Robert Downey, Jr. quips valiantly amidst a wall of cacophony and empty spectacle that winds up feeling like a Victorian migraine
You’re not going to find the word “KA-BLAM!” in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s chronicles of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but it’s a term that must pop up on about every other page of the screenplay for “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” director Guy Ritchie’s second desecration of the corpse of one of literature’s great characters.
Detective work with some occasional fisticuffs and gunplay thrown in may be all well and good for people who still actually read books, one imagines Ritchie thinking … but to make Holmes relevant to 21st century audiences, there has to be post-“Matrix” slo-mo sequences devoted to kung fu and/or heavy artillery, interspersed with constant cacophony and occasional gadding about.
Sadly, the first “Sherlock Holmes” was a hit, despite the fact that Ritchie’s big-screen interpretation of the legendary sleuth resembles Conan Doyle’s creation as much as the hero of the low-budget thriller “Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter” calls to mind the protagonist of the New Testament.
There are moments when it feels like “A Game of Shadows” is getting Holmes right, only it’s Mycroft and not Sherlock — the titular gumshoe’s brother is played by Stephen Fry, whose periodic appearances in the movie feel like a wonderful visit from someone who’s actually read the books.
Would that this film were about Mycroft, then, and not the man he calls “Sherlie.”
Robert Downey, Jr. returns as the detail-oriented, socially awkward detective, who has begun piecing together the far-flung threads of a conspiracy being woven by the nefarious Professor Moriarity (Jared Harris). The dastardly professor has turned himself into a one-man military-industrial complex, setting out to do what all military-industrial complexes do: Start a war so that the cash will come rolling in.
Moriarity proves himself to be a formidable foe for Holmes, quickly dispatching Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) — admittedly, one of the film’s smartest moves is getting rid of this character in a hurry — and sending his goons to kill Dr. Watson (Jude Law) and his new bride Mary (Kelly Reilly) as they attempt to honeymoon in Brighton.
Holmes and Watson, aided by a Romany fortune-teller (Noomi Rapace, of the original Swedish “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and its sequels), pursue Moriarity to the edge of Reichenbach Falls in an attempt to prevent the academic from starting World War I several decades early.
In its favor, “Game of Shadows” gives us a sinister plot that’s a notch or two smarter than most of the schemes hatched by 007’s nemeses (even if it feels all too familiar), and there are occasional moments when Ritchie has fun with period spectacle, whether it’s a roomful of waltzing diplomats or an elaborately-staged production of “Don Giovanni” at the Paris Opera.
If only the CG-heavy evocations of 1891 London or the dwelled-upon internal mechanics of firearms had the heft or the simplicity of those opera singers dressed up like singing statues or devilish minions — time and again, the film assaults the eyes with cartoonish visual trickery and deflates the story with its obvious artificiality. (A game of shadows, indeed.)
When the film slows down enough to let us enjoy the interplay between its talented cast members or to allow us to pick up on little clues along the way that let us attempt to join Holmes in solving the mystery, this new “Sherlock Holmes” offers moments of vitality that are all too quickly crushed by the next exploding set piece.
Two hours of Downey and Harris sparring over a chessboard would have provided many more thrills, but neither Ritchie nor the suits at Warner Bros. would have any idea how to make or market a Sherlock Holmes movie featuring the actual character rather than some pipe-smoking, 19th century James Bond with a weakness for coca leaves and jiu jitsu.