More than anything, I have admired the first Sherlock Holmes partnership
between Downey Jr., Law and Ritchie for its ability to plumb the depths of Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories and create a version of Holmes that felt fresh and interesting while at the same time strictly adhered to canon. The baritsu fight from "The Adventure of Empty House" for example, became an essential thing about the more physical Holmes in the film.
A Game Of Shadows continues on that tradition, directly basing its plot on "The Final Problem". Holmes fans will know what this means - this film is not afraid to go big.
Unfortunately, this film has gone the big and loud route to irrelevance via a detour to boringstan.
The movie tackles the Moriarty myth as a given - Moriarty here is an already established bad guy against whom Holmes must square off at the end of all his adventures - while all we saw of him in the first film was a mere whisper. How he went from being a sinister shadow to the one evil that will bring upon World War I is never explored or explained.
Making matters worse is Robert Downey Jr. and his chemistry, or lack of it, with Jared Harris. Harris is a fine actor, but he internalizes the chaos at the center of what Moriarty does, giving himself a calm exterior that is no match for the manic energy of RDJ that explodes in every screen all the time. The result is a villain who never feels toothy or menacing.
Compounding matters is the pacing: while the first film relied on the chemistry between RDJ and Jude Law's Watson to carry us from one action set-piece to the next, A Game Of Shadows' script gives no room for both of them to bounce off of each other. There is constant bickering, and an increasingly exasperated Watson.
The exact opposite is the ever-amazing Stephen Fry, playing Holmes' elder brother Mycroft. Fry is charming, assiduously affable, and has a booming presence that even RDJ cannot negate. Every scene with him in it crackles with energy and wit, and I can't wait to see more of him if the franchise continues. His turn as Mycroft is also the only time we get to explore Holmes as a character more - the ham-fisted journey that Holmes undergoes with Watson never materializes.
Noomi Rapace, the firecracker actress from the original Swedish Dragon Tattoo films, plays a Gypsy woman who, for some reason, is tied up with the Moriarty business. Her presence is never more than an annoyance for the leads, adds nothing to the plot, and her take on the role is a stoic boring persona that has no connection or awe.
Normally, a film relying entirely on RDJ's considerable charms would have been a slam dunk, but this time around, Ritchie also relies a lot on his action set pieces. They are suitably well-crafted, but have no weight to them. Simply by having no emotional or narrative import for the sequences, they are reduced to flashy versions of the "Sorry for Interruption" boards from Doordarshan. A signal for us to wait until normal programming resumes, when we can take a small morsel of plot.
When in one sequence, Guy Ritchie lets loose his Ritchie-ness, making Holmes and Watson run through an endless barrage of bullets and cannon-fire, you get the essence of the film in an instance. This is a big, dumb film filled with stylistic tics that never mean anything.
It doesn't play with the Holmes mythos, never mind the steam punk veneer - it is actually quite a faithful film. It's just plodding and endlessly infuriating.