Already mourning the loss of best mate Dr. Watson (Jude Law), whose impending nuptials at least provide an excuse to throw a spectacularly bruising stag party, a newly single Sherlock Holmes would seem to be wanting for playmates. What’s a punch-drunk, giddily androgynous supersleuth to do?
Thank heavens, then, for degeneracy, gracefully embodied in “A Game of Shadows” by James Moriarty (Jared Harris). A nutty professor bent on profiting from a war he plans to instigate, Moriarty is perhaps the most infamous of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s villains, despite appearing in just two of his original stories. He is Holmes’ intellectual equal, but amoral to the core.
Moriarty is largely confined to the shadows in director Guy Ritchie’s latest adventure, a more confident, aggressively paced adaptation of Conan Doyle than its convoluted predecessor. (How faithful it is remains open to debate. Ritchie’s defenders like to point out that Holmes was indeed a bare-knuckles boxer, and fond of intoxicants. Yet, it’s hard to imagine the author would recognize the insolent clown Downey depicts.)
Limited screen time hardly diminishes Moriarty’s menace, though, and for that, credit belongs to Harris. His gift for understatement is particularly effective, lending the professor an aura of danger and larger-than-life mystery Conan Doyle would have appreciated. It is also the perfect complement to Downey’s irrepressible flamboyance.
Not much has changed where Holmes and Watson are concerned. Downey once again plays London’s foremost detective as a vaguely effeminate rascal whose preoccupation with Watson would seem to suggest something more than platonic friendship. Law is his irritable better half, understandably wary of Holmes’ attempts to sabotage his marriage and torment his bulldog.
“A Game of Shadows” works better the less you think about it. It is easily Ritchie’s best outing since “Snatch” (2000), his glorified remake of 1998’s “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” though that’s not saying much.
Once the game is truly afoot — after Watson’s wedding, a perfunctory detour — the movie recaptures its early momentum, racing breathlessly toward a showdown that finds Ritchie juggling the story’s moving parts with impressive aplomb. Holmes and Moriarty’s climactic chess match, an obvious metaphor, nevertheless boasts a certain poetry that often eludes the director’s grasp.
The movie’s most egregious sin, predictably, is Ritchie’s reliance on the visual flourishes he’s been regurgitating, without shame, since “Lock, Stock.” His favorite trick — his only trick, really — is slowing down the action to a near-standstill, then speeding it up again, often to the point of incoherence. It’s a lousy effect, rudely distracting us from otherwise robust entertainment.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry
Written by Michele Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Running time 2 hours 9 minutes