“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” seeks to build on the enormous success of its immediate predecessor. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles as the Victorian super sleuth and his trusty sidekick, Dr. Watson, though there is considerably more friction in the relationship than in either the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or the numerous film iterations previous to this one. Director Guy Ritchie rachets up the special effects and cinematic trickery a couple of notches, aided considerably by cinematographer Phillipe Rousselot and film editor James Herbert. Add to that the overwhelming and finicky detail of Sarah Greenwood’s production design, and you have a real visual treat.
All that said, “Shadows” does not repeat the triumph of Ritchie’s first attempt to resuscitate Holmes. He and screenwriters Michele and Kieran Mulroney have made a hash of the plot, to the point that one longs for Basil Rathbone to rise from the dead and straighten things out. Oh, there’s plotting aplenty: everyone seems to be in on or suffering from a giant spider web of conspiracy. It’s 1891 and trouble’s afoot in Europe, where anarchists seem to be calling the shots and throwing the bombs—a clear anticipation of the events that would trigger World War I a few years later. Holmes is, of course, alert to all these undercurrents, as is his brother, Mycroft, played deadpan (and briefly bare butt) by Stephen Fry. His all too worthy opponent, Prof. James Moriarty (Jared Harris), arrogantly challenges Holmes to a chess game of wits and, finally, fisticuffs.
On the way to their ultimate faceoff over Reichenbach Falls, Holmes engages in enough chases, fights, and gunplay to satisfy the most ardent action movie fan. Ritchie overuses the device of flashing forward in choppy segments to pre-analyse the fights, a technique that was a pleasant surprise in the first number but here grows tiresome. Similarly, when the master of ratiocination is doing his thing, we are bombarded with information but left to put it together ourselves.
The frame story is that Watson is typing all this out, recalling the events of his late friend’s final escapade, which include his attempts to delay or just plain thwart Watson’s impending marriage to Mary (Kelly Reilly). The archfiend Moriarty also has the Watsons in his plans, but as collateral damage in his evil scheme. Holmes and Watson unite with a variety of types, high and low (including a band of not-so-merry gypsies), and use boats, trains, and automobiles to dash about sundry landscapes. (My favorite, though, is a burro that horse-shy Holmes is obliged to amount, to droll comic effect.) Downey and, especially, Law engage their characters fully: their lightning exchanges constitute the film’s highlights, for me, anyway.
“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” is rated “PG-13” and that seems about right, although preteens will likely get lost in the confusion that dominates most of the over two hours’ running time. Fans of the first Downey as Holmes will doubtless enjoy him here, too: he is in a fair way of becoming the franchise, as he has in the “Iron Man” series. Assuming that Ritchie gets the call for “Holmes 3,” let’s hope that he gets back to the dramatic basics: plot, character, and dialogue.