Here's a mystery I wish Sherlock Holmes would solve: What the heck is going on in his new movie?
Granted, this might be an easier request if Holmes actually solved mysteries these days. That doesn't seem to be the case in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows." The sequel delivers a bewildering flurry of noisy action set-pieces and mindless patter — but rather less in the whodunit department.
In director Guy Ritchie's spastically stylized reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle's beloved sleuth, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) is less of a detective-intellectual in the mode of an Agatha Christie hero and more of a brawling Victorian superhero, complete with tweedy sidekick (Jude Law's Dr. Watson) and ruthless arch-nemesis (Jared Harris' Professor James Moriarty).
He's even got a superpower. Like Spider-Man's spider-sense or Daredevil's sonar-vision, Holmes has a sort of sixth sense — call it the power of deduction — that allows him to rapidly see and process visual details around him. Mr. Ritchie illustrates this power with a seizure-inducing series of cuts and close-ups.
Presumably this is intended to give viewers a sense of what's going on, but I couldn't deduce much of anything about the larger story, which seems to involve anarcho-terrorists, brewing hostilities between Germany and France, and early efforts at industrial-grade weapons production.
The latter gives Mr. Ritchie an opportunity to stage a number of industrial-grade action scenes, including a spectacular slow-motion shootout at a turn-of-the-century weapons factory. Mr. Ritchie made his name with a pair of manic contemporary British gangster films — "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels" and "Snatch." His directorial tics served his early movies well because they reflected the stylish, frenzied lives of the modern-day hoods he was following.
Mr. Ritchie brings the same sort of ADD editing and merry-go-round camera work to this installment of "Holmes," but to lesser effect. His familiar flourishes help keep the energy level high, but at this point in his career, they produce diminishing returns. It's not just that they add to the general sense of confusion. It's that it's hard to shake the feeling that the constant visual gimmickry is just a distraction from the lack of substance.
The movie dances back and forth between frenetic action and muddled exposition, more intent on maintaining momentum than worrying about whether it all makes sense. Even Holmes seems uninterested in dwelling on the details. When Watson asks him to explain some impossible deductive feat, Holmes just brushes him off: "Do you need me to elaborate? Or can we just crack on?" This might as well be the movie's motto.
"A Game of Shadows" is best enjoyed in discrete bits and pieces — the pulpy Victorian milieu, the subtle pleasure Mr. Harris' sadly underutilized Moriarty takes in outsmarting his do-gooding rival. Best of all is the odd-couple relationship between the zany Holmes and his tweedy partner, Watson. Mr. Law emphasizes Watson's buttoned-down demeanor, but can only do so much playing the straight man. Mr. Downey, on the other hand, gives a madcap, delightfully neurotic performance that's part James Bond, part absent-minded professor. In the midst of otherwise forgettable blockbuster mayhem, his scatterbrained super detective is the only one who seems to have a clue.
★ ★ ★ (out of four)
TITLE: "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows"
CREDITS: Directed by Guy Ritchie, screenplay by Michele Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney
RATING: PG-13 for violence, slow-motion explosions
RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes