Sequels are a tricky matter. For every “Empire Strikes Back” or “Aliens” that is just as good, if not arguably better than its predecessor, there’s 10 “Transformers 2” (alright maybe not that bad). The new gold standard is “The Dark Knight,” which built on a very strong first outing to become one of the highest grossing films of all time. Joining those illustrious ranks is “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” an encore even better than what’s come before.
While the first one was entertaining and fun, the sequel seems to have a better handle on Director Guy Ritchie’s vision for his take on Sherlock Holmes with a masterful blend of dazzling action, witty banter, strong characters and performances.
Not much time has left since last we saw Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). Holmes is still eccentric, borderline manic and Watson very reluctantly deals with his oddities since he’s a master detective capable of cracking any case. Watson is preparing for married life with his fiance, Mary (Kelly Reilly). Holmes’ skills are put to the test as he’s tasked with stopping the latest devious plot of the only man whose talents rival his own – Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Partnering with a new female companion Sizma (Noomi Rapace), who hopes to rescue her brother from Moriarty’s clutches, the trio set out to stop Moriarty’s most sinister plan yet.
Delaying Moriarty’s arrival in this new franchise until the second film proved a wise move. In the first installment, we saw how Holmes outwits those who can’t quite match wits with him and then we see how Holmes handles someone on his intellectual level. Harris is the perfect counterpoint to Downey’s unpredictably zany Holmes as he’s smug, overly pretentious and carries Moriarty as a man accustomed to being the smartest man in the room even in the face of a master detective. Downey remains a treat to watch put his unique spin on Holmes and the give and take he and Law have with their characters keeps the film fun.
As an added bonus, Moriarty has his own very capable sidekick in Col. Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson). Having a hero outclass legions of opponents is nowhere near as fun as villains that are the equal to the hero and if Holmes has his in Moriarty, Watson has his own rival in Moran and Anderson appears to have a lot of fun in the role.
When he’s on his game, Ritchie is one of those directors who take you on a ride and while you’re not sure where he’s going, you’ll just sit back and enjoy it because the payoff will deliver. He’s at his best here as the film has so many great scenes it’s hard to choose a favorite. The shootout on a train that perfectly balances comedy and action is expertly staged. The escape from Moriarty’s clutches, with well-timed slow motion effects that adds, not distracts from the scene is very well-executed. But my favorite is the final act where Holmes and Moriarty engage in an actual chess match to mirror the mental game they’ve been playing, which Ritchie cuts with Watson and Simza trying desperately to stop Moriarty’s ultimate plot, leading to a final battle that brilliantly pays off everything Ritchie builds to throughout the film.
Ritchie adeptly pulls a Christopher Nolan with “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight,” and delivers a masterful movie epic that you’ll be talking about days after seeing it. But maybe this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. After all, Nolan teased The Joker in “Batman Begins” and Ritchie similarly hinted at Moriarty’s involvement in the first installment as the next adversary for Holmes and Watson. When this sequel was announced, I wasn’t all that excited figuring it’d be a watered down version of the original with more of the same, but in every possible manner this is a superior film and one of 2011’s standouts. Don’t miss it.
Rating: 8 out of 10