Have you heard about those MIT researchers who invented a camera that records a trillion frames per second, or something, literally reducing the speed of light to mind-boggling slow motion? More importantly, has Guy Ritchie heard?
Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” stems from Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction, but it’s hard not to wonder if the director’s real inspiration was that famous old freeze-frame of a bullet blasting through an apple. There’s a lot of time being retarded here, not just because it’s a Victorian period piece but also because its maker can’t get enough gaping at flying bullets and fists. Ritchie’s dubious breakthrough, so zealously embraced in his first “Holmes” film two years ago and obligingly repeated in the new sequel, is to posit these grunting sub-montage digressions as an action-thriller expression of the great detective’s consequence-calculating mind. Well, all pretensions to the contrary aside, “A Game of Shadows” is anything but a head game.
Robert Downey Jr. resumes his role as the supersleuth, with Jude Law again as his loyal physician helpmate Watson, this time tangling with criminal-mastermind nemesis professor Moriarty, in the diabolically pucker-lipped form of Jarred Harris. With due respect to screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney, you know it’s a Guy Ritchie movie when even the great intellectual rival is depicted as a mouth breather.
Moriarty’s plan for world domination involves stoking and cornering the market, by any means necessary, on war supplies. Holmes’ task is to stay a few moves ahead of him. And Ritchie’s strategy about strategy is self-parodic, more or less Me prove me smart: Me put chess piece in extreme close-up!
Swaggering theatrically like an alert audience hand-holder in some high-school Shakespeare show, Downey doesn’t exactly redeem this material, but he does still seem like the best man for it. (Holmes practicing his disguises allows Downey the challenge of simultaneously chewing on and blending in to the scenery.) He’s always had a gift for physicalizing his intelligence — or, as befits Ritchie’s project, channeling it into a jolt of smartest-guy-in-the-room smarm.
With that in mind, it’s a minor coup for Ritchie to have cast the great Stephen Fry as Holmes’ older brother Mycroft, a government dandy who rivals the detective’s deductive brilliance but is lazy and unwilling to sully himself — in other words, a one-man antithesis to all the sooty vim of the movie he’s in. Looking bulbous and at ease, Fry nonchalantly sends up the preposterousness of the whole enterprise; he’s the only one here who’s not trying too hard. Even Noomi Rapace, as a combat-ready gypsy accessory, seems strained by her assigned duty to just look nice.
“A Game of Shadows” goes down abrasively, with all the fizz and chemical syrup of soda pop. Then it sits in the gut, passing off heaviness as satisfaction. This may be habit-forming. “All that slow-motion stuff? I LOVE that,” one young woman said on the way out of a recent screening. She wanted more.