For all of the mugging and preening that Robert Downey Jr. (2010's "Due Date
") does as rascally investigator Sherlock Holmes, this big-screen series based upon author Arthur Conan Doyle's mystery stories and novels has, thus far, been more lugubrious than fun. Once again directed by Guy Ritchie, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is, perhaps, slightly less stodgy than 2009's interminable "Sherlock Holmes
," but whereas that former film was all about the gloomy intrigue of a supernaturally-tinted bad guy and conspiracy, the villain this time is pretty much just a standard-issue anarchist with delusions of grandeur. Cue the incessant gun battles and explosions and exotic locales that, interestingly, always require the characters to be clad in their Sunday best (when, that is, Holmes isn't cross-dressing on a locomotive). The plot is stale, the dreary characters are no more fleshed-out than they were before, and it all adds up to an ending that seems to have been thrown together at the last minute and makes less sense the more one considers it.
The marriage between Dr. James Watson (Jude Law) and Mary (Kelly Reilly) collides with the introduction of Sherlock Holmes' (Robert Downey Jr.) most formidable adversary, a shady Oxford professor named James Moriarty (Jared Harris). Intended to be Holmes' and right-hand man Watson's last adventure together (but won't be if only Holmes can knock Mary out of the equation), their latest quest sees them aiming to stop no less than a bombing at a Switzerland peace summit that could potentially cause the collapse of Western civilization. Along the way, Holmes desperately tries to put off Watson's honeymoon and the master sleuths team up with a gypsy fortuneteller named Madame Simza (Noomi Rapace), whose own brother is in cahoots with Moriarty.
The best scenes of "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" are stuffed into the opening ten minutes, with Rachel McAdams (2011's "Midnight in Paris
") memorably reprising her role as Irene Adler, a fetching, if sketchy, sort who deliciously spars and flirts with Holmes and then zips off to a restaurant where she has a nearly silent showdown with Moriarty, who can no longer trust her. In the uncomfortable stillness of this scene is born a suffocating tension and danger that the film never again is able to match, and it culminates in a terrific suggestion that ensures less is often much, much more when it comes to the fine crafting of cinematic suspense. With McAdams out of the picture thereafter, Noomi Rapace (2010's Swedish version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo") is called upon for no good reason other than for there to be a central female co-star. Rapace demanded attention in the complex, courageous role of Lisbeth Salander, but here she fails to impress in the slightest, bringing zero charisma to a weakly written part.
As the set-pieces swirl bythere's one set on a train, a horse-and-buggy chase, and a third act at the wintry peace summitthe movie simply doesn't find a rooting interest to keep the viewer engaged. It's rote and obligatory, a substandard James Bond picture set in 1891. The plot hinges on Sherlock Holmes putting the pieces of the mystery together to outsmart the villain, but director Guy Ritchie and screenwriters Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney don't play fair by dropping the necessary bread crumbs that could allow an audience member to play along. Instead, they conspire non-event revelations that they pull out of their backsides, then toss in a throwaway montage of "clues" to explain how Holmes solved itinsert shots from previous scenes that the viewer was never actually made privy to the first time around. It's kind of a pile of malarkey, obvious proof that the script is a ramshackle sort that was not fully completed before shooting got underway.
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is a wonder of outstanding art direction and production design, its Victorian era infused in the architecture and overall texture of the characters' surroundings. Visual effects are close to seamless, complimenting the frames without calling attention to themselves. The exteriors of the aforementioned summit, a castle built snugly into the corner of a mountainside cliff, a waterfall pouring out from the snow-covered rocks, is gorgeous in and of itself, much more believable than a similar setting used for 2011's "Immortals
." The bulk of the film, though, is a dreary ordeal with a clumsy narrative. Robert Downey Jr. is game, but still hasn't found the soul within Sherlock Holmes, while Jude Law's (2011's "Hugo
") Dr. James Watson makes for a thoroughly one-note, lackluster sidekick. Their camaraderie should popit's what the film hinges most uponbut the actors haven't an ounce of chemistry. They might as well be strangers appearing for the first time together in front of the camera. If "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is ever so slightly superior to its predecessor by default of being comparatively looser as it wanders around, the gap between them isn't large enough for such a statement to be a compliment. Both are creative flops that haven't yet figured out who Sherlock Holmes is, and why he's such an enduring literary figure. Twice now, director Guy Ritchie has demonstrated that he hasn't a clue to these questions.