Director Guy Ritchie once again applies his revisionist approach to Arthur Conan Doyle's classic literary character, infusing the film with his trademark, hyperkinetic aesthetic and turning the renowned detective into a wisecracking butt-kicker. But what seemed clever and novel the first time around now feels stale and tired; a lot of that has to do with the grimy, gray color scheme, which smothers everything in a dreary, suffocating sameness and saps the film of any real tension or thrills.
While Downey is more than capable of tossing off impish quips — he's based an entire career on being charmingly subversive — his heart just doesn't seem to be in it. Sure, he gets a couple of funny lines here and there, and some of his wardrobe changes are good for a laugh, but it's as if the material just isn't challenging him. And that's a shame, since this time we meet Holmes' most famed foe.
"Game of Shadows" finds Downey's Holmes facing off against brilliant super-villain Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris), who's cooked up a scheme to pit various European nations against each other in hopes of benefitting from the demand for arms. (This is more than a couple decades before World War I, by the way. So not only is Moriarty dastardly, he's also prescient.)
Holmes must stop him with the help of his trusty sidekick, Dr. Watson (Law), who's newly married and not nearly so gung-ho about such wild antics anymore. And it shows in the script from Michele and Kieran Mulroney as well as in the performances; Law gets little to do beyond functioning as the skeptical straight man, and the chemistry just isn't there this time.
Noomi Rapace tags along for some reason as a Simza, a gypsy fortune teller looking for her missing brother. Ostensibly this is because the filmmakers felt the need to inject a female figure as part of their adventures, and the saucy Rachel McAdams, who played Holmes' love interest in the first film, gets knocked out of the picture early. But the formidable presence Rapace displayed in the original Swedish "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" and its sequels goes to waste. In a mound of wavy hair and gaudy jewelry, she's asked to run and look worried, and that's about it.
Again and again, though, Ritchie falls back on the same super-slow-motion visual effects he used in the first film: sequences in which Holmes can foresee how a physical showdown will play out, narrate it blow-by-blow, then take part in it in sped-up fashion. It's cool-looking the first couple times; Ritchie trots out this trick about eight times too many, to the point where you begin to wonder whether that's all he's got left in his bag. But even straight-up chase scenes and shootouts are so amplified and over-edited, they become incomprehensible.
Not that any sort of criticism matters: The ending of "A Game of Shadows" clearly sets up a third film in the series. And so Downey can trot out that British accent and don his dapper Victorian duds once more. ■
► Directed by Guy Ritchie / With Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Rachel McAdams and Jared Harris / Action / USA / 2011 / 129 min. / Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material / English with Chinese subtitles / ★★☆☆☆ / Now Showing