Movie Review: “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” – The Case of the Missing Entertainment

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Exhausting as a gifted but spoiled child who must show you how intelligent and resourceful he is at every turn, director Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” ultimately drains all the patience from your movie-loving marrow. Convoluted and flip to a fault, even the signature one-upmanship becomes wearying.

It’s too bad, because if you stay awake through the endless litany of painfully obscure details, there are about ten cogent bits of philosophy and observation that suggest this exercise in smirk had true potential. As it stands, one can’t help but wonder just what cachet Ritchie hoped to claim, and to attract specifically what audience?

Its cup runneth over with a mad froth, complicated by often indiscernible Brit accents. It’s especially inconveniencing when Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law’s Dr. John Watson rapidly exchange chides meant to establish the competition that plays an enduring part of their friendship. Though we get the gist, enough is too much.

In deference to the filmmaker, maybe I’ve been writing too many reviews, and perhaps excessively pondering weak and weary over forgotten lore. So when I began to doze at insignificant twist-and-turn #34, I thought a wake-up trip for a refill of my orangeade was in order. I took no satisfaction in observing the similarly sleepy viewers along my route.

Even the great scenery, costumes and appurtenances of the magnificently decorated, late Victorian era couldn’t deter the Sandman, invited in by a confusion too complex to assimilate. Though truth is, I was briefly revived by Mr. Holmes’s motor carriage, wittily inserted to signify his eager acceptance of all methods and means cutting edge.

Pardon the perceived misoneism, but with respect to this new Holmes Mr. Downey has etched both here and in “Sherlock Holmes” (2009), those reluctant to temporarily defer loyalty to Basil Rathbone’s iconic portrayal aren’t really given a fair shake. His depiction incorporates almost none of the traditional élan, restraint or understated pomposity.

Though set in 1891, it is a Sherlock Holmes for its time. All literary mainstays are apt to be artfully dabbed to reflect the urgent issues of the current generation, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works are no exception. Here the Industrial Revolution is ramping up full strength. Clouds are in the sky. The era of peace is essentially enjoying its last decade.

You’ll remember, the Rathbone classics often contained a patriotic fervor fashioned to foster a stiff upper lip during WWII. So when anarchist bombs signaling the unrest in pre-WWI Europe become part and parcel of the devilish scheme our gent from Baker Street hopes to expose and dismantle, the analogous implication can’t help but hit home.

The disagreement between those who buy in and those who absolutely cannot will revolve around the preposterous plot, a Rube Goldberg series of stratagems and counter moves often repeated in slow-mo to highlight the intricacies. Only folks totally entranced by the belabored ploy won’t deem it too farfetched to earn our suspension of disbelief.

Even Mr. Downey’s total submersion in the role, a maddening microcosm of the alternately hyperkinetic and plodding screenplay, can’t save the day. While you value the effort, you nonetheless wish the showoff sleuth, who his housekeeper assures has been chomping coca leaves like nobody’s business, would occasionally bring it to a dull roar.

Had Mr. Ritchie been able to integrate the whimsical subtlety that is Sherlock Holmes within the greater cacophony, he might have constructed a smarter movie. Credible sincerity is rare, save for the relationship Downey forges with Jude Law’s equally glib, albeit somewhat subdued, Dr. Watson. The fallout is elementary, my dear reader.

Appreciating the bond, Jared Harris’s properly hateful Professor James Moriarty is able to keep a permanent ace up his sleeve. Holmes doesn’t want anything to befall his best pal, and the devious archenemy is hardly above blackmail. Hence, what it all ostensibly boils down to is the opposite and equal forces of good and evil colliding.

That’s about as much as we can discern from the miasma and extraneous story flotsam strewn throughout the gambit. But just in case matters are not obscure enough, Holmes and Watson attach a semi-mysterious gypsy, played by Noomi Rapace, to their crime-solving caravan as they traverse Europe in the name of peace, justice and scalawaggery.

Tick, tick, tick…there will be a world-shaking assassination unless Holmes sorts out the iniquitous intrigue in just the nick of time. This is all well and good if you have a mind like a vise or are content to just look at the pictures and trust it’ll all resolve nicely in the end. For most of us, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” plays it a bit too murky.

“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Guy Ritchie and stars Robert Downey, Jr., Jude Law and Noomi Rapace. Running time: 129 minutes

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