strikes the right balance between giving us what we want and showing us something new.
Would that the same could be said for A Game of Shadows overall. It's entertaining enough, but it's also clear that screenwriters Michele and Kieran Mulroney try to give the audience exactly what they liked best about the first one. To do that, they play a little game of shallows.
Certainly the interplay between Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law has a comforting feel to it, and should be witty. Now, however, it's all about clever lines and awkward situations, without the sense of frustration that Holmes has to feel that he should care so deeply about someone.
Of course, the script also quickly dispatches of Irene Adler (Rachel McNamara), the only other character that gave us a glimpse into Holmes' humanity. Revealed at the end of the first as an agent of Moriarty, her ambivalence – nay, attraction – toward Holmes makes her a liability to the evil genius.
But stopping to let Sherlock grieve would allow too much nuance for this action-packed movie. Things can only slow down if it's for a cool slow motion shot, or tracking how Sherlock Holmes predicts the moves of his fights.
This time around, buffoonery rules the day, even with deadly stakes. At least it's occasionally high-brow buffoonery, made palatable by the addition of Stephen Fry as Sherlock Holmes' smarter brother Mycroft. However, he sets the tone by consistently calling his younger sibling "Shirley."
As for the actual female leads, they're trapped in a boys' club plot that only occasionally nods to a need for characterization. Noomi Rapace, the original girl with a dragon tattoo, snarls well enough and looks stalwart, but there's no being prettier than Downey or Law. Providing the wedge between them, Kelly Reilly tries gamely to make a mark, but though Mycroft references thathe understands why Watson finds her so delightful, the movie never gives her a chance to persuade us.
So we're left to the game between Holmes and Moriarty. Ritchie has made it a rather kinetic game of wits, but as in the source material their final conflict is pretty visceral, it makes sense. I just don't remember quite so many explosions.
Perhaps it's unfair to complain about what A Game of Shadows isn't instead of focus on what it is, and again, it's not bad. But Downey brought a certain sadness to the role the first time around that made up for some of the mindlessness. Now he knows he's a clown and seems to be inviting the comparison.
If you can't make them think, make them laugh. But in my experience, that's never won a chess game.