It's certainly not short on action; Holmes gets into a street brawl, disposes of a bomb and destroys a bachelor party, all before the main plot gets going. That involves what criminal mastermind Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, TV's Mad Men) may have to do with anarchist activities around town, and what he wants with a gypsy fortune teller (Noomi Rapace, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy).
Even I'm unsure myself. After two viewings, the main thrust of the narrative remains cloudy. But Moriarty's endgame is loud and clear: profiting from the collapse of Western civilization.
In the department of audience interest, their chess match is secondary to the ongoing "bromance" between Holmes and his ever-more-unwilling right-hand man, Dr. Watson (Jude Law, Contagion). The friction between them is upped because of Watson getting married to Mary (Kelly Reilly, Eden Lake); Holmes either can't or refuses to understand why his pal would rather spend time with — gasp! — a woman.
Speaking of women, Holmes' romantic interest from the first film, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, Midnight in Paris), is dispatched — or is she? — before the title card even appears, leaving Rapace to infuse the girl power. I'm afraid she doesn't cut it; I have no doubt she could, but the story never allows her to be much more than a hair above a cypher. That's a shame, given that Game is her American movie debut, but I would rather see Reilly take center stage and let her defiant charms be better utilized. Perhaps in part three.
Returning director Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla) repeats the original's trick of having Holmes imagine the steps of a squabble in slow motion, then letting it loose for real. But now that those bits are no longer new, the cool factor falls to two bravura sequences Ritchie pulls.
The first of those is a comedy-fueled siege on the newlywed Watsons' honeymoon-bound train. It's rivaled only later by our heroes running through the forest while being shot at with an array of state-of-the-art weaponry. For this deadly serious scene, which otherwise would be dull, Ritchie employs a 360˚ mix of slow-motion, freeze-frame, bullet time and an odd effect involving the centering of characters' faces that's nearly indescribable.
It's not enough to make one forgive the deficiencies elsewhere, almost all related to the too-confusing script. Compare the climax to the season-two finale of BBC's Sherlock — both leaping off Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Reichenbach Falls conceit — and there's no doubt the TV series trumps the film one.
All the same, do whip up a bowl of hedgehog goulash — the gypsy's dish of choice in one scene — and settle in for a comfortable couple of hours that A Game of Shadows offers. I have great affection for it, even with its faults and all. Just don't watch it for the first time in the Blu-ray's "Maximum Movie Mode"; with its constant cutting away to full-screen yammering from Downey, it hardly lets you watch it at all. —Rod Lott
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