Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
One and a half stars (out of four)
Professor James Moriarty may be “the Napoleon of crime” and Sherlock Holmes’ arch-nemesis.
But there’s an even greater villain in the legendary consulting detective’s latest big-screen romp: a lazy director who has settled for a poorly conceived, pedestrian script.
Those of us who looked forward with eagerness to the fateful confrontation between fiction’s greatest detective and his greatest adversary — so nicely presaged in Guy Ritchie’s first crack at Sherlock Holmes in 2009 — are going to find A Game of Shadows a rather shallow disappointment.
It doesn’t take a master of deduction to see that Ritchie has decided to play it too safe with this sequel. Game of Shadows is identical in style and substance to the original, right down to the jaunty, pre-jazz-age musical score by Hans Zimmer.
The unrequited bromance between Holmes and former flatmate Dr. John Watson at 221B Baker St. is a classic example.
As the story opens, a previously betrothed Watson returns to his old haunt a day before his wedding to find the eccentric detective living off a “jungle diet of coffee, tobacco and coca leaves,” according to tut-tutting landlady Mrs. Hudson.
It’s déjà vu all over again with Watson determined to break the fraternal bond so he can settle down and start a family and Holmes reluctantly agreeing to let him go. But by movie’s end, there they are, waltzing cheek to cheek during a high-level peace conference. (Holmes leads, of course.)
The story opens in 1891 with storm clouds brewing across Europe as a series of anarchist bombings set one government against another. Holmes, in Watson’s absence, has been connecting the dots back to the evil Moriarty, a distinguished university professor who moonlights as pre-James Bond super-villain.
At Watson’s rather lame stag party, Holmes meets a gypsy fortune-teller named Sim (rendered adequately by Noomi Rapace, heroine of the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels), who is somehow connected to Moriarty’s evil designs. She must be since he’s sent a nimble Cossack assassin to kill her.
We also meet Holmes’ older brother, Mycroft, a Foreign Office flunky and “keeper of the broom cupboard of state,” who assists in his enterprises. Stephen Fry is a veritable comic genius but even he can’t do much but channel his upper-middle-class twit with requisite skill. (The familial resemblance between the two brothers is, as the Brits are wont to say, like chalk and cheese.)
As for Moriarty, he’s played to an understated fault by Jared Harris. While we don’t expect him to breathe fire or have razor-sharp teeth, it would be nice if Moriarty was at least menacing. His henchman, a sharpshooter named Col. Sebastian Moran (played by Paul Henderson), is likewise rather too perfunctory to seem dangerous.
Ritchie sticks to his penchant for slo-mo action sequences and quick-march expositions laying out Holmes’ rather elementary deductive skills. But the fisticuffs and gunplay (and occasional artillery fire) seems tailored to an American (box office) sensibility rather than a British one.
There are comic moments — Holmes in drag disguise, Mycroft walking around starkers, the casual abuse of an ancient family retainer named Carruthers — that are more likely to raise a grimace than a smile.
The sole redeeming feature remains Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, an absolutely sterling pairing in the lead roles, the only characters worth watching in this otherwise uninspired, rehashed mess.
Before this franchise makes a third outing, someone needs to detect a mystery and a tale worthy of the great detective’s talents.
Bruce DeMara is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.