Film Review: 'Sherlock Holmes' storyline drags, but plenty of action

Robert Downey Jr. (from left), Noomi Rapace and Jude Law are shown in a scene from 'Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.'

Warner Bros. Pictures, Daniel Smith

Robert Downey Jr. (from left), Noomi Rapace and Jude Law are shown in a scene from "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows."

The cliché pop combo word "bromance" isn't quite strong enough for the Arthur Conan Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell camaraderie on display in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," a tiring and overwrought if occasionally entertaining action-adventure sequel in which the master detective's pursuit of the evil Moriarty seems secondary to his badgering of his former longtime companion, the newlywed Dr. Watson.

Sherlock Holmes has always been the smartest man in the room...until now. There is a new criminal mastermind at large-Professor Moriarty - and not only ...

Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material

Length: 128 minutes

Released: December 16, 2011 Nationwide

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan

Director: Guy Ritchie

Writer: Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham

More info and showtimes »

You don't need a deerstalker and a magnifying glass to track the subtext. At the start of the film, Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) -- subsisting entirely on a diet of "coffee, tobacco and coca leaves" -- is perturbed that his friend and crimefighting associate, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), is soon to marry pretty Mary (Kelly Reilly). He more or less sabotages Watson's bachelor party, makes something of a comedy out of the marriage ceremony itself, then invades the couple's honeymoon train-compartment dressed as a woman. He tosses Mary off the train, and -- in torn dress and smeared lipstick -- falls to the berth, commanding, "Lie down with me, Watson."

Later, while infiltrating a diplomatic ball, Holmes asks Watson to dance -- and they do, swirling onto the floor with the other more traditional couples. "By the way, who taught you to dance?" Holmes asks (the adverb that comes to mind is "flirtatiously"). "You did," Watson allows. "Well, I did a fine job," responds Holmes. When Holmes refers to his "relationship" with Watson, the doctor amends the word to the more business-like "partnership." And at a moment of high danger, Holmes asks Watson, hopefully: "Are you happy?"

There's plenty more. The most engaging character in the film, Sherlock's diplomat brother, Mycroft Holmes, is played by Stephen Fry, famous for his role as Oscar Wilde in a 1997 biopic. After spending time with Watson's new wife, Mycroft sniffs that perhaps now he understands how a man "might grow to enjoy the company of a person of your gender."

Of course, all this content is presented in the innocent guise of comedy or plot. Holmes explains his drag outfit as just another of his disguises (when the film opens, he's dressed as an ancient Manchurian); and when he throws Mary from the train, he's supposedly acting -- however aggressively -- to save her life.

One reason I couldn't help noticing this material (and let's not even get into a discussion of the adrenaline needle that is Holmes' wedding gift to Watson) is because the busy foreground plot and action weren't holding my attention. I can only imagine that the unabashed Downey, the sturdy Law and returning director Guy Ritchie also kept tugging at the thread of Holmes' status as a "confirmed bachelor" because they were similarly bored, and needed in-jokes and "hidden" meanings to remain invested.

In this context, it makes sense that Holmes' possible love interest, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), is dispensed with at the very start of the film, to be replaced by a gypsy fortune teller played by Noomi Rapace (Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish versions of Stieg Larsson's novels); with her bulky clothing and men's hats, the gypsy is so deglamorized and desexualized that the audience never anticipates a new Holmes romance. The love-that-dare- not-speak- its-name theme also adds motivation to Holmes' climactic sacrificial gesture.

On the surface, "A Game of Shadows" -- a followup to the 2009 hit "Sherlock Holmes," which rebooted Conan Doyle's eccentric and cerebral master of ratiocination for the short-attention-span generation -- chronicles Holmes' attempt to thwart an international conspiracy organized by the "Napoleon of Crime," Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, whom you may recognize as Lane Pryce on AMC's "Mad Men").

A would-be war profiteer and genius of Holmesian intellect and ego, Moriarty, as depicted here, shares Holmes' ability to more or less see the future in slow-motion by deducing the patterns of action and reaction that are most likely to occur in an imminent brawl or ambush. Familiar from the first film, this gimmick becomes rather tiresome, as does the whiplash-inducing stylistic diversity, in which subtle scenes of menace are followed by hyperstylized videogame-like digital manipulations of action imagery -- effects that seem more appropriate to Ritchie's contemporary urban gangster dramas than to Holmes' 1890s environment.

I liked the first Ritchie "Sherlock Holmes," and this film has its charms. "We both know how this ends," Moriarty tells Holmes, near the end of a movie, as they confront each other near a waterfall in Switzerland; it's as if both men realize they are only fictional characters, enacting a drama imagined by Conan Doyle some 120 years earlier. And while Downey's screwy Holmes isn't as entertaining as in the first film, he does get in a nice line during a gypsy repast: "Madame, this is one glorious hedgehog ghoulash."

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

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