Guy Ritchie’s take on the Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective was a surprise hit back in 2009; a rollicking action-packed adventure which re-imagined Holmes as an action hero for the Victorian age and single-handedly revitalised Ritchie’s reputation as a credible filmmaker.
This was largely in part to the talents of Robert Downey Jr., a one-man entertainment machine who lit up the screen with every witty rejoinder.
2011’s follow up was inevitable but lacks the zip, zing or the seeming spontaneity of its predecessor, instead delivering a lumpy porridge of a film which leaves its heroes floundering with no purpose.
We join Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) already tracking the “Napoleon of Crime”, Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), through London. Holmes knows he’s up to something and his suspicions are confirmed when Holmes’s lady friend Adler (Rachel McAdams) is unceremoniously bumped off after a meeting with the Prof.
Realising he can’t defeat this enemy alone, he disrupts the honeymoon of his good friend Dr Watson (Jude Law), enlists the help of a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace) and the trio set off on a globetrotting adventure to Paris, Germany and (of course) the Reichenbach Falls of Switzerland.
It takes about an hour before a plot even emerges. The benefit of the doubt can be given for a while but for 60 minutes, Holmes chases Moriarty from location to location without a good reason. Holmes obviously has his reasons (a web of red thread on his wall links Moriarty to a succession of crimes) but we as an audience don’t, and this crucial lack of motivation saps any sense of purpose from Holmes’s escapades.
Holmes’s lightning fast intellect is, as before, depicted by him noticing small details and playing them out in his head in slow motion before running them at full speed in reality. Sometimes this works well – a scene which sees him deducing the location of a secret door from the stains surrounding a brick wall is excellent – but it’s a device used too frequently and so unnecessarily that it quickly becomes tiresome.
The banter which seemed so bouncy and lively in 2009’s outing has gone stale; the fizz that made Downey Jr.’s and Law’s partnership so enjoyable is now flat. Downey’ Jr. has also upped the ham by an order of magnitude and it now feels like he’s playing a cross between Tony Stark and Cap’n Jack Sparrow.
Game Of Shadows also suffers from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure Syndrome” – Holmes frequently escapes certain death by revealing that he already anticipated and planned for that course of action; a demonstration of cleverness perhaps, but a cop-out to any sort of peril. It’s all too easy to imagine Keanu Reeves intoning in surf-dude accent “Trash can, remember a trash can” with each miraculous escape.
That’s not to say there aren’t enjoyable moments. Stephen Fry makes a delightful appearance as Sherlock’s older brother Mycroft – after all, who better to play an aloof homosexual genius who could outthink Holmes than Britain’s favourite crooked-nosed intellectual?
The film also really comes alive in the final 15 minutes or so – the climactic battle between Holmes and Moriarty is superb, a fight played out in both their heads which leads Holmes to jump to a conclusion without having to go through the motions (in a manner similar to the duel between Jet Li and Donnie Yen in Hero). There’s also a cracking epilogue which is the best thing about the film but these occasional sprinkles of inspiration are rare blips in a movie so unengaging and so by-the-numbers that even the biggest of its CGI explosions will fail to hold attention.