RECAP: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011): Guy Ritchie

The Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes series took a page from Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. Widely regarded as the best of the trilogy, if not the best comic book movie ever, The Dark Knight was the second Batman movie and the time to feature the hero’s most iconic villain.

Likewise, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the second in the series, debuts Holmes’s most iconic villain, Professor James Moriarty, the Napoleon of Crime.

Sherlock Holmes was a fine film, but its sequel, like The Dark Knight, is a masterpiece. I imagine the filmmakers used the first movies to get their feet wet, work out the kinks, etc., and in the second films, with the best villains, the race was easier to run, and the films superior in nearly every aspect.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Sherlock Holmes and his reluctant best friend John Watson race across Europe to prevent a math teacher from starting a global, industrial war. 

Hero (6/10)

Robert Downey Jr.‘s Sherlock Holmes tends to fade behind his costars. That’s either a genius choice on the actor’s part, for Holmes is an all-time great camouflager, or it’s an effect of Downey’s whispery, bad English accent.

Either way, Holmes has disappeared into the biggest case of his life. Someone is bombing targets in France and Germany. Most people think anarchists are behind the attacks, but, as usual, Holmes has a different theory. He’s created the first three-dimensional crazy board to trace the links to mathematics professor named James Moriarty (Jared Harris).

Moriarty, Holmes believes, is behind these bombings, and he suspects potential paramour Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) to be involved. In disguise Holmes follows Adler to an auction, where she delivers a package to a bidder.

Turns out that package is a bomb, and Holmes arrives in time to prevent its detonation, saving dozens of lives. “The contents are rather more incendiary,” Holmes says in his typical understatement. He drops the bomb in a sarcophagus.

The Napoleon of crime has driven Holmes to his edge. He’s subsisted on a diet of coffee, tobacco, and coca leaves. His flat is a practical jungle of plants, goats, and turkeys, and he’s trying a new thing called urban camouflage. And for liquor? Formaldehyde.

Everything Holmes does has a purpose, and that’s especially true in Game of Shadows. The stag party he runs for Watson (Jude Law) has a purpose, as does his desire to have his fortune read by a Gypsy (Noomi Rapace). His choice to meet Moriarty in the latter’s office has a purpose. He dresses in drag for, um, fun?

Those purposes are really one purpose–to play a game. People’s lives are at stake, but that takes a back seat to Holmes having fun. He knows he’s met his match, and he probably will be sad to see it end.

The only time we see Holmes rattled occurs when he bites a bait all the way to the Paris Opera House, where he realizes he’s been duped. Where Holmes expects to uncover a bomb he finds a chess piece left by Moriarty. It’s the first time he’s been fooled by a non-Holmes in probably his whole life.

Credit to Holmes though, he doesn’t let a set back stop him. He endures much suffering to face Moriarty. The villain drives a fish hook into Holmes’s shoulder, which Holmes welcomed, to perform some sleight of hand. He tosses into the sea a handkerchief that belonged to his beloved Irene Adler. He nearly dies on a train after escaping a weapons factory. And he leaps from the Reichenbach Falls to kill Moriarty. Moriarty might be the Napoleon of crime, but that makes Holmes Wellington.

Villain (9/10)

Famed mathematics professor James Moriarty is well known for his book The Dynamics of an Asteroid. His success in tracking space bodies is exceeded only by his skill in manipulating criminal bodies on Earth. Holmes describes him as the Napoleon of crime, which is not quite accurate. Unlike Le Emperor, Moriarty does not seek fame and glory for his conquests.

Moriarty is at the center of the most tangled web of intrigue and crime Britain has ever seen. Holmes is on his trail, though. Opium trade, shady doctors, anarchists; Moriarty manipulates it all.

Moriarty first appears in a busy, large London restaurant, where he meets his top lieutenant, Irene Adler. They sit at neighboring tables, where they discuss business. Moriarty is upset that Holmes has foiled his current plan and that Adler has fallen for him.

This displeases Moriarty. He faces Adler and questions whether or not she thought she’d be safe meeting Moriarty in a public place. Moriarty has one of his goons tap a glass three times, and suddenly every single other person in the restaurant stands and leaves. Moriarty tells Adler that her services are no longer needed, and she soon collapses from what is obviously poison.

That Moriarty would kill one of the smartest people in Britain because she slightly displeased him shocks the viewer. Later we realize it’s kind of his M.O. He kills or has killed many of the best and brightest in the country, and all so he can kill a few more.

Or does he? Part of Moriarty’s genius is that he doesn’t actually kill anyone. He has others do it, sure, but could he be convicted of murder for it? I’m no lawyer, but that hardly matters; Moriarty is too smart to ever take the stand.

