Robert Downey Jr is currently carrying two movie franchises – the Marvel Iron Man proto-Avengers thing for Paramount and the brawling steampunk Sherlock Holmes series for Warner Brothers – so it is perhaps understandable that he is showing a touch of fatigue.
In the new Holmes adventure, A Game of Shadows, his imperiousness is hard to distinguish from boredom, and he seems to be in a hurry to spit out his lines, take his lumps, throw his punches and collect his paycheck.
Can a movie be hyperactive and lazy at the same time? Clever and idiotic? If the director is Guy Ritchie, the questions answer themselves.
Like its predecessor Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows confects a smoky, overcast Victorian world, infuses it with an air of jocular, hairy laddishness and stages a lot of fights in fussy and tiresome slow motion. There is a plot, but no real intrigue, mystery or suspense, and no inkling of anything at stake beyond a childish and belligerent idea of fun.
What a shame. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective, with his violin, his deerstalker and his steel-trap mind, has been one of the most resilient and adaptable figures in Anglophone popular culture. He has been updated, travestied and conscripted into preposterous tales so many times – including by Doyle himself – that it is silly to hold his character sacred, or to scold Mr. Ritchie for taking liberties. But you would think that a man of such reputed brilliance and erudition (I’m talking about Holmes) would at least know how to pronounce the word “heinous” or use “crescendo” properly in a sentence. And you would think that a brewing showdown between Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty (Jared Harris), would involve intrigue, suspense and devilish plots and counterplots.
Not that thinking is in any way relevant. There are a few dabs of sophistication – the witty, Russell presence of Stephen Fry as Microsoft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother; a disquisition on Schubert’s great lieder and a morsel of Mozart’s Don Giovanni – but these feel random and perfunctory.
The real point of the movie is the bantering byplay between Holmes and Watson (Jude Law) punctuated by punches, explosions and action sequences as bloated and pretentious as a 10-minute drum solo on a live album by a second-rate art-rock band from the ’70s.
Rachel McAdams bustles through the action in a bustle; Noomi Rapace lingers a bit longer in long tresses and Gypsy garb. There is not enough of Eddie Marsan and just enough of Mr. Harris, sneering through a ginger beard, to make you root for the Napoleon of Crime against the foppish fool from Baker Street. Who is oddly mopey this time out, as if needing to reassure us of his sensitive, vulnerable side.
Poor Sherlock. He is so desperate for attention, so needy – perhaps because of the competition from the likes of Tom Cruise and Tintin – that you are likely to reach the point of exasperation long before Watson does.