Twenty-first-century Americans love misanthropic geniuses, as long as they aren’t running for political office. From Dr. House to Dexter Morgan to Lisbeth Salander, we eagerly follow the adventures of antisocial brainiacs and curmudgeonly crime solvers.
So it’s no surprise that Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes — the patron saint of nerds played by the patron saint of nerdy method actors — is back in a sequel. What is a surprise, and not a pleasant one, is that action director Guy Ritchie seems to be turning his franchise into Pirates of the Caribbean.
Like its predecessor, A Game of Shadows is long, loud, colorful and chaotic, with none of the methodical deduction that BBC fans might expect. This Sherlock Holmes doesn’t just punch, kick and practice martial arts; he also thinks in snazzy bursts of sped-up or slowed-down footage that convey his power to notice and use everything in his environment. Ritchie wants to take us into the mind of a genius, and the technique might seem clever if it weren’t so familiar from TV procedurals. We’ve reached a point where intelligence is basically just another comic-book superpower.
The plot starts more or less where the first Sherlock Holmes left off, with Holmes on the trail of his newly recognized nemesis, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). The academic has a scheme that involves bombing European capitals in hopes of precipitating a global conflict, so Holmes’ pursuit takes him across picturesque terrain and into monuments such as the Paris Opera. Wherever the sleuth goes, he encounters bullet-time and other action-director camera tricks, fighting and explosions. The carnage is leavened with comically bad disguises and snappy banter between Holmes and Watson (Jude Law), who increasingly seems less like his sidekick than his half-willing hostage.
The moments when Ritchie allows the pace to slow and the conversations to play out are the best in the film. Downey and Law still have a likable oddball chemistry, and Stephen Fry is a delight as Holmes’ brother, Mycroft. Kelly Reilly plays Watson’s long-suffering fiancée — who weds him in the film — with amusing aplomb. But Rachel McAdams, as Irene Adler, still acts like a modern heroine in Victorian drag, and Noomi Rapace is wasted in the role of a gypsy with anarchist ties. With her swishing skirts and gimlet eyes, she mainly seems to be in the film for visual interest.
The Holmes movies share a blockbuster template with Pirates: They take a refreshingly weird character played by a beloved actor, surround him with period pastiche and make him the pivot of a plot so relentlessly busy that no one can claim they were bored. If one joke or action set piece or deduction falls flat, another quickly effaces its memory. Nothing has to be remotely plausible: Who cares that the film’s denouement depends on a radical revision of the history of plastic surgery? Or that the wan Moriarty’s motives don’t always add up? It’s all in good fun, and there’s enough stuff in the movie, some of it smart and some of it stupid, for holiday audiences to feel they’re getting their money’s worth.
But empty spectacles like this are now so common, they give a critic battle fatigue. This particular franchise aims to make us feel smart without granting us much of a chance to exercise our intelligence — for instance, by following the twists and turns of a genuine mystery. And that’s kind of dumb.