It’s amazing to see how the myth of Moriarty has grown since his appearances in the original Sherlock Holmes canon. Arthur Conan Doyle featured the “Napoleon of Crime” on only two occasions, but down the years he’s become Holmes’s primary antagonist, regularly seen battling the great detective for the very soul of Victorian London.
In Guy Ritchie’s 2009 blockbuster, Moriarty was lurking on the margins, manipulating events in hushed tones while never emerging from the sidelines. But after we discovered that adventuress Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) was in his employ, it became inevitable that this particular adversary would take centre stage in any sequel.
And so it comes to pass that A Game of Shadows pits Robert Downey Jr’s smart, street-fighting Holmes against his best-known foe, a rather professorial Moriarty (Jared Harris) who’s a successful academic and friend to the prime minister. There is a hint of steel about him, a ruthlessness that intermittently comes to the fore, but what we need to feel – and never really experience – is that sliver of ice dropped down the shirt collar. With his beard and tweeds, Harris’s Moriarty is almost too avuncular – give him a piano and a witty ditty and he could be Richard Stilgoe.
Yet it’s not really Harris’s fault. Moriarty has become the go-to guy for criminal masterplans and has therefore lost some of his potency. The more successful parts of this bombastic follow-up come when some less exposed areas of Conan Doyle’s output are mined for inspiration: for instance, Colonel Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson), a character from The Empty House, adds menace as a deadly sharpshooter. Stephen Fry – looking very exposed at one point – is also terrific value as a suitably corpulent Mycroft.
But no matter how decent the guest turns, all performances are playing second fiddle to the set pieces. As in the first movie, there are plenty of moments in which Holmes’s split-second calculations foretell an imminent fight sequence, although the twist this time around is that his mental manoeuvrings don’t always have the outcome he expects. This narrative conceit works particularly well in the climactic battle, although a chase through woodland that should be a thrill-a-second loses energy thanks to some overly stylised camera trickery.
As for the plot, well, the swollen budget demands that we take in more exotic locales such as Paris and Switzerland, hence an international bombing campaign that, of course, has Moriarty at its nucleus. What stops it from turning into a travelogue studded with action sequences is the easy-going rapport between the two leads – Downey Jr has a blast donning more disguises than Hannibal from The A Team, while Jude Law wears his best put-upon frown as Watson finds himself torn between his new wife (Kelly Reilly) and his bromance with Holmes.
Unfortunately, some nuances do get lost amid Ritchie’s preoccupation with blowing things up. He seems keen to stress that in 1891 the world was on the cusp of the modern age where more powerful weapons made for more efficient warfare. Hence a lot of suspense being sacrificed for the sake of spectacle, the end result being that Girl with the Dragon Tattoo actress Noomi Rapace is wasted and ferrety Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) gets a mere cameo.
In its favour, the final confrontation between Holmes and his archenemy is a genuinely sweaty-palmed affair, although there’s the nagging feeling that the movie hasn’t quite earned this moment of high drama. If Downey Jr and Law team up for further adventures, it’d be a smart move to emphasise the shadows over the games.