Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows: Frenzied With Benefits

Guy Ritchie sends Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law on another chase-filled case; but this sequel is no equal to the savory 2009 original

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Arthur Conan Doyle achieved quite the hat trick in his four novellas and 56 short stories about Sherlock Holmes. He invented one of the world’s most famous characters, pioneered the modern detective tale and, in a way, created the buddy movie. Holmes was the superman — a hero above and apart, keen of intellect, able to deduce grand schemes from minute evidence — and Dr. John Watson was his Everyman. Friend and foil, colleague and biographer, Watson marveled at Holmes’ powers of deduction no less than the reader did. Indeed, Watson was the audience’s surrogate, the “normal” one, who would filter, explain and occasionally apologize for the exploits of his more gifted and eccentric pal. Homes would say, “Go,” and Watson, “Whoa!” Introducing the pair in 1887, Conan Doyle devised a formula that was replayed in dozens of good-cop/mad-cop movies (Lethal Weapon, 48 Hrs., Die Hard With a Vengeance) and also defined the relationship of most comedy teams. Watson was Dean Martin to Holmes’ Jerry Lewis, Crosby to his Hope, Felix to his Oscar — any duo that was both mismatched and inseparable.

(READ: Which Holmes story was recently banned for anti-Mormon tendencies)

So in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, Guy Ritchie’s frenzied-with-benefits sequel to his 2009 hit, it’s only natural that Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) should not only attempt to forestall the wedding of his dear Watson (Jude Law) but, given the chance, toss the good doctor’s bride Mary (Kelly Reilly) out of a train as it speeds across a high bridge. If this were a romantic comedy, Watson and Mary would be a loving couple harassed by a deranged outsider. But the given of a Sherlock Holmes story is that the detective must have his faithful chronicler; otherwise, to the public, Holmes wouldn’t exist. So the women in the two men’s lives — Mary and Holmes’ wily inamorata Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) — are quickly and rudely dispatched from A Game of Shadows. This is a bromance, Victorian-style, with Watson the stalwart, stuffy gentleman and Holmes, often, the flirtatious female. In one scene he dons drag.

(READ: Mary Pols on the 2009 Sherlock Holmes)

Crossdressing is just one way that Ritchie, directing a script by the married team of Michele and Kieran Mulroney, amps up the sensational aspects to keep himself, and conceivably the viewer, interested. The movie again employs what might be called Ratiocination Visualization — brief, vigorous montages showing how Holmes thought through some devilish conundrum — and they’re still cool but now familiar. Downey, looking seedier than usual, and seeming less invested in the role, spits out banter that frequently lacks juice. The first half-hour plays like a ragged dress rehearsal for the rest of the movie, and replaces the 2009 film’s burly energy with frantic incident: bombs, chases and more bombs.

The year is 1891, and anarchist explosions threaten to kindle a great war among the European nations. (SPOILER ALERT: That didn’t occur until 1914). Holmes suspects the fine, fatal hand of Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris of Mad Men), a revered mathematician, confidant of royalty and, beneath his modest celebrity, “the Napoleon of Crime” — which would make Holmes the Wellington of detectives. To stop Moriarty, he needs to deprive Watson of his honeymoon, while enlisting the help of a gypsy named Simza (Noomi Rapace, who was Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film trilogy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). In the spirit of Billy Wilder’s much better 1970 Conan Doyle gloss, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, the detective unravels a riddle of international espionage…

…except that, this time, Watson is the hero. Holmes leave Watson and Simza the little task of unmasking a would-be assassin and saving Europe at a Swiss summit meeting, while he plays chess with Moriarty on a terrace overlooking the Reichenbach Falls. In the canon, Holmes and Moriarty met in only one story, which Conan Doyle meant to be his hero’s farewell. Holmes had become a tremendous and, to the author, suffocating success; determined to write serious fiction, he said, “I must save my mind for better things, even if it means I must bury my pocketbook with him.” He called this 1893 tale “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” — a clue to his intentions that even Watson could have deduced — and sent Holmes and Moriarty tumbling over the Swiss falls and into history. Popular outcry forced the detective back to life a decade later. Conan Doyle could no more kill off Holmes than Holmes could let go of Watson.

(READ about the publication of an early Conan Doyle novel)

Ritchie’s take on the great detective is at least as indebted to modern action pictures as to the Conan Doyle original. This is the 21st century, not the 19th, and we have no problem with a Holmes who can both out-think and out-punch his adversaries. Ritchie’s true model is the Hong Kong martial-arts films, both in their preposterous but realistic fight choreography and their muscular use of super-slow motion for some of the action scenes. A Game of Shadows has a nifty chase through a forest, with slo-mo bullets creasing and felling a tree (plus a few minor characters who are slo-mowed down).

You’ll find some tenderness, blooming close to the garden of homoeroticism, that Downey and Law bring to their characters’ deep friendship. There’s also a prickly kinship of great minds, one dispassionate, the other deranged, in the emotional chess match waged by Holmes and Moriarty. The solitary sleuth is sparked by finding an equal, however evil. Moriarty completes Holmes.

(READ: TIME’s Best Movie Performances of 2011)

But fresh inspiration is sparse here; the sequel is less an extension than a remake. Holmes says of one of his lamer disguises, “It’s so overt, it’s covert.” And the shadow in this game is the imposing penumbra of Ritchie’s very satisfying 2009 film. It’s overt and overwhelming.

A Game of Shadows also qualifies as an entry in the tiny Trivia category of dueling films directed by ex-spouses; Madonna’s W.E. opened early this month. Two years ago, James Cameron’s Avatar became the top-grossing picture of all time, while The Hurt Locker, by his former wife Kathryn Bigelow, made barely a murmur at the box office; but Bigelow won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. Ritchie’s new film should score with audiences who go to sequels for the same as last time, but more so. If W.E. were to take the top Oscar, that would be a mystery to stymie even Sherlock Holmes.

READ: TIME’s 10 Best Movies of 2011