After the prior Robert Downey Jr.- Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes earned $524 million globally, you didn't have to be the world's greatest detective to know a sequel would be en route. Turning Arthur Conan Doyle's classic literary tales of detection and deception into rock-'em, sock-'em action with plenty of speed-ramped camera technique and quick, quippy cleverness, these Holmes movies are, really, more like tributes to the character—they might as well be called Doesn't Robert Downey Jr. Look Smashing in a Vest? Still, this is clearly what people want—or, at least, are willing to pay for—and A Game of Shadows' hastily-assembled raft of stylistic and historical anachronisms and large explosions will also do well at the Christmastime cash registers.
Sherlock Holmes, the greatest mind of Victorian England (played by Robert Downey Jr. as Robert Downey Jr. with a British accent) is out of communication and on the case. When right-hand man Dr. Watson (Jude Law, as Jude Law with a mustache) comes to find Holmes before Watson's wedding, the great detective is driving himself mad teasing out the criminal connections between a vast nebula of mergers and acquisitions alongside murders and inquisitions. Holmes sees the hand of Moriarty (Jared Harris, velvety and menacing), a respected academic who Holmes thinks is secretly guiding a continent-spanning conspiracy. Holmes is right.
Finding the proof, though, is what propels the plot to near and far and swoops up an ex-anarchist gypsy fortune teller, Sym (Noomi Rapace) in the quest to learn the true theory and practice of all of Moriarty's hugger-mugger. Sym has her own connection to the backstory, joining Holmes and Watson in their flight across Europe and, not coincidentally, flashing a little leg as she races. Rapace is acceptable filling in the blank reading "Female New Character" in the "Action-Movie Buddy Film" Mad-Libs set screenwriters Michelle Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney used to craft this film. And Steven Fry—an actor, journalist, jack-of-all-trades intellectual who's perhaps the closest real-life analogue to the character—gets in a few brisk bits as Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's smarter, sloth-like older brother.
Director Guy Ritchie is like a Heismann-winning football player cast in a ballet stage—perfectly talented, but wrong for the circumstance. I know that defending the idea of Holmes as a thinker, not a fighter seems remarkably old-timey, like one of those goons who raves that CDs don't sound as good as vinyl. Still, the fact is that the Holmes tales were great serial detective fiction, not great serialized adventure tales; in most of the Holmes stories, the loudest element in the story is Holmes' stentorian voice declaiming his methods. Ritchie's films go up to 11, and fast-forward historical inventions a few decades so as to provide a few seconds of Watson firing a man-carried machine gun. (If there is a third Sherlock film from this team, I will take over/under bets on an action sequence where the great detective is strapped to a steampunk jetpack.)
The paradox is that the BBC's most recent iteration of Holmes, Sherlock, is set in the present-day but keeps the spirit and snap of the original stories, while the Sherlock Holmes films, faithful to the Victorian era setting, completely fumble the tone and tenor. Ritchie's stutter-step direction-slow-mo choreography of what's about to happen seen right before it does in faster-than-realtime, sped-up escapes drenched in slowness before they pause as static images served him well in films like Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but here it feels like putting Jimmy Page among the symphony: too rock and roll, too loud, too proud for the more refined mental acrobatics of the original tales.
But who could dislike Downey and Law's zig-zagging dialogue. Or the first-ever staging of the famous battle at Reichenbach Falls to involve both CGI and slow-mo UFC grappling moves, with the fisticuffs coming immediately on the heels of a chess game that is, not unsurprisingly, shot as if it were fisticuffs. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is, to paraphrase another Warner Brothers moneymaker, not the Holmes we need, but the Holmes we deserve. There were moments of action in Shadows where I could not for the life of me determine or deduce the spatial axis between shooter and shoot-ee: Were they on the same train? Separate trains? Shooting down the middle of the train? Through the sides? Thankfully, I was then distracted from this concern by a loud explosion, a hyper-amplified bullet-into-chamber sound effect and the roaring noise of Arthur Conan Doyle spinning in his grave. Big and bold and brash and blunt, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is never more than a stunning, mis-made moneymaker that feels like a sketch of itself.
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace
Director: Guy Ritchie
Screenwriters: Michelle Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney
Producers: Bruce Berman, Steve Clark-Hall, Susan Downey, Peter Eskelen, Dan Lin, Joel Silver, Lionel Wigram
Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material
Running time: 129 Mins
Release date: Dec. 16, 2011