Is "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" the ultimate disguise? Have they simply reimagined the legendary sleuth as a sort of grand mash-up of Eddie Izzard and the Terminator, which not only endows him with substantial brain and brawn but some very interesting wardrobe choices?
After the box-office success of 2009's "Sherlock Holmes," you knew the filmmakers would be pressed to find a way to up the ante. Nonstop action, a possible world war and cross-dressing are indeed the answer. That's not altogether a bad decision, with "A Game of Shadows" a few shades brighter than its predecessor, and the action bits certainly closer to the full-throttle "Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels" mode director Guy Ritchie didn't quite capture the first time.
In "A Game of Shadows," with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law energetically reprising their roles as Holmes and Watson, the filmmakers have, in a sense, gotten both closer to and farther away from the original figment of Arthur Conan Doyle's vivid imagination. They've gone bonkers with the disguises, taking them to extremes that are at times so absurd — and so transparent — it's impossible not to laugh. But watching the mental gears turn as Holmes works toward solving the crimes in question, well, they could have used quite a bit more grease.
It is still the world of the late 1800s, though the mystery to be solved is very au courant with bombs exploding in public places, suspicious deaths of well-placed moguls, peace talks disrupted and munitions buildups underway across Europe. The film's married screenwriting team, Michele and Kieran Mulroney, keep the dialogue crackling so smartly at times, that you sorely miss it when it doesn't, which happens slightly too often during the 2-hour plus running time.
As the film opens, Watson is paying a visit to his occasional partner in solving crimes. His wedding to Mary (Kelly Reilly) is fast approaching and Holmes is to be his best man. The intrigues begin in earnest with the bachelor party Holmes throws at an eccentric gentleman's club, in which none of Dr. Watson's pals show up but two new characters do — a very wry Stephen Fry as Holmes' brother, Mycroft, and a Gypsy fortuneteller Madam Simza Heron, played by Noomi Rapace.
Holmes has had a chance encounter (or was it) with the lovely Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) who seemed clearly over her head in something that involves Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris, the age-old nemesis, but newly arrived to the films and as dapper as he is in "Mad Men"). Now Madam Simza seems to be tied up in Moriarty's schemes too. Underground arms deals, an international political conflagration, the fate of Simza's brother and Watson's wedding hang in the balance. You know which of those Holmes will choose to focus on.
Indeed, Mary and Dr. John have barely said their "I do's" before speeding trains, speeding bullets, major arms movements and complex action sequences overtake things. It's all done to hair-raising, and in the case of a meat-hook late in the film, to "Hellraiser" effect.
As if to reassure us that Holmes is still a thinking man the filmmakers have him giving a lot of thought to the action, doing a better job this time around deconstructing his fights in his mind and in slow motion before they unfold in real time. It's a great effect, but like much else in the movie, overused.
The new character additions are a draw. If you bother casting the terrific Rapace, who starred in the Swedish version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," for heaven's sakes give her something substantial to do. They don't. On the other hand, the multi-talented Fry turns out to be smashing as Holmes' quirky older brother.
Though the action is gripping and a treat to watch, much of the visual punch of the film is due to the outstanding work by production designer Sarah Greenwood and costume designer Jenny Beavan. They've created the times in rich detail, then it's all been aged nicely with just a hint of patina. Through cinematographer Philippe Rousselot's lens, the palette on which Holmes and Watson and Moriarty play this deadly game becomes simply splendid.
Still in Law and Downey, the filmmakers have a pair of blokes who make the most of what they're given. Law's down-to-earth and slightly fussy Watson proves once again to be the right counterweight to Downey's flighty, fidgety, flinty Holmes. As Johnny Depp has done so brilliantly with his devilish Jack Sparrow, Downey has made this sly sardonic Sherlock stylistically all his own. Case closed.