Quite apart from its raking in of a half-bajillion dollars at the box office and paving the way for the sequel, the new Sherlock Holmes franchise was and remains an odd conceptual bird. Here, we have a variation on Arthur Conan Doyle’s witty and literate tales about a brilliantly deductive detective in which high-tech FX and glib postmodernist irreverence dispenses without loyalty to the original or period-piece fidelity.
Strangely enough, for those of us who found the first model hard to take, or take seriously, there seems to be a more convincing fix on how to make this creative machinery work on the next pass. In A Game of Shadows, we are barely a few minutes in before a fight scene reminds us that this Holmes is a man apart. Robert Downey Jr. is the right man for this odd job: He’s an action figure, a quirky costume-lover, a man with a coyly hinted-at fondness for leisure chemistry of the opium sort, and a dick with homoerotic feelings toward his partner in crime-fighting, Dr. Watson (Jude Law). The characterization is, well, not so elementary, to sometimes irritating ends.
Thankfully and somewhat redeemably, the parties involved recognize the over-the-topness of the enterprise. Emboldened by the spoils of his earlier successes and filming in multiple locations throughout Europe, director Guy Ritchie has fun and lavishes excess on the production. The script, concerning a certain über-evil villain (the excellent Jared Harris) and a demonic scheme for world destabilization and market-share domination in the arms and bandage trades, is by turns ludicrous and internally self-deflating.
We’re dealt inside jokes, like when the plot mechanics lock into place late in the film and all recognize the stakes of the far-flung tale. Speaking of an assassin-in-waiting whose plot may ignite a world war, Holmes smirks, “If we can find him and stop him, we can save his life and perhaps prevent the collapse of western civilization.” Beat. “No pressure.” If we can cast a blind eye to the malarkey factor and detours around the spirit of Doyle, A Game of Shadows is fair game. Key word: fair.