By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Quick, now, describe the mystery that Robert Downey Jr. solved as Sherlock Holmes two years ago.
I'll bet a pip-pip and raise a cheerio that most moviegoers can't remember. We were so taken with Downey's disheveled reinvention of the sleuth and director Guy Ritchie's slow-mo/fast-mo mayhem that the game was trampled underfoot. It didn't involve Holmes' most renowned nemesis Professor Moriarty, whom we wanted, anyway.
The inevitable sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, corrects that oversight, with Jared Harris as Moriarty, recalling Hannibal Lecter's sophisticated menace. This time there are truly matching wits, with Holmes getting seriously fooled a couple of times. We've grown so accustomed to Ritchie's hyper-stylized action sequences that confusion and repetition isn't as much of a problem.
A Game of Shadows is elementary compared to its predecessor, and that's a good thing.
Two years haven't rehabilitated Holmes, who sustains his brilliant deduction skills despite a diet of formaldehyde cocktails and coca leaves. His eccentricities are many and faintly paranoid, as with his penchant for disguises when they aren't necessary. Downey relishes each tic and quirk, and playing the self-anointed smartest guy in any room is second nature by now. He's a joy to watch in this role.
Holmes, on the other hand, isn't feeling joyful at the outset of A Game of Shadows. The bromance with his partner in crime solving Dr. John Watson (an amusing Jude Law) is about to end with Watson's marriage to Mary (Kerry Reilly). Holmes is losing his playmate in the dangerous games he loves. But threats abound, with Moriarty plotting revenge on Holmes by murdering Watson and his bride.
Only in Ritchie's take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's heroes would a stag party be staged in the uptight Victorian era, or it would be crashed by an acrobatic Cossack assassin. Basil Rathbone wouldn't dream of dressing Holmes in drag to invade a honeymoon suite on a passenger train crawling with killers. Purists may scoff but parlor sleuthing won't put fannies in the seats.
Moriarty being the sinister multitasker that he is, there's his parallel plot to create a military-industrial complex, cornering the war market from bandages to bombs. Then he'll start World War I with a series of political assassinations and reap the profits. Nice and tidy, unlike the supernatural shenanigans of the first movie. The trail leads Holmes to the anarchist underground with the help of a gypsy fortune-teller (Noomi Rapace, the original girl with the dragon tattoo).
Ritchie stages plenty of gunfights and beatdowns to satisfy action fans, pausing to consider the beauty of violence before resuming speed and piling on more. It still gets a bit exhausting. But this time he never ignores the power of Holmes' deduction amid the fireworks, and Downey plays crazy like a fox to the hilt. By jove, I think they've got it.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.