A Study in Explosions

12/15/2011 4:00 AM |

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Directed by Guy Ritchie

The first installment of Warner Bros.’s Sherlock Holmes franchise featured black magic and a farting dog. Director Guy Ritchie sticks to the same formula in the somewhat more expensive-looking sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, which offers little more than ludicrously speedy flashbacks and flashforwards through Sherlock Holmes’ step-by-step tutorials on beating people up.

Although the film’s posters might suggest otherwise, the real star of this franchise is its director. Following a string of disappointments, Ritchie’s career appears to be rejuvenated after he was able to turn a dormant property into a blockbuster that made several times the cumulative gross of all his previous films. Warner Bros.’s faith has paid off handsomely, and with the full resources of a major studio production at hand, Ritchie has made his brand of filmmaking into the core of the franchise. Few directors have been able to associate themselves so closely with similar projects—perhaps only Michael Bay’s Transformers films match the scope of what Ritchie accomplishes with this series: attract audiences to see a new twist on a familiar product through the promise of a branded, bombastic spectacle.

Despite the chummy chemistry between charismatic leads Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, as Holmes and Watson, the only real reason to see Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes sequel is to enjoy the grandeur of his carefully constructed visual style. The inventive camerawork might be surfeit, but it’s still dazzling in a film that works best when it juxtaposes a gray and dreary industrial backdrop with bareknuckle fights, loud gunshots and big explosions. The film’s centerpiece, a foot-chase in a forest where the heroes dodge an arsenal of heavy artillery, is worth the admission price alone.

The depiction of Holmes as a (highly) functioning alcoholic remains an absurd attempt to develop the character into a flawed-yet-lovable misanthrope. Nevertheless, in this age of Spider, Bat and Iron men, one has to appreciate the challenge of making a movie about a hero whose only power is being exceptionally perceptive. And although this incarnation of Sherlock Holmes more closely resembles Jason Bourne than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic character, credit must go to Downey, perhaps the most charming actor in today’s cinema, whom carries the film through its slowest moments.

Ritchie’s films often suffer whenever they stray from frenetic action sequences, and this one is no exception. As in the last entry, Game of Shadows is hampered by a bloated, confusing plot that pushes the film’s running time past two hours. On the eve of Watson’s wedding, Sherlock becomes convinced that the nefarious Professor Moriarity (Jared Harris) is somehow at the center of a global conspiracy. Moriarty was introduced in the first film under an enigmatic cloak, as a sort of highly secretive underworld ringleader. That depiction is quickly and bizarrely dropped here, with the supposed “Napoleon of Crime” proving to be quite accessible during regular office hours at the university or at book signings across Europe. Holmes and Watson enlist the help of new supporting characters in their quest to stop Moriarty, including a mysterious gypsy played by Noomi Rapace and Sherlock’s eccentric brother, Mycroft (Stephen Fry). Characters talk, things happen, but it never amounts to anything; the grand conspiracy’s reveal is something of a letdown since it comes in a scene where nothing blows up.

Opens December 16