Moriarty’s grand scheme unfolds slowly, with much noise and bombast to occlude it, in the movie and by the movie. The world’s greatest criminal is buying up Europe’s war factories while manipulating anarchist groups to drive France and Germany to each other’s throats.

Moriarty seeks to drive Europe to war and profit from it. Simple as that. It’s a long time before we understand his reasoning. Mankind, Moriarty says, has “an insatiable desire for conflict. All I have to do, is wait.” He will own everything, bullets to bandages, and make money from war on an industrial scale. To Holmes he says, “You’re not fighting me so much as the human condition.”

The genius in Moriarty’s plan is self-evident in hindsight. France and Germany fought a great war on an industrial scale. They even called it The Great War. Someone, many someones, profited nearly beyond measure from the deaths of 10,000,000 troops and about as many civilians. The only thing Holmes did was delay the inevitable.

Moriarty enjoys his game for the game’s own sake with Holmes. The two first meet in Moriarty’s office, a mistake for the professor, it turns out. What seemed an academic game has become personal. Moriarty kills Adler, and later tries to kill both Watsons, on their honeymoon, no less, before finally trying to kill Holmes.

Referred to at least twice as a devil, Moriarty infiltrates Europe’s anarchist groups and twines through like an infectious plant, until his roots choke the organizations from the inside. One anarchist leader commits suicide in front of Holmes, the only way to keep his family safe from Moriarty. Imagine, anarchists forced to kowtow to a single person. They must have chaffed at that.

Jared Harris chills as Moriarty. His lascivious face oozes sinister charm. Take the opera scene. Moriarty sets up Holmes to distract him from a bombing. Holmes takes the bait and finds he’s been wronged. Moriarty looks at him through his opera glasses. His face exudes obsessive, perverse joy. His need to beat Holmes is clear.

Moriarty is a criminal mastermind who Holmes describes as a person of “moral insanity.” More people should be described as morally insane; it’s a good slur, and it’s certainly true of Moriarty. If Freud had been around in 1891 he’d love to study the professor. Today we’d call Moriarty a sociopath of the highest order. Combined with a genius intellect, he’d be the most dangerous person in the United Kingdom, just as he is in the movie.

Action/Effects (8/10)

The newly minted Watsons (Kelly Reilly) are about to enjoy a honeymoon in Brighton and a few days of tranquility and without Sherlock Holmes. That was a nice dream while it lasted.

As Watson and Mary join their train in first class, they notice some redcoats loading large chests onto the train. Watson is nervous, studying the coach. He also notices a woman denied the chance to use the lavatory while the train is in station.

Later, a servant enters the car with an unordered bottle of champagne and a knife. The lights flicker on the train as Watson subdues the servant and Mary points a gun at him. “Open the door,” she commands. They throw the bugger outside. Easy done.

Well, that’s only the start of it. Watson checks the hall and finds a lady beating up redcoats and shooting at them to scare them away. This lady is not a lady, though; it is Holmes. “I agree,” s/he says, “it’s not my best disguise.”

Holmes explains the situation. Moriarty wants to kill both Watsons in order to hurt Holmes. Those redcoats are Moriarty’s men, and they have devious plans. Holmes, who can’t have anyone stand between Watson and himself, asks Mary if she trusts him. She answers No, unequivocally. So he throws her from the train. Luckily, she lands in a river where the elder Holmes brother awaits in a boat.

Some machine gunning

Watson’s a bit perturbed about Holmes throwing his wife from the train. He chokes Holmes, punches him, and rips off his shirt. Next thing you know, a bad guy has opened the car door and points a rifle at them. Now begins a classic Ritchie cutaway sequence explaining why a monogrammed piece of metal is lodged in the barrel of the shotgun.

Before the train departed, Holmes (in drag) entered the lavatory. He used a toilet chain, a sink handle, a lipstick tube, and powdered phosphorous to create the current situation. Return to present. The camera slows and zooms on the gun’s hammer, the firing pin, and the bullet traveling along the barrel until it strikes the lipstick tube. A spark ignites the phosphorous dust Holmes blew onto the fake soldiers, setting them aflame.

Holmes booby traps the car door with a pilfered grenade and the toilet chain and exits the car, climbing outside, and enters a neighboring car. “Why did you lead them here?” Watson asks as he shimmies along. “They aren’t here for me they’re here for you,” Holmes counters. He doesn’t add that they are there because of him.

