The business of franchise-building is never easy.
When all the hard work and sweat of crafting a solid enough first installment to warrant a sequel finally pays off -- as it did both critically and commercially for Warner Bros.' Sherlock Holmes reboot in '09 -- the filmmakers inevitably find themselves at a crossroads, having to determine whether the next entry should go deeper, plying the audience's investment in the characters and setting to mine more potent thematic and emotional ground, or broader, with surface characteristics they responded to previously accentuated and amplified. For this series' second try, A Game of Shadows, some modest attempt is made for the former, but it's mostly content to remain the latter. I suspect one's enjoyment of the proceedings will depend greatly on how comfortable they are with that apportioning.
I enjoyed the first go at the reinvented Holmes quite a bit upon its release two years ago, calling it "a fresh reinvention of the concept for modern sensibilities." I also noted with appreciation how strategically similar it was to its Warner studiomate, the currently-unfolding, soon-ending Batman series, where the initial installment was used primarily to set up the character and world, and the big gun villain held in reserve for next time (see: Joker, The). In laying the pipe for this franchise, director Guy Ritchie was clearly emulating the Christopher Nolan model by first establishing Robert Downey's quirky, action hero portrayal of Arthur Conan Doyle's famed detective and the new, hunkier Dr. Watson embodied by Jude Law.
It wasn't until that film's closing moments that we were teased with an impending face-off between Holmes and the villainous James Moriarty, unassuming academician by day, world-beating megalomaniac by night. While A Game of Shadows does deliver that promised showdown (with Mad Men actor Jared Harris recruited to play the part), its done a disservice by a drawn-out, laborious build-up. The scheme Moriarty concocts to set France and Germany at war with one another and then supply both sides with weapons of his own making treads dangerously close Bondian levels of grandiosity, and is so labyrinthine, with so many digressions, that it builds little of the interest we need in order to give a care about its outcome -- especially when the logical part of our brain already knows no such war actually occurred.
Given the performers involved, it's no surprise things most most excel when they're allowed simply to play off of one another. This time around, returning stars Downey and Law (and, briefly, Rachel McAdams) are joined by Noomi Rapace as a mysterious Gypsy fortune-teller who inadvertently becomes intertwined with the pair's investigation, and Stephen Fry as Holmes' older brother Mycroft. Both actors bring much international acclaim and recognition with them (Rapace for her lead role in the original adaptations of Stieg Larsson's Dragon Tattoo novels, Fry for being Stephen Fry), but they're not done many favors by Kieran & Michele Mulroney's script, which piles on the bombastic action set pieces, but neglects the character beats to help place them in a context beyond the purely sensory.
Harris, an unexpected and inspired choice to embody Moriarty, brings much menace to the part without ever becoming a caricature. The too-few scenes in which he squares off with Downey have a fascinating quality of static kineticism as these two avowed enemies trade gentlemanly bon mots and witticisms with one another even as each plots to quash the other. Unfortunately, the ideological collision of the two masterminds is something I wish Ritchie would have applied more heat to early on, as it simmers on low for too long, and is left undercooked by the time the figurative chess match they've engaged in for two films is literalized (in a pay-off that should be familiar to anyone who's read Doyle's "The Final Solution," the only story where the two actually meet).
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows doesn't go nearly as deep as I would have liked, but is a mostly-diverting concoction that, thankfully isn't as broad as it could very well have ended up. Working in its favor, the byplay between Downey and Law remains amusing (though the homoerotic innuendo, woven throughout thanks to Holmes' disquiet at losing his long-suffering pal to *gasp* marriage, has been ladled on a bit thick), and while Downey himself treads dangerously close to making his mannered, borderline-autistic take on the character as much of a self-parody as Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow has become after four Pirates of the Caribbean entries, there's still enough in evidence of what made the first one work to make the decision to see the follow-up elementary. Almost. B-