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Guy Ritchie’s new entry into the world of Sherlock Holmes is an improvement in every way. This time it actually feels like a movie about Sherlock Holmes, something the original only achieved sporadically, settling for too often into being another generic Hollywood action movie. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows contains all the action movie beats amped up audiences are hoping for, in fact the big budget explosions are bigger than ever; but it’s also a movie capable of culminating in a game of chess and making that every bit as exciting as watching things blow up.
That this is the best Sherlock Holmes movie so far is appropriate, since it’s centered around the great detective’s most challenging case. You know by now that in this sequel he faces off against Moriarty, perhaps the most famous villain of all time, with apologies to Darth Vader and Khan. It’s appropriate that the film’s trailers have made no secret of the fact that Moriarty is in the movie because Moriarty himself operates almost entirely out in the open. Jared Harris plays him like a man so confident in his abilities, that he doesn’t care who knows what he’s doing. Utterly ruthless and supremely brilliant, Moriarty knows there’s nothing anyone can do to stop him.
In anyone else that kind of confidence would be dismissed as arrogance, but in the case of Professor James Moriarty it’s simply true. That makes the challenge presented by this particular bad guy different than any other the world’s greatest detective will ever encounter. Holmes has unraveled almost all of Moriarty’s evil plot before the movie’s even halfway through, the real story here is in finding a way to stop him, and doing that proves to be a different matter entirely.
The more battered and beaten Holmes becomes in pursuit of that goal, the more comfortable Downey seems to be in playing him. It helps that A Game of Shadows is less intent on turning the character into a kung fu action hero than the pervious installment. Much of what Holmes does here happens in his mind, but Ritchie finds a way to make even that incredibly thrilling through a series of looks into the plans circulating inside Sherlock’s impressive head.
To save the world from the Professor, Holmes must play a dark and twisty game of shadows and counter moves, and to play that game he’ll need the help of people he can rely on in a way he’s never needed them before. Jude Law is back as Watson and still utterly impressive, his naturally thin and gangly appearance somehow utterly hidden beneath a performance which requires him to play a burly, rough and ready ex-soldier. Stephen Fry gets extended burn as Holmes’ older, far more sedentary brother Mycroft, and steals every moment he’s given.
Then there’s Noomi Rapace, the Holmes’ world’s new female lead. She plays a gypsy, tangled up in the events of A Game of Shadows for the sake of her brother. She does well but the film quickly becomes so consumed with the battle of wits between Moriarty and Holmes that she soon fades into the back ground as more of a tag-along. Though Noomi fits into the story at first, eventually it begins to feel as though she’s only there because A Game of Shadows needed a woman to fill out some pre-determined gender quota.
It’s the battle between Holmes and Moriarty that matters most, and that’s achieved with a kind of subtle cinematic brilliance you’d never expect from a director like Guy Ritchie. It helps that the way Jared Harris plays the character is so completely unconventional. Unlike almost every big villain you’ve ever seen before, Moriarty avoids the cinematic sneers or terrifying threats which are the hallmark of most well-known Hollywood villains. Instead he spars with Holmes by moving another pawn into position, already planning his next move in his head, a move which you know from his steely expression may leave Sherlock Holmes dead.
The action is intense, the story complex and thrilling, the characters as subtle and nuanced as a good Sherlock Holmes story deserves. Whether or not you liked the first one, get cracking and see Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.