Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows easily ranks as the most disappointing film of the year: not dreadful, but falling so far from the brilliant initial film that its good points hardly matter. It stumbles where the first film soared, plays it safe where its predecessor went for broke. Many of the assets remain in place, but they’ve lost their freshness, and the filmmakers – the same ones who infused the iconic detective with 21st century relevance – can’t find the means to bring it back. In fact, it plays as a textbook case of Things Bad Sequels Do Wrong. What, specifically? Let us count the ways.
Resting on Their Laurels
Far, far too much of Game of Shadows simply coughs up the old routines from the first film in hopes that we’ll still buy it. For instance, Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) analyzes potential fights and sees how they will go in a microsecond before throwing his first punch. A Game of Shadows brings a few new wrinkles into that mix, but the gimmick has already lost its pizzazz and repeating it as often as they do here quickly becomes tedious. Similar elements such as Holmes wreaking havoc in his apartments or his ongoing needling of Dr. Watson (Jude Law) pretty much confirm that those ideas ran their course in the first film. Law and Downey retain excellent chemistry and a few laughs crop up here and there, but too many elements here play like discards from the cutting room floor rather than a movie in and of themselves.
Changing the Formula in All the Wrong Ways
Conversely, when A Game of Shadows attempts to shake things up, it invariably makes all the wrong decisions. An early surprise is intended to set a darker, more ominous tone for the film; instead it shakes us so thoroughly out of the mood that by the time we’re back in the spirit of things, we’ve lost the thread of the plot (such as it is). More importantly, A Game of Shadows almost completely does away with the notion of a mystery. Instead, it becomes a run-of-the-mill actioner, with Holmes’s deductive skills focused more on getting him to the next set piece than puzzling out a grim conundrum. Director Guy Ritchie adds more of those slow motion explosions to the mix – and they work fairly well, for what that’s worth – but the resulting soup feels awfully thin.
A Less Interesting Story
The narrative may be to blame. The first film posited a brilliant conundrum for Holmes to solve: a villain seemingly brought back from the dead who challenged the detective’s science against apparent magical mastery. Not only did it give him a fiendish challenge, but it kept in the spirit of Doyle, who often used Holmes’s logic to dispel the fear of superstition. This time around, unfortunately, they saddle him with a stunningly dull conspiracy to start a war on continental Europe. It involves a lot of superfluous turns – brainwashing and cosmetic surgery play a large role, believe it or not – that add up to a whole lot of nothing. Considering that the war Holmes is trying to stop kicks in just a few decades later, the entire exercise takes on a dull, pointless quality.
A Less Interesting Villain
After Mark Strong rocked the doors off the first film, the producers really needed to step up their game for the villain here. They had a sterling candidate in Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), Holmes’s longtime nemesis who nevertheless retained plenty of nebulous qualities for the filmmakers to play with. Instead of rising to the challenge, they fall back on more banality. Moriarty is seemingly all-powerful without any attendant cause. His motives remain murky and vague – boilerplate bad-guy stuff devoid of the necessary fascination – and his schemes never coalesce into anything worth paying attention to. He and Holmes have some good exchanges, but they lack the vitality of the first film, and while we keep waiting for the two to kick it into high gear, it never does. Even the ending – lifted from one of Doyle’s most famous moments – can’t deliver the combination of respect and menace the character requires.
Bringing in a Superfluous Love Interest
The first film was never entirely sure what to do with Rachel McAdams, who played Holmes’ saucy foil Irene Adler. She’s here briefly, but rather than try to correct their earlier oversight, the filmmakers bring in a different and much less interesting figure (Noomi Rapace) seemingly on a whim. They saddle her with a collection of utterly uninteresting character traits– a gypsy fortune teller who’s searching for her lost brother and zzzzzzzz…. – then set her loose with the boys and insist that she needs to be there. McAdams’ chemistry with Downey vanishes, replaced by a non-Doyle figure about as interesting as a bowl of oatmeal.
Adding Characters Just Because They Can
Other new characters do better, at least as far as watchability goes, but that doesn’t mean they serve a useful purpose. Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) shows up to help goose the plot along, but while the actor is thoroughly delightful, he exists here solely to bring in new elements of the Holmes mythos with comparatively little effort. He – and frankly Moriarty – appear more as observers than actual players, as if their merest presence is enough to get the job done.
Coming Out Too Soon
According to Hollywood shorthand, it takes three years to get a proper sequel prepped, shot and assembled. A few exceptions exist (mostly horror franchises, which are cheap to shoot and don’t exactly aspire to much in the first place), but first-tier productions run a big risk if they try to finish more quickly. A Game of Shadows arrives two years after its predecessors: reeking of rushed decisions, cut corners and a script that needed three or four more drafts to really hum. The good things on display from the first film are still here. They just lack the infusion of creativity needed to maintain the franchise’s sky-high standards. Another six months could have given them that. As it stands, A Game of Shadows takes a big step down, leaving us with the taste of ashes in its wake.