Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

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Adam R. Holz

Movie Review

It’s 1891. Europe teeters on the brink of war. France and Germany circle warily. A string of terrorist bombings across the continent continue to destabilize the already tenuous geopolitical situation. Is it the work of crazed anarchists? Zealous nationalists?

Or is there, perhaps, something more sinister afoot?

Sherlock Holmes is convinced it’s the latter—though he has no hard proof. Holed up in his apartment, the manic savant investigator has traced a web of otherwise unconnected crimes, events and circumstances back to one man: Professor James Moriarty. He’s a mathematical wizard of legendary stature and, Holmes believes, a shadowy criminal mastermind who’s scheming something very big and very nasty.

Except that Holmes isn’t quite sure what, other than his hunch that it’s somehow linked to the bombings. But where there’s a hunch, there’s proof waiting to be found—if only Holmes can sleuth it out.

He’ll need the services, naturally, of his good friend and erstwhile partner, Dr. John Watson. Never mind that Watson’s on the verge of getting married and much more interested in his bride-to-be than in launching into another of Holmes’ epic wild goose chases.

Watson’s hesitation, it turns out, proves well-founded.

First, Holmes’ would-be love Irene Adler goes mysteriously missing after an encounter with Moriarty. And when Holmes politely asks Moriarty to leave Watson and his new bride alone, the professor begins talking, obliquely and ominously, of collateral damage.

In the game of chess these two rivals have commenced, no pawn is off limits. There will be no gentlemen’s agreement on the rules of engagement because, as Holmes increasingly learns, Moriarty is no gentleman.

Positive Elements

Holmes is equal parts eccentric, narcissistic and brilliant. That combination of characteristics ultimately fuels his fierce will to save his friend (and his friend’s wife) and, it turns out, all of Europe from a plot that would do any self-respecting James Bond villain proud.

Homes and Watson repeatedly place their lives on the line for each other. Holmes does the same for another key character as well, one Madam Simza Heron, a French gypsy and former anarchist who’s trying to save her brother (who’s been ensnared by Moriarty’s net). Simza’s clan, in return, proves vital in helping Holmes and Watson uncover a critical aspect of Moriarty’s operation.

Spiritual Elements

Holmes connects with Simza at a pub where she’s got a table upstairs for Tarot card readings. He’s not interested in having his fortune told, nor does he believe in such things, but he poses as customer before he begins reading her cards, one of which features the devil. (The conversation ultimately hints that she doesn’t actually believe in the cards either. She admits that skillfully delivering the vague prophecies mostly depends upon theatrical facial expressions.)

Passing reference is made to Armageddon. Holmes dubs a pony he’s forced to ride as “satanic.”

Sexual Content

Watson and his new wife, Mary, are on a train to their honeymoon and just beginning to kiss when Holmes bursts in—dressed in drag. The young couple is set to be murdered by Moriarty’s agents, and Holmes shows up to protect them. In Mary’s case, that means him tossing her out the window and into a lake—leaving him, still in drag, and Watson alone together. Subsequent scenes picture Holmes on top of Watson, and Holmes, with his shirt now ripped off, telling Watson to lay down beside him (to avoid the hail of gunfire that’s about to erupt). Throughout the scene, Holmes’ is comedically depicted as an unwanted replacement for Watson’s now-absent wife. Later he informs Watson, “Our relationship”—”Partnership,” Watson corrects—”has not yet run its course.”

Mary’s retrieved from the lake by Holmes’ brother, Mycroft, who takes her to his home. The next morning, Mary (who’s wearing a robe) encounters Mycroft wandering around the house wearing … nothing at all. We see parts of the overweight man’s torso and backside. Mary sees even more, and is utterly horrified, trying to cover her eyes and get away from him. He keeps walking and talking to her normally, as if nothing is the matter.

Holmes and Irene kiss, as do Watson and Mary. Women at a pub wear revealing dresses. Holmes protests riding a horse, quipping, “I don’t want anything with a mind of its own bobbing about between my legs.”

Violent Content

In his 2009 review of Sherlock Holmes, Plugged In’s Paul Asay said of the detective’s martial arts skills, “Sherlock Holmes, in Guy Ritchie’s movie, is by comparison a veritable ninja.” That remains true here as well. Multiple scenes feature Holmes grappling with groups of thugs and lackeys. Bloodless yet nevertheless deadly melees involve quantities of hits, kicks, bodies hurled against walls, heads smashed through wooden panels and so on. One lengthy scene features Holmes’ man-to-man combat with a Russian Cossack who wields a huge knife. Combat seemingly concludes when Simza hits the man with a thrown dagger, but his many layers of clothes protect him and more fisticuffs commence. For her efforts, Simza gets brutally slapped around. Holmes’ face is badly cut.