The grenade has taken care of all but two of the enemies. “Lie down with me, Watson,” Holmes insists as he lights up a smoke. Now we see what those lads carried in their chest: a massive machine gun. Holmes and Watson patiently wait on the train car floor as the bullets destroy everything on the train above 18 inches. What do they wait for? “Your window of opportunity,” Holmes says as he hands Watson a pistol.

The lipstick Holmes replaced a bullet with in the ammo belt rides along until it jams the gun. The gunners are confused, but Watson knows what to do. He rises up and fires through bullet holes to hit a guy in the shoulder, failing to kill the gunner. The gun opens up again. “How many windows must I provide?” Holmes asks.

What he didn’t see was the grenade the shot man dropped into a bag of other grenades. That dropped grenade was missing its pin. Too late. The grenade blows, severing the train in half.

Fantastic, fantastic action in Game of Shadows. The pacing and energy are electric, leaving viewers as breathless as these characters. The editing slows the scene as often as it ramps it up, creating yo-yo-like speed for these scenes.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Dr. John Watson is back as Holmes’s best and only friend. Watson is one day away from marrying Mary Morstan, and he’s arrived at 221B Baker St. to remind Holmes of his position as organizer of the stag party. Holmes, being a terrible friend, has completely forgotten about it.

Watson drives Holmes in a newfangled horseless carriage to the Diogenes Club, where they meet up with the other Holmes brother Mycroft. Watson, who has many friends, parties only with the Holmes brothers on the night before his nuptials.

Simza, Holmes, and Watson.

Watson gambles hard (his primary vice) and drinks harder, nearly committing London’s first DUI. Holmes, being a good best man, gets his friend to the wedding. Though the groom looks like garbage, he marries Mary the next day. The look on Jude Law’s face when the bagpipes awaken him is enough to cement his acting skill.

The next day Watson and Mary depart on a train, in first class, for their honeymoon to Brighton. Well, they don’t reach Brighton. A massive train attack derails their plans. Also, Holmes throws Mary from the train.

That’s the kind of relationship Holmes and Watson have. Holmes is convinced that Watson misses the sleuthing lifestyle, and married life will not suit him. Part of Game of Shadows involves Holmes dragging his friend back into the lifestyle.

Also, Moriarty declares Watson and Mary to be on the table. “When two objects collide,” Moriarty says, referring to the celestial objects with which he is familiar as well as metaphorically the geniuses matching wits in the movie, “there is always damage of a collateral nature.”

Hence Watson’s unwelcome involvement. Despite this, he hasn’t lost a step (even if he seems to be limping more). Watson brings a gun with him on the train, wisely, as he and Mary are soon attacked by a waiter in disguise. After this attack Watson agrees to join Holmes to stop Moriarty. “Once more unto the breach,” he quotes, also because Holmes promises this will be the last time he asks for his help.

Watson joins Holmes in Germany and Switzerland, where he must outshoot Europe’s top sniper and play substitute Holmes to prevent world war, respectively. He receives high marks in both cases. As a classic sidekick, Holmes would not have survived the case without Watson.

Also aiding Holmes is a Gypsy named Madam Simza Heron. Simza stayed in London for a year searching for her brother Rene, who has vanished, presumed ensconced with anarchists and/or generally unfavorable types. She poses as a fortune teller at the Diogenes Club, which might be the primary reason Holmes hosts Watson’s stag party there.

At the Gypsy camp

After foiling an assassination attempt against her, Holmes helps Simza search for Rene. The trail leads them to Paris, where they watch a famed anarchist commit suicide, and to Simza’s camp of fellow nomads. Simza isn’t given much to do for some time, but her position as part of a nomadic people helps Holmes and Watson cross the otherwise-closed Franco-German border. It’s in the climax that she shows she’s a quick study.

Law shines as Watson. He and Downey have unflappable chemistry. Their banter resembles the oldest of chums. I would watch them in anything. They’ve created a buddy comedy with action and mystery elements. Rapace is fine as Simza. She holds her own, but the script fails her.

Henchmen (3/8)

Moriarty employs/coerces many criminals and desperate people to help him start a war. His top agent is Colonel Sebastian Moran, the Army’s best marksman and one-time literary Holmes foe.

Moran ties up Moriarty’s loose ends. When Holmes foils a plot to bomb Dr. Hoffmanstahl, Moran kills the doctor with a poisoned dart. He does the same to the surgically altered Rene after the failed assassination attempt that ends the film.

Moran and Moriarty

Moran’s skill as sniper is displayed many times. He kills German industrialist Meinhard with a rifle shot from 650 yards, something no more than half a dozen people could accomplish.

Later, in the factory escape sequence, Moran shows off his skill again in sniping while under fire and while being shot. He’s not infallible; he misses some shots, but barely.

