Maybe we shouldn’t have “liked” 2009’s Sherlock Holmes so much (or, rather, given it so much money). The success of the overblown but fitfully entertaining original film has only encouraged Warner Bros. and director Guy Ritchie to go even bigger, louder and stupider, making Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows just another super-stylish yet obnoxious and witless “Guy Ritchie movie.”
Game of Shadows finds Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) investigating a series of anarchist bombings that are, to say the least, raising tensions between France and Germany, which are about one more ‘splosion from engaging in all-out war. The mastermind behind these ka-booms is Holmes’ classic nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), a man looking to be a war profiteer by starting a war himself. Moriarty isn’t just a wannabe arms dealer — he’s also a brilliant tactician and bona fide genius in just about everything, making him more than a match for the clever Holmes.
Holmes’ would-be ladylove, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), returns for about five pointless minutes, and the detectives find something of an ally in a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace of the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) whose brother is connected to the bombings and who does little more than just scowl and stare at the bickering duo. But, once again, Sherlock Holmes has no interest in love interests (even with Watson’s impending marriage, an event that fills Holmes with twitchy anxiety) — this is a bromance all the way, with the two even engaging in a formal dance at Reichenbach Falls (“Who taught you to dance? asks Holmes. “You did,” replies Watson. Swoon!).
Like its predecessor, A Game of Shadows looks great — its steampunk mise-en-scene is a triumph of production design, and the costumes are perfect down to the last tailored stitch (including Holmes’ dress — yes, of course he’s in drag at one point). It’s also got a rousing score and its two leads are at least 110% committed to their roles and everything that gets thrown at them. But what they’re committed to is, ultimately, pretty stupid — Ritchie just can’t help but wallow in his witless adolescent approach to everything. It seems like he’ll always be the dorky kid who so wants to be considered cool with his constant speed changes, bullet-tracking effects shots, cartoonish characterizations and brainless gags (some of Holmes’ dumb disguises are especially intolerable). Guy, you got to sleep with Madonna for a few years — you have our respect, so calm down, laddie.
Oddly enough, the saving grace of this movie is someone who seems to be in a different movie altogether. Jared Harris (mercifully) underplays his role, making Moriarty a sly and fascinating villain who actually seems, you know, kind of dangerous. Brad Pitt, whose mumbling pugilist was the one saving grace of Ritchie’s Snatch, was originally rumored to be playing the part — as fun as it would’ve been to see Pitt as the bad guy, Harris ended up being the right choice as he brings a droll wit to an otherwise witless movie and a sense of mystery to a plot that’s not very mysterious.
That’s the main problem — in turning its two detective characters into action heroes and going for jokey-jokes instead of intricate plotting, the filmmakers seem to have completely forgotten that they’re supposed to be making a Sherlock Holmes movie. Revisionism can be very cool indeed, but if it doesn’t come from a place of intelligence and insight, it makes for a rather empty indulgence.