The Duology of Sherlock Holmes and A Game of Shadows

Holding Sherlock Holmes dear to my heart I was delighted to watch the 2009 adaptation directed by Guy Ritchie and starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Having started reading the classic novels and short stories during junior year of high school, the release of the film only propelled me further into the many adaptations of the character and continually draws me into new ones. The soundtrack is great, the action fit the canon, the chemistry between our two lead actors is entertaining, and the mystery is fun to follow due to the truth hiding underneath the shadow of the supernatural, something past Holmes’ story The Hound of the Baskervilles did to great effect. Two years later and all the key people return for A Game of Shadows, this time featuring Holmes’ greatest adversary, Professor Moriarty. While my younger self initially enjoyed the film as a follow up, frequent viewings and thinking since has degraded it to a mediocre follow up with some bright spots to save it from utter failure.

Immediately apparent in Sherlock Holmes (2009) is that the film does not shy away from, and instead embraces, the fact that the Holmes of the classic novels was physically adept and knowledgeable in hand to hand combat. The film combines this with his rapid deductions, as he observes a combatants physical body for weaknesses and proceeds to list out the varying blows and strikes necessary to knock them out. This is done at the very beginning as he infiltrates Blackwoods ritualistic killing grounds and again later during an underground boxing match. A Game of Shadows succeeds in expanding upon this, with an introductory fight flashing images and heightened sounds in place of a methodical breakdown. Holmes later gives a detailed breakdown but is interrupted by Zimza’s throwing knives midway through its execution. Lastly, his mental projections are turned against him, as Moriarty recognizes it and begins his own list of counters and blows until Holmes realizes his ultimate defeat. These scenes are a clever combination of the often overlooked fact that Holmes was an excellent fighter in addition to his wealth of knowledge. Deductions on the opponents status and likely responses, as well as their time of recovery, are medically detached. This matches Holmes’ approach to not just criminal cases but interpersonal matters.

Humor in the 2009 film came from dialogue between Holmes and Watson and the formers manic energy when moving around the scene. From his thinly contained panic at the presence of Irene Adler, to shutting down when Watson proposes a meeting with his soon-to-be-fiance, Mary Morstan, Robert Downey Jr. does a phenomenal job portraying Holmes in all of his eccentricities. A Game of Shadows continues this but tends to rely on greatly exaggerated scenarios. Holmes crossdresses in order to infiltrate a train; his brother walks around fully naked despite the presence of Mary; Holmes drives an automobile of his own design, and has a fear, or distrust, of horses to the point that he rides a miniature one. Due to A Game of Shadows’ reliance on an excess of the strange, the humor fails to capitalize on the success of the first. Even the dialogue, one of the greatest assets of the original, is jeopardized by a recycled conflict.

In Sherlock Holmes (2009), the primary conflict is the mystery regarding Blackwood’s return from the dead and his end goal. The secondary conflict is that Watson is moving in with his future-fiance Mary. Holmes does not want this to happen but can’t outright say it because to do so would be to acknowledge his attachment to Watson. In Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows the primary conflict is the mystery regarding Moriarty’s bombings and his end goal. The secondary conflict is that Watson is marrying and leaving on honeymoon with Mary and Holmes does not want this to happen but can’t outright say it because to do so would be to acknowledge his attachment to Watson. While the primary conflict actually differentiates itself by playing on international tension in Europe and the inevitability of the first world war, I cannot forgive the recycling of tension underlying Holmes’ and Watson’s relationship. 

At the end of the 2009 film, Holmes regifts Irene Adler’s stolen gem to Watson as an engagement ring. This serves as both an apology for causing Watson to lose the original one during the case and as his blessing in regards to their union. However in A Game of Shadows it is reverted back to Holmes complaining about how Watson is making a mistake in marrying Mary. It is as if the filmmakers could not come up with another secondary conflict. They could have centered it around Holmes’ self-destruction during his obsession with Moriarty and Watson’s attempts to stem the tide of mortality threatening to consume Holmes. Or they could have evolved the Watson versus Sebastian Moran angle they so desperately wanted to play into but potentially left open for a undeveloped third film. Instead we retread a conflict solved by the first, something that really sullies sequels and other Sherlock adaptations. Star Trek: Into Darkness was criticized for retreading Kirk’s stubbornness, and by the fourth season of the BBC’s Sherlock series people were tired of Holmes constantly teetering between an asshole and caring about those around him.

