Although supplying boy’s adventure thrills on the side, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are remarkable for how they make the process of empirical brainwork, and the resulting discoveries, breathlessly exciting. Each Holmes tale simultaneously unlocks a mystery while deepening the enigma of its hero in a miraculously sustained piece of character development. The great success of Guy Ritchie’s 2009 Sherlock Holmes was making Conan Doyle’s gimlet-eyed detective, first introduced to readers in 1887, into a viable 21st-century blockbuster star—a success paralleled by the superior, contemporary-set Sherlock series for BBC TV. The great compromise, aggravated in Ritchie’s new Holmes adventure, was to do so at the expense of what made Conan Doyle’s hero, and his world, unique.
A Game of Shadows revisits Holmes and Dr. Watson (Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, returning) on the eve of Watson’s much-protested-by-Holmes wedding as a wave of assassinations and bombings rock Europe, threatening to goad France and Germany into armed confrontation.
The film’s finale, its villain, and not much else come from Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem.” The acts of terror have been arranged by “The Napoleon of Crime,” one Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), a calculating profiteer seeking to plunge Europe into world war a quarter-century ahead of schedule, whom Holmes and Watson must cross the Continent to foil. The revelation of Moriarty’s munitions-plant headquarters, the device of our hero being held hostage while the supervillain elucidates his plan for world domination, the attention devoted to technology and couture, and the tendency toward naughty double entendres (“noshing on Mary’s muffins,” etc.): All of this suggests that Ritchie is more interested in bringing 007 into the Victorian period than in reintroducing Conan Doyle’s distinctly Victorian eccentric to ours. (Irene Adler, the American adventuress of Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” whose genius for intrigue made her the one woman for whom Holmes could overcome his antipathy for the gender, is here again played by Rachel McAdams as the first “Holmes girl.”)
Downey Jr., once a troubled and pitied case of self-sabotage who, at the beginning of 2001, couldn’t be insured for a film, has lately proved steady enough to anchor two massive franchises: Iron Man and Holmes. Both Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark and his Holmes are flip smart alecks, radiant with the self-love that develops when accustomed to being the brightest guy in every room. Holmes is the more pleasurable role to watch, allowing Downey Jr. to use his physical grace in ways recalling his Chaplin, negotiating the world with effortless hyperaware aplomb, a dancer in a familiar part.
Not merely held apart from the common run of humanity by the elevation of his mind, Downey Jr.’s Holmes is flamboyant in his brilliance, a shabby-elegant dandy, the disheveled Amadeus of detection, blithely cocking a snook at social mores rather than merely overlooking them in his farsightedness. (The traditional Holmesian aloofness is annexed in Game of Shadows to the detective’s brother, Mycroft, played by Stephen Fry in the movie’s funniest performance.)
While Downey Jr. can play manic, there is little time to witness Holmes’s melancholy in the absence of action—those lulls in which Conan Doyle doled out insights into his character, which Ritchie’s films entirely jettison. Game of Shadows repeats the first film’s inspired routines in which Holmes’s racing mind runs through a strategic rehearsal of every combat before the first punch is thrown. Ritchie’s assault tactics are less scientific: Keep the audience continually off balance with constant crazed flurries.
The rapport between Downey Jr. and Law, who has never located a tone for his Watson, hasn’t improved since their last outing, while there’s no deepening of either character beyond the playful homo subtext in an action piece that Downey Jr. spends in drag. The gamesmanship between Holmes and arch foe Moriarty is not handled much better, built around a metaphorical chess match as hackneyed as the film’s subtitle.
Lackluster screenwriting and the absence of actorly communion are breezed past with monotonous banter, as is the fleetingly visible plot. Like the first Ritchie Holmes, the period production design—again by Sarah Greenwood—is lavish, ranging between the cluttered lairs of archetypal Victorian pack rat-collectors (Holmes and Moriarty’s realms) and overwrought, damask-draped ornateness. It is, finally, all sauce, no meat—that is, usual multiplex stuff extracted from a most remarkable source.