Stunts (4/6)

Moriarty and Game of Shadows is all about big guns, and we’re about to see ’em. The action starts shortly after Watson topples a tower with artillery and rescues the fishhooked Holmes. The two enter the Meinhart weapons factory floor, full of weapons new and horrible.

Watson takes a repeating rifle and Holmes a pistol. They escape the factory and follow Simza to her fellow Gypsy. Holmes and Watson walk arm in arm, facing opposite directions. Holmes tells Watson when to turn and fire. Watson seems to enjoy spraying the bad guys with bullets, and who wouldn’t?

Holmes actually shoots a factory employee or whoever these bad guys are, despite his injury. They escape the grounds and climb a brick wall. The bad guys are getting more organized. They unveil a crank-operated repeater and arm a cannon to blast through the brick wall, which only helps their quarry.

Now the heroes, at least half a dozen, run through the forest toward their escape, a train steaming nearby. A very angry German orders his men after them. Moran stops by to tell him he’s a dead man if Holmes and company escape.

Queue up some more weapons. The bad guys enter the forest and shoot with machine guns. Mortars lob screaming shells on all parties. Moran finds a rifle and fires on the run, hitting Watson’s clothes but not his person. The camera rides parallel to these characters, slowing down to better capture the explosions and bullets ripping deathly close to the heroes. Dirt puffs and trees splinter. Moran kills a Gypsy. A Gypsy kills a pursuer.

The German boss decides it’s time to introduce them to Little Hansel, which you know means it’ll be big as hell. Guy Ritchie’s patented cuts start again, showing the loading and firing in super slow motion, the soundtrack full of grinding and shearing, as if the gun is so big that’s it’s warping reality.

The cannon fires a shell that rips trees in half. When it explodes, it sends the characters flying backward amongst Jamboree-level kindling. Ash and dirt rain upon Holmes, Watson, and Simza as more bad guys run toward them. They engage in fisticuffs. Holmes beats down two guys with his one good arm. He grapples a rifle from one and loads it. Holmes hands it to Watson, who shoots Moran as the latter crests a hill. They run and board the train.

Climax (4/6)

Holmes, Watson, and Simza have played Moriarty’s game and followed his trail all the way to Reichenbach Castle in Switzerland, where a peace conference will prevent the great powers from going to war. Moriarty will be there, as the British government trusts him. Moriarty will be there to foment war, of course.

There remains a question of Rene, Simza’s missing brother. Holmes expects to find him there, but how and to do what remains a question. So the trio arrives at the gala, thanks to some finagling by Mycroft, in bad shape but ready to end the game.

It’s a very nice gala, full of ambassadors and heads of state. The hosts have instituted a new photo book to recognize guests. Very fancy. Holmes and company observe the crowd and deduce the likely candidates for the assassin or assassins.

Holmes and Watson dance with each other before an official photo, when all the parties will stand together and stand still. Holmes, while dancing, explains part of the plot. He’s deduced that the assassinated doctor from the auction scene early in the movie has conducted early cases of facial reconstruction surgery to change the appearances of patients. Rene, it follows, must be the doctor’s final patient, and present at the gala posing as…

…an ambassador. That leaves six possible cases to be Rene. Holmes leaves that task in the hands of Watson and Simza. Holmes has a chess match with Moriarty on the veranda overlooking the falls.

Like any respectable castle, a chess board and furs are stocked for curious players. At the table sit two of the world’s best schemers. Holmes proposes a five-minute game. “If you think you can manage it,” Moriarty says. Their speech oozes with pathos.

Holmes discusses his “two bishops” in the room. He might be absent from the room, but “my methods are not.” Moriarty mocks Watson, does not mention Simza, whom he might not know but probably does.

Watson and Simza study the ambassadors. He must have the hairline to conceal the scars. All are of the right build to be Rene, but none have his eyes. Rene is left-handed. Simza thinks one is him. Moriarty, on the terrace, reminds Holmes that a single miscalculation will cost him the game.

Holmes reasons to Moriarty as Watson does so onscreen. Perhaps the assassin will behave unnaturally. Watson walks to a tray of glasses and slaps them to the floor. Watson and Simza eye the one ambassador who doesn’t turn to see the shattered glass. Simza approaches the man as he is about to draw something from his pocket. “My brother,” she says. He’s taken aback. It’s Rene all right.

Rene is escorted away after he tries and fails to kill the Prime Minister (of Britain, I believe). “Seems your bishop was of some benefit,” Moriarty jokes. Moran, somehow also at the gala, shoots a poison dart into Rene. His last moments he spends embraced by his sister.

