Although supplying boy's adventure thrills on the side, the original 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 2009's Sherlock Holmes was making Conan Doyle's gimlet-eyed detective, introduced to readers in 1887, into a viable 21st-century blockbuster star. The great compromise, aggravated in this 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 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.
Ritchie is more interested in bringing 007 into the Victorian period than in reintroducing Arthur Conan Doyle's distinctly Victorian eccentric to ours. Examples include 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, like "noshing on Mary's muffins."
Downey, 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's Tony Stark and his Holmes are 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 to use his physical grace, 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's Holmes is flamboyant in his brilliance, a shabby-elegant dandy, 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 can play a manic Holmes, there is little time to witness Holmes' melancholy in the absence of action — those lulls in which Conan Doyle doled out insights into his character and which Ritchie's films entirely jettison. Game of Shadows repeats the first movie's inspired routines in which Holmes' 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 and Law, who has never located a tone for his Watson, hasn't improved since their last outing, and there's no deepening of either character beyond the playful homo subtext in an action piece that Downey 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. As in the first Holmes, the period production design — again by Sarah Greenwood — is lavish, ranging between the cluttered lairs of Victorian pack-rat collectors and overwrought, damask-draped ornateness. It is, finally, all sauce, no meat — that is, usual multiplex stuff, extracted from a most remarkable source.