In life, there are rarities. Among them are blue moons, dolphin sightings, Courtney Love in sobriety and, most specifically, a sequel that surpasses the original. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows definitely falls into that latter trend. While a direct sequel from the events of the first Holmes, this is a stand alone outing; the story "assumes" that the audience is familiar with the players, saving introductions only for the new additions such as Holmes' more intelligent (by his own admission) brother Mycroft (played with great deadpan, cheeky delight by Stephen Fry) and the finally revealed Professor James Moriarty (a decidedly Machiavellian Jared Harris). A rule of thumb in great drama is "start small...and build". In comparison to this new outing, the sophomore Sherlock Holmes was the small start. For returning director Guy Ritchie does in a few minutes of prologue what most directors need almost a half hour to accomplish: he changes the stakes of the game by commencing the film in a controversial fashion which will not only undoubtedly enrage Holmsian/Conan Doyle purists, but also establishes the credibility of the villain.
And build it does: Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) is more "on" than ever, his countenance that of a person who has taken mass quantities of cocaine to cram for a final exam (given the shared historical predilection between the literary Holmes and the living Downy, Jr. for this particular drug, an apt metaphor), his mania focused on outwitting and outmaneuvering his arch nemesis. His faithful companion, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) is more determined than ever to marry his beloved Mary (Kelly Reilly) despite Holmes efforts to thwart same. The explosions are bigger, the action is more frenetically intense and, in another rarity in most actioners of recent memory, the suspense is excruciating. The literary Holmes was fond of string instruments, and Ritchie's tight direction plays the events, and the audience, like a Stradivarius, choosing the right amount of storytelling beats to ratchet up the drama. He is one of the few directors who utilizes the current conceit of slow motion to pulse-pounding, nail-biting effect. He deftly manages all of this while keeping the film going at a brisk clip, accompanied by the ambitious score by Hans Zimmer, who in music mirrors the changing, bi-polar moods of the story, relying on heavy use of percussion to showcase the movie's darker undertones. However, Zimmer never loses sight of the whimsical motif he established for the titular character.
The teleplay (written by Michelle and Kieren Mulroney loosely based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is, for the most part, solid. While it does take the time to explain a couple of clues through exposition, most of the clues are visually explained and left for the audience to extrapolate to avoid slowing down the action or muting the tension. In short, it's yet another rarity: the intelligent actioner.
The performances which carry the film are sublime and highlight a key subtext: Relationships. Downey Jr.'s Holmes' is a study of contrasts: cerebral yet physically centered (and capable), manic yet pensive, superficial yet deep, irreverent yet soulful. The beauty of the performance is how easy he makes such a juggling act look. His chemistry with Jude Law is akin to that of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman's in the television version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, bringing the complexity of that relationship to beautiful realization. Their performance and banter alone is worth the price of admission. The true problem with Watson's marriage to Mary is that he's already been married to Holmes for years; they play "The Bickersons" with panache and aplomb.
Of course, the other key relationship is that between the adversaries. While on the surface their battle is one of wits, it is also a battle between morality and amorality. Harris plays Moriarty as sociopathic chessmaster; one who only shows emotion when he is outmaneuvered. On the flip side, Holmes shows particular resolve when the life of his "bromantic" partner Watson is endangered. Downey Jr. and Harris crackle in their exchanges. One can actually believe that each seeks to destroy the other despite the genteel assertions of respect for the other's intellectual prowess. He tests Holmes on every level (intellectually, physically and even emotionally) so that by the time the have their "final" confrontation, it is climatic, riveting, and uncertain.
Unfortunately, the film is not without its drawbacks. Rachel Adams' Irene Adler, who plays a very important part in terms of story development, has too little screen time; as does Reilly as Mary Watson. Unfortunately, Noomie Rapace as Romany fortune teller Simza Heron does little to fill the void. Her character is a blank slate who propels the action forward by story design only and barely elicits audience engagement. There are some instances where deux ex machinas are incorporated, the lead-up to the "The Final Solution's" climax is a tad obvious (admittedly, only for those familiar with the original Holmes stories), and its run time may be a bit long. However, when it seems the film's tone of suspenseful foreboding threaten to overwhelm the proceedings, Ritchie performs a tonal sleight of hand and brings his humorous sensibilities to bear; as in his established Holmes/Watson banter and a little tongue in cheek homage to the Clint Eastwood/Shirley MacLaine classic Two Mules for Sister Sara, for example. It's a bait and switch that works.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is really is a rare feat. It is an intelligent actioner that does not talk down nor bog down its audience. Furthermore, it's also one of those rare films that justifies multiple viewings. Ultimately, it's one of the most fun movie going experiences this year, a thrill ride that should be partaken of posthaste. What are you waiting for? The game's afoot!
*** (What, did you think I was going to say "Elementary?" :-P)