‘A Game of Shadows’: The struggle within us all

By Drew Zahn's column

Sherlock Holmes vs. Professor Moriarty, the epic clash of titanic wits, takes up new fervor in the gloriously entertaining and genre-bending “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.”

When the first film starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes was in previews, his reincarnation of the character as a manic, drug-ridden, buff, fist-flying action hero in the 1890s caused me to wonder if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – who invented the crime fighter – was rolling over in his grave. But upon seeing the first movie, I was pleasantly surprised that Downey and his directors did a fine job making a fun film.

In the sequel, “A Game of Shadows,” Downey returns with a new addition: the primary ingredient missing in the first movie – a villain worthy of foiling Sherlock.

And it is the presence of Jared Harris, masterfully portraying a subtle but deliciously wicked version of Sherlock’s arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, that gives “A Game of Shadows” the distinction of being the rare sequel to actually be better than the original.


Though not a perfect film, often stretching credibility and sometimes losing the plotline in the effort to be too spectacular or too clever, the movie nonetheless is funny, exciting, smart and infused with just the kind of camaraderie and special effects wizardry that makes it a great guy flick, while not leaving the ladies behind.

But when Holmes and Moriarty meet, “A Game of Shadows” kicks up to a whole ‘nother level.

In a pair of scenes where the two square off, Harris pushes Downey to display some real acting chops, and the lead actor rises to the challenge.

When the fists and bullets finally come to their flurrying end – and despite the fact that you’ll realize afterward there were certain elements of the film that didn’t quite make sense – you will long remember Sherlock and Moriarty squaring off, like the cobra and the mongoose, or as the movie explains, “the most dangerous criminal and the foremost champion of the law of his generation.”

Even the worldview messages in this film show an improvement over the first.

Most of the film is simply about the bad guys vs. the good guys. There’s also a conversation about whether marriage is the beginning of a lifelong, meaningful relationship or the end of the bachelor’s freedom, but in the end, marriage is affirmed, if only because it means lifelong companionship and not having to “die alone.”

But where the worldview is really intriguing is in a few lines about the nature of man and evil.

Without giving too much away, or even revealing who said it, there are a pair of lines that affirm the very countercultural, biblical contention that humanity is at essence fallen and that human nature is not inherently good, but bent toward evil (Genesis 6:5, Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 7:18).

“Bad people do what bad people do,” says one character, not because they’re victims, not because they had bad childhoods, but “because they can.”

Even more to the point, when evil appears most thwarted, and the dawn of World War I seems to have been averted, Sherlock is reminded that his victory is short-lived.

“War on an industrial scale is only a few years away,” Sherlock is told. “You’re not fighting me so much as you’re fighting human nature.”

Really? Human nature is inevitably inclined toward destruction and war? Or is that just evil talking?

Actually, that’s the Bible talking. That’s history talking. That’s truth talking. And sure enough, war on an industrial scale did break out, about 20 years later.

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” should fare well with most audiences, not only because it’s highly entertaining and memorable, but also … because it rings true.

Content advisory:

  • “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” contains a half-dozen profanities and minor obscenities.


  • The film contains no sex scenes but has a few innuendos, some nude statues, an odd scene where Dr. Watson wrestles with a cross-dressing (in disguise) Holmes and a comic scene where Sherlock’s overweight brother walks about a room naked, to the embarrassment of a young woman in his presence. His bare torso and behind are seen at length.


  • The film contains a fairly heavy amount of violence, typical for an action film, including knife and fist fights, gun shots, wounds, artillery fire and bloodshed of various kinds. The gore is primarily limited to various injuries sustained by Holmes and depicts some gruesomeness when Dr. Watson must surgically repair Holmes.


  • The film has little religious or occult content, though there is a scene where Holmes has a discussion with a gypsy fortune teller and uses Tarot cards to further the conversation. There are also some opera characters dressed as demons and a character who drops into a meditative, lotus position.