I would wager that the worst part about making a hit movie is the follow-up. As a writer, director, or actor, you spend months or even years putting together the best film you can (unless you’re Nicolas Cage, in which case you just show up and lackadaisically hope for the best), hoping to create a movie you’re proud of and that finds an audience. Then it happens and you enjoy it for about a week, until you realize that now you have to figure out a way to follow a $300 million hit. In an era in which at least half of the top-grossing films are the year are sequels or reboots, the pressing to return to the lab and pop out a follow-up must be extreme. It is within this pressure cooker-like atmosphere that so many films stumble and succumb to sequelitis, an affliction that takes down many a film before they even get out of the gates. Going in, I wondered if A Game of Shadows could safely navigate around the pitfalls of sequeling (if you’re keeping track at home, that’s two made-up words already) and come out a companion to an original film I liked quite a lot. The result was a mixed bag.
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) has seen better days. As his obsession with exposing the diabolical plot of the well-respected Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) threatens to overwhelm him, his former partner, Doctor James Watson (Jude Law), gets married, leaving Holmes feeling quite alone. But when he learns that Moriarty intends to murder Watson, Holmes hastily throws together a plan that sends Watson’s wife, Mary (), into hiding and brings the dynamic duo together for one last case. While unraveling an immense and complex tapestry that takes them all across a Europe that is on the brink of war, Holmes discovers that Moriarty’s schemes go deeper than even he could have ever imagined and he soon finds himself drawn into a game he isn’t entirely sure he can win.
I loved the first Sherlock Holmes and it shocked me to learn that there are a large number of people who do not share my love. I’m not saying these naysayers are wrong; I’m just saying that everyone I know personally is a fan of the film and it took me by surprise to look back at the reviews and see that many critics, both professionals and amateurs, that I trust really don’t care for Sherlock in the least. I found it to be a wildly entertaining film chock full of fun, easy wit, and a unique charm. It doesn’t hurt that RDJ is one of my very favorite actors but I think his interpretation of Holmes is fantastic and fresh. A Game of Shadows jumps right back into this fun, expansive world director Guy Ritchie built in the first film and this fact is both its biggest strength and greatest weakness.
When making a sequel, I think the toughest thing to do is determine what elements of the first film will be incorporated and what will be left alone. You don’t want to create an exact replica of what worked the first time around (see: The Hangover Part II) but you also don’t want to stray too far from what made the first film a success (see: Ocean’s 12). This is where A Game of Shadows stumbles. The cool slow-motion action sequences that worked so well in Sherlock, for example, are used again here, only this time they’re obviously less unique and therefore seem a bit reheated. There’s no questioning the skill behind the camera that goes into creating these scenes; it’s just that we’ve seen it done before now and this time around it seems somewhat lazy. Likewise, the whole “inner monologue played out on the screen” bit comes across as tired this time around and while Ritchie uses it well as the film progresses, the early instances are mediocre. At the same time, the dialogue is not nearly as witty and well-versed as it was in Sherlock Holmes and the plot is less enticing than I would have liked. Ritchie seems to struggle with deciding what to recreate and what to make new.
This doesn’t mean that A Game of Shadows is without merit. The dynamic that exists between RDJ and Law is worth the price of admission in and of itself. They have a genuine chemistry that displays itself time and time again throughout the film. Each outlandish sequence and plot twist is as enjoyable as they were in the first film and Ritchie again shows off an ability to create funny moments in the midst of would-be tense situations. Harris, too, provides a more than competent adversary for Holmes. If you know anything about the Holmes story within Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, you know that Moriarty was Holmes’ equal intellectually and that equality plays out nicely within A Game of Shadows, though I personally like Holmes more when he’s fighting to disprove the supernatural rather than matching wits with a mere mortal. And as you would expect, the film’s reveal, the final moments in which Holmes brings all of his questionable choices together to illuminate his master plan, is compelling.
All of this makes A Game of Shadows a quality film that is inferior to its predecessor. If you enjoyed the first film as I did, you will most likely enjoy this one as well. Just be prepared for a few sequelitis-related missteps and a somewhat less enthralling narrative.