Holmes thinks he’s solved the problem. Moriarty begs to differ. “Didn’t you find it strange,” he asks, “that the telegram you sent didn’t inspire any action to stop me?” Moriarty explains his theory on human nature. “You’re not fighting me so much as you are the human condition. All I want to do is own the bullets and the bandages.”

Holmes appears worried for the first time tonight, but not the first time regarding Moriarty. “All I have to do,” Moriarty says, “is wait.”

Moriarty stands from the table, saying the game is over. Holmes plays still, putting Moriarty in check. They finish their game in words of movements. They never needed the pieces.

Holmes speaks about Moriarty’s stated fortune. He had attended several lectures, sleeping through many of them. In Oslo he noticed the red leather notebook for the first time, and in Paris he deduced its importance. Inside it are the codes to recording Moriarty’s financial empire.

Holmes’s capture and fishhooking in the tower outside the German arms factory were not without positive results, it seems. Holmes used the opportunity to switch the notebook with a dummy, sending the real one to Mary, who broke the code and helped Scotland Yard unravel the empire.

Holmes finishes his sally and concludes the chess match. Then he asks Moriarty for a light. I mean, after all that, to ask for a light, you can hardly fault the guy for planning to kill Holmes.

Both adversaries play the envisioning game. Holmes is not the only one who can do that. Moriarty, being a boxing champ and Holmes, injured in the right shoulder, both expect Holmes will lose the bout. So, in the real world, Holmes does something unexpected. He blows the lit ash into Moriarty’s face, grasps him by the neck, and together the both fall off the balcony.

Watson watches them fall. We do too. Holmes is serene as Moriarty screams. That, he did not expect. The two plummet with the water into the freezing depths.

Holmes is pronounced dead, though no body is found, because who could survive that fall in that water? A packed funeral salutes Holmes, though Watson can barely bring himself to attend.

Cut to Watson finishing the story at the typewriter in his home. He and Mary are preparing for that trip to Brighton. Watson types “THE END” at the end. Watson opens a package left on his desk. In it he finds a rebreather, and he wonders.

When Watson returns to the room, he’ll notice his story has changed. It will conclude: “THE END ?”

Jokes (1/4)

There’s extra Gladstone screen time, and that’s all we need for a fun romp.


Setting (4/4)

A Game of Shadows starts in London and bounces across Europe. One wonders where Holmes gets the money for his adventures. We saw London’s underground in the first movie, so we can explore other locales in this sequel.

Once again Guy Ritchie trots out large sets for these characters, perhaps none larger than (what I’m pretty sure is) the Diogenes Club. Holmes drags Watson there to celebrate his impending nuptials.

A big chase scene has Holmes and Simza running around the club, all three levels of it. Several times the camera zooms out to reveal the actual multiple levels in the club and the countless people patronizing it. Smaller rooms and boxes overlook a grand gaming floor. Watson gambles on the floor while Holmes galavants above, and neither are aware of the other’s actions.

The movie takes us inside Paris’s famed opera house, one of the world’s best such venues. We spend more time back and below stage than inside the auditorium, but any time in an opera house is a good time.

The movie also takes us aboard a train for a loud action scene with multiple characters falling and climbing outside the train cars. I enjoy any action scene on an airplane for its claustrophobia and high speed, and trains were the jet planes of the 19th century for similar reason.

And finally, any time you can have a castle with its own waterfall, you have to show it.


Commentary (2/2)

Moriarty believes that mankind will always seek a fight. “Didn’t you find it strange,” he asks Holmes, “that your telegram elicited no reaction from the government?” The leaders of Europe say they want peace, but their hearts seek war. One industrial-scale war wasn’t enough for Europe.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

Irene Adler is killed minutes into the movie. This was sad, as if the filmmakers couldn’t find anything for her to do after her importance in the first movie. The Gypsy woman Simza was nearly as mis-used. She accompanies Holmes and Watson for some time, but can offer little in investigatory power. She is, however, a novice at sleuthing, and her work in Switzerland to help find her disguised brother is admirable.

I’m not qualified to speak about the depiction of the Gypsy people. To be safe I’ll dock the movie a point.


  • More Gladstone!

Summary (46/68): 68%

Sequels don’t often supersede their predecessors. Game of Shadows does. Holmes vs. Moriarty can’t be beat by any other showdown in the series. This movie brings out all the big guns (literally and figuratively). Moriarty, Colonel, Moran, Irene Adler (for a minute), and Mycroft Holmes are all there. Some of history’s largest guns fire upon them.

Better action, better characters, and higher stakes all help elevate Game of Shadows to great heights.