Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (review)

Get new reviews in your email in-box or in an app by becoming a paid Substack subscriber or Patreon patron.

Jude Law Robert Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows

A Fine Bromance

Oh, glorious steampunk! Oh, glorious Victoriana! Oh, for a time when men were men (and not little boys) and industry meant hard work (and not corporate malfeasance) and optimism (and not despair) ruled the day. When the future was so bright, you hadda wear shades.

Life is good in the world of Guy Ritchie’s second adventure with Sherlock Holmes. It’s 1891, and cool stuff is afoot: the Underground is coming right to Baker Street. Holmes has a dinner date with Irene Adler… after a wonderful afternoon of criminal cat-and-mouse, the only sort of foreplay that gets Holmes going. There’s motor cars! The modern world is approaching, and it’s gonna be awesome.
Or perhaps not. Here at the edge of modernity, threats loom: Mechanized warfare. Politics and business and terrorism all tied up together. Paranoia driving public affairs and foreign relations.

And an ironic warning, too, of a sort: I didn’t realize it right away, because it’s subtle and only just implied, but A Game of Shadows ends on an unnerving note that suggests that the supervillains of past pulp fiction, those outrageous caricatures of impossible menace and preposterous wickedness, are today our actual rulers, the masters of the universe. The people with the power.


If you know your supervillains, you know that Holmes’ traditional archnemesis has always been Professor Moriarty. And he doesn’t really seem all that bad here, at first. Certainly not when Watson (Jude Law [Hugo, Contagion], who honestly has never had so much fun on film as in this role) returns to 221B Baker Street to collect Holmes (Robert Downey Jr. [Due Date, Iron Man 2], ditto, in probably the role he was born to play) for the former’s stag night, and discovers that his erstwhile partner in solving crime has descended into a sort of Beautiful Mind madness, seeing conspiracies and connections everywhere in the Western world, across Europe and into America, all secretly orchestrated by respected university lecturer James Moriarty (Jared Harris: John Carpenter’s The Ward, Mad Men), who writes books on the motions of asteroids, for pity’s sake.

But of course Moriarty is indeed up to something terribly naughty — in a way that seems quaint today because now he’d be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, not a nefarious criminal — and Holmes will stop him. Even if that means he has to drag Watson actually away from his own honeymoon in order to do so.

Oh, but it’s not about Holmes being a mean ol’ meanie who can’t bear to lose his friend to marriage. Seriously: not at all. The most fun of A Game Shadows — written by Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney, who were not involved in the first film — is in the wonderfully realized relationship between Holmes and Watson, which rejects all clichéd terms such as bromance and homoerotic. Because it’s not about manchildren clinging to each other out of fear of women and adult life — which are the sorts of stories the bromance shingle is typically hung on — and it’s certainly not about sublimated sexual attraction, either. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s just plain nice to see a story about male friends that is this fresh and funny and honest and just plain goofy about their friendship without it having to be anything beyond that. It’s not even a matter of their respective female love partners getting in the way — though Kelly Reilly (Me and Orson Welles, Pride & Prejudice) as Watson’s Mary is smart and resourceful on her own, and Rachel McAdams’ (The Time Traveler’s Wife, State of Play) Irene Adler is a complicated woman with her own story; both of them are more than worthy of the men, so it’s not like we should see them as unequal partners for the guys. There’s just no there there for a Holmes-Watson romance. It’s almost as if the film goes out of its way to push Holmes and Watson toward an “oh just fuck already” moment and simply can’t make it happen: I’m thinking of the hilarious scene in which they wrestle angrily over Holmes’ interruption of Watson’s marital bliss, clearly an intentional parody of straight missionary-position sex — Holmes is even half naked, half out of his, yes, drag disguise — and even me with my dirty mind couldn’t see anything other than two guys majorly pissed off at each other.

In another scene, the boys, scoping out bad guys at a fancy diplomatic ball, waltz with each other, the better to surveille the crowd, and no one blinks an eye.

Arthur Conan Doyle may never have written such a scene. I love it anyway.

There are other things Conan Doyle might not recognize, but might appreciate anyway: Noomi Rapace’s (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Man som hatar kvinnor)) kick-ass gypsy, key to unraveling Moriarty’s plan; Stephen Fry’s (V for Vendetta) Mycroft Holmes, who has some very immodest habits. And some things that Conan Doyle fans will recognize: as soon as “Reichenbach Falls” is mentioned, you will sit up and take notice, and as soon as you realize the story is heading there, you will wonder how this can possible transpire. (If you don’t know what Reichenbach Falls means to devotees of the world’s first consulting detective, I’m certainly not going to tell you.)

I’ll say this: there are twists from the original stories, and some of them twist in unexpected ways. The fun of finding new things to say about an old story is very much afoot here.

share and enjoy
If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.
If you haven’t commented here before, your first comment will be held for MaryAnn’s approval. This is an anti-spam, anti-troll measure. If you’re not a spammer or a troll, your comment will be approved, and all your future comments will post immediately.
notify of
1 Comment
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
view all comments
Tonio Kruger
Fri, May 23, 2014 8:37am

Actually, if anyone but Stephen Fry had played this role, one of the more humorous scenes in this movie would have seemed downright creepy.