The body count ratchets up as the film progresses. A bomb takes out a room full of political dignitaries. (We see their bodies.) A signature action sequence shows Holmes and Co. sprinting through a forest with Moriarty’s men unleashing all manner of firepower (guns, mortars, artillery). Slow-motion footage captures combatants on both sides getting hit. Similarly, Watson uses heavy artillery to bring down a tower.

In the attack on Watson, Mary and Holmes on the train, enemies open fire with a huge arsenal of guns. Several assailants are set on fire and/or killed in explosions.

Ratcheting up the intensity several more notches are scenes in which a man puts a gun to his head (he pulls the trigger while out of frame) and Moriarty thrusting a huge meat hook through Holmes’ shoulder and raising him off the ground—spinning him around—on it. Watson eventually removes the bloody hook from his friend’s shoulder (and also removes a piece of wooden shrapnel from Holmes’ leg after another battle).

Several people are killed by poisons (placed in drinks and fired from a blowgun). Two men plunge together off a high waterfall.

Crude or Profane Language

One use each of “my god” and “h‑‑‑bent.” Two or three uses each of “b‑‑tard” and “d‑‑n.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

Characters drink frequently, sipping champagne, wine, beer, schnapps and … (in Holmes case) formaldehyde. Watson gets very drunk at his stag party the night before his wedding, and he’s still passed out when Holmes drives him to the ceremony the next day. Opium is alluded to by way of referencing poppy seeds. We see people puffing on cigars and cigarettes. A couple of times they roll their own smokes, and it’s not exactly clear what they’re inhaling.

When it looks as though Holmes is dead, Watson rams a syringe into his friend’s chest.

Other Negative Elements

Holmes doesn’t think much of marriage, and he berates Watson for what he believes to be a foolish willingness to enter into an institution he labels “an eternal purgatory.” Watson isn’t buying it, though, and he displays a much higher view of wedded bliss and family unions.

As was true the last go-round, Watson loves to gamble, which we witness him doing in an extended scene in a casino-like pub.


Director Guy Ritchie’s special effects work is at times pretty dazzling. The images of artillery shells slicing through trees in slow motion are, admittedly, cool. But once you get past those visuals, his story quickly wears thin.

Great special effects? Not so great story? Watching Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law pound the pavement and the bad guys, I felt the same way I did watching Shia LaBeauf dodge hulking robots in the last Transformers movie. This is nothing more than yet another calculated, soulless play for moviegoers’ dollars, I thought. LaBeauf, Downey Jr.—it doesn’t really make much difference who the star is, because it’s difficult to care much about their characters in the nonsensical, CGI-inflated tales they inhabit.

Speaking of nonsense, allow me to talk (briefly) about the naked man scene. For no apparent reason at all—a pudgy, middle-aged man comes out to greet his young, just-married female houseguest one morning while wearing … nothing. Did the scene get a laugh? Sure. Unexpected nudity is reliably effective at accomplishing that feat. But it’s also a textbook definition of gratuitous. As is, I’m compelled to add here, the sequence in which Holmes and Watson “share a sleeper car” with the former dressed in drag.

Equally squirmy, in a radically different way, is Moriarty skewering Holmes with what amounts to a giant fishhook, then watching in catlike amusement as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ageless hero contorts and dangles—screaming. I realize Moriarty’s a really bad guy and all, but I could have done without that scene too.

Perhaps I’m being harder on this throwaway bit of cotton candy escapism than I need to be. Sherlock Holmes 2 is no more than a jolt of nutrient-free spun sugar, and it doesn’t pretend to be. Still, even with explosion-filled escapist fare like this, we need to be asking a couple of questions: What are we trying so hard to escape from? And what kind of people do we want to be when we’re done with that flight from reality?

I don’t think escapism is categorically bad. A story—or a TV show or a song—can invite us to take leave of our sundry cares for a time and transport us somewhere magical, somewhere inspirational, somewhere sentimental. The result can be a renewed sense of vigor, a recommitment to love the ones you hold dear, a determination to ace that next test at school.

But at the end of Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, I just felt numb.

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Adam R. Holz

After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews as the site’s director. He and his wife, Jennifer, have three children. In their free time, the Holzes enjoy playing games, a variety of musical instruments, swimming and … watching movies.