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Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
(2011) 

The 2009 film was such a pleasant surprise that I had not a little foreboding about this. Everything about the publicity and trailers suggested a stir-and-repeat effort, attempting nothing new. I had low expectations for the original, and perhaps the same feeling this time did the film some favours. For the first 20 minutes or so, an interesting character development aside, this seemed to be really struggling. Labouring the goodwill built up last time by indulging itself in an extended sequence of Holmes-Watson banter and failing to muster any of the spark of the original.

Fortunately it kicks into gear following Holmes' first encounter with Moriarty, and an extended train sequence is replete with all the bro-mance and Guy Ritchie bombast that you'd expect, but also that flash of verve and excitement it so needed in the early scenes. Like the original, the plotting is at times a means to an action sequence, and the elements of deduction are very much sublimated to the need to keep things rolling. That said, a number of elements that are reused later are so deftly placed that when they are called back to you can't help but think they've been quite clever there. Noomi Rapace's gypsy is very much incidental, but this in itself is a positive as the filmmakers don't feel they need to overpower the plot with a love interest. I'd like to have seen more of Colonel Sebastian Moran, though, as his character was effectively used.

Of the regulars, Downey Jr is winningly energetic and Ritchie's camera work is very in synch with his take on Holmes. He and Law, despite the early sequences, have a fine repartee. I'm going to make a few Steven Moffat comparisons now; I think on balance I prefer this Holmes and Watson, because - as self-conscious in it's way as this depiction of the characters is - they're not weighed down with all the irritating tics and Moffat-every-voice dialogue. This is blockbuster cinema but it manages to retain an air of verisimilitude that the current TV series fails at.

Helping enormously in that regard is Jared Harris as Moriarty. If you'd asked who would come up with the best take on Moriarty, the BBC or a lowest common denominator brash Hollywood movie, you'd end up with the wrong answer (unless you'd seen the BBC version, that is, in which case there's likely superior home movie performances on youtube). Harris underplays his Moriarty superbly, completely the opposite of that little “I’m mad, me!”-voiced prat in Sherlock. And as a result you believe in the stakes involved. The final showdown between the two is vastly more satisfying than the TV series' Reichenbach "fall" because it combines all the elements of intellectual dueling between the two characters in a gripping, multi-layered scene. Which then out does itself by coming to a very snappy and satisfying resolution that is germane to the established style of storytelling.

While I'm on the subject of Moffat, two other points. What they do with Irene Adler's character here is extremely effective, and spotlights just what a low-rent, low-stakes media whore Moffat is in terms of the way he treats his characters. And Mycroft, as played by Stephen Fry, seems to cement the character as Holmes big gay brother in terms of modern takes; Fry's amusing in the role, but it feels like a "wheel on the guest star" turn; maybe in the US he's just seen as another supporting actor but Fry might as well have just stepped out of a QI filming session (albeit less attired - "Sherlie", indeed). Ironically, and though I'm loathe to say it, Mark Gatiss might have been a better fit.

But overall, far more enjoyable that the over-feted Sherlock -where every bit of dazzling inventiveness is then ruined by lazy characterisation and self-congratulatory dialogue. I'm looking forward to the third installment.

****1/2

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