Matching RDJ’s manic portrayal of Holmes is the soundtrack to the 2009 film, which has a cohesion and energy to it that creates a wonderful album that frequently drives my focus when working or writing. Each track has a recurring reliance on violin and piano for its core sound. One of my favorite pieces of trivia regarding the soundtrack is Hans Zimmer’s quote, “We rented 20th Century Fox’s underground car park one Sunday and did hideous things to a piano.” Tracks vary between rise and falls of volume, with the opening track “Discombobulate” being the greatest example as the opening features a few light notes before a sharp change to bombastic orchestra. Another standout is “Not in Blood, But in Bond” which accompanies a slow-motion, audio-drained scene of a dock being blown apart. The drab violin solo gives way to a mournful orchestra to accentuate the emotion of the scene.

While Hans Zimmer returns for A Game of Shadows the full soundtrack features too many tracks that simply do not fit the mood of the rest. The opening three tracks form one long theme and acts with the intention to usurp “Discombobulate”, as the introduction is nearly the same. However, instead of an instant jump into bombast, it is a long, drawn out process with some crescendos that crash like waves in and out. “Tick Tock” is the standout for this album, as it patiently builds and builds until it finally breaks into a full on sprint forward, spilling its energy into the next track. Unfortunately, “It’s So Overt It’s Covert”, “Romanian Wind”, “To The Opera!”, “Two Mules for Sister Sara”, and “Die Forelle” cause such confusion as to the overall tone of the soundtrack that it derails the quality. 

A successor to “Not in Blood, But in Bond” is seen in “Zu Viele Füchse Für Euch Hänsel” which plays during a great sequence in which our heroes are attempting to escape Moriarty’s forces in a forest. The framerate frequently slows down to showcase bullets destroying the surrounding trees. An inspired section within this sequence shows the camera moving in unison with the positioning, loading, and firing of a large artillery gun. This camera movement plays into the soundtracks transference of energy from the film into the audience by transforming the camera from a still observer to active participant. Sadly small glimmers of high quality such as this cannot save the otherwise mundane sequel.

Irene Adler’s insertion among the conflict of the first film, as both an interested third party and clever way to lean into Moriarty for the sequel, was wonderfully done. She brings about a panic in Holmes when she first appears, with her legacy as making an “ass” out of Holmes twice reinforced by her disarming of thieves while retaining a flirtatious demeanor. Such a strong character with a unique relationship with Holmes has such potential that it was a shock to see her removed so early on in A Game of Shadows. I understand the reasoning behind it though, as killing Irene both establishes Moriarty’s cruelty and capability given her status as a beloved figure in both our and Holmes’ hearts and her history of beating Holmes at his own game, twice. The scene itself is evocative, as Moriarty causes the entire restaurant to exit upon his cue and kills Irene via poison despite her request for a fresh batch of tea to be served in place of what was awaiting her. Causing the exit of one strong character to establish the arrival of the villain is effective, but the impact doesn’t have much weight beyond the initial shock. Moriarty’s intent to harm Watson establishes his cruelty on its own and his capability is shown via a misdirection when Holmes goes to the opera instead of the hotel wherein a bombing compounds the already present anxiety between European countries. New character Zimza subs in for Irene but fails to deliver anything close to the performance of Rachel McAdams.

Most of A Game of Shadows feels rushed and lacking much thought. The removal of Irene Adler early on makes a good initial impact emotionally but lacks any depth upon further reflection. Holmes gives his life, but that sacrifice is cheapened by a final reveal. While I understand the necessity behind having to show Holmes alive for a still-undeveloped third film, it removes any emotion of his sacrifice to eliminate Moriarty out of fear for Watson and Mary’s life. Disguises are overdone instead of subtle, the soundtrack frequently undermines itself, and some character interactions just fall flat. A conflict between Holmes and Watson is recycled, the humor continually fails to do anything clever, and while Moriarty proves to be a sinister and entertaining antagonist, it doesn’t save the movie from failing to continue the success of the first. Sherlock Holmes (2009) is an excellent adaptation of Holmes and Watson in their comradery, in Watson’s own capability separate from Holmes, in the exemplification of Holmes’ combat prowess, and as a mystery with supernatural leanings that turn out to be scientific in nature. Given more time I do believe a third film could be great, I just wish A Game of Shadows was better than it is.


Edits made 2/7/2018 for clarity.

Samuel Horton