In 2009s Sherlock Holmes, director Guy Richie took Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian sleuth and completely re-invented him as an action hero for a modern audience, shocking purists the world over. There were fist fights, endless banter with his faithful compatriot Dr. Watson and silly disguises galore. I liked it immediately. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows goes one step further, taking the same formula from the first film and cranking up the volume, pace and budget.
This is certainly not the Holmes we know from Conan Doyle's classic stories. There are similarities of course; his brilliant mind, his keen skills of observation, his arrogance and his experimentation with various substances that Conan Doyle's books allude to. But Conan Doyle's Holmes would never have been pursued by soldiers through a German forest while being shelled with mortar fire. I for one am glad for this `re-imagining'. We've seen plenty of Sherlock Holmes TV adaptations in the past (the best being the BBC's current adaptation, the excellent `Sherlock'), but this is a very different animal, an actioner with a huge sense of fun and adventure, not intended to be true to Conan Doyle's books in any way. The two films together represent what is surely by far and away the best spell in Richie's career as a film director.
The plot, some elements of which are drawn (so very loosely) from `The Final Problem', is almost inconsequential to the enjoyment of the film, but involves a scheme by Holmes' arch nemesis Professor Moriarty to start a war in Europe with a campaign of murders and bombings in France and Germany, his motive being profit from his investment in a huge factory developing new artillery and munitions. In the meanwhile Holmes is struggling to adapt to the prospect of a life solving mysteries and beating up crooks on his own, as Dr. Watson is about to marry Mary (Kelly Reilly) and submit to a peaceful life as a family man. But will he give up a life of excitement so easily?
Thankfully all of the main cast members that made the first film such a joy to watch are here, plus a few new additions; the excellent Stephen Fry as Holmes' self satisfied brother Mycroft, Jared Harris makes a creepy and malevolent Moriarty and The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo's Noomi Rapace appears as a gypsy fortune-teller. The chemistry between the leads Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law is still electric and their double act is thoroughly engaging. Many were originally sceptical at the casting of Downey Jr. as such a quintessentially British hero, but he has really made the role his own and puts in another highly charismatic turn, with superb comedic timing.
Richie's direction is slick, and he clearly has a great production team behind him. The action scenes are frequent and thrilling, particularly an escape from a German arms factory while chased by German soldiers and an inventive shoot-out on a moving steam train. One thing I particularly enjoy about these films is the picture of Victorian times as one of great wonder; a time when amazing advances were being made in the world of science, technology and industry and Richie never misses an opportunity to throw in some new gadget or weapon.
Shortness of plot is the films most glaring drawback, and there is not really much of a case for Holmes to `solve'; the plot is more `007' than `Sherlock Holmes'. Perhaps a little sprinkle of Conan Doyle here wouldn't have gone amiss. Jared Harris is a little underused as Moriarty until the final reel, and the same might be said of Noomi Rapace, whose presence becomes less noticeable as the film draws to its conclusion. But these are fairly minor gripes and actually barely noticeable until subsequent reflection.
It's not Holmes as we know him, for sure, but you'll struggle to find a film that is more raucously entertaining. Is it as good as 2009s Sherlock Holmes? I'll have to see it again to decide, but it's marvellous escapist entertainment nonetheless. I enjoyed it tremendously, and can't recommend it enough. 7.5/10.