2009’s Sherlock Holmes was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises, dragging Arthur Conan Doyle’s venerable detective hero into the age of big-screen blockbusters with affection and style. Director Guy Ritchie (Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels) dialed back his annoying tendency to emphasize flash and attitude above all, Jude Law made for a dryly self-deprecating Dr. Watson, and Robert Downey Jr.—dodgy accent and all—played up Holmes’ more extreme habits to create a winningly unhinged hero. The central mystery was a big nothing, and the film didn’t have much depth, but Sherlock Holmes worked as loud, brisk entertainment with enough Doyle DNA to still be recognizably Holmesian. (Besides, anyone looking for a more thoughtful take on Holmes could look to the Steven Moffat-shepherded BBC series Sherlock.)
Mission drift must have set in over the two years between the first film and its sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows, which aims lower than its predecessor’s modest ambition, and still misses the mark. Gone is the more craftsman-like Ritchie. Back is the anything-for-a-charge Ritchie of yore, who ushers Downey’s Holmes through a convoluted, pretty dumb continent-spanning quest to undo his arch-foe Moriarty (Jared Harris), whom he believes to be behind a series of terrorist attacks blamed on anarchists. This leads Downey to don some Inspector Clouseau-quality disguises and enlist Law in an attempt to expose the schemes of the man he dubs “the Napoleon of crime.”
Most of what made the first film enjoyable gets lost as they make their way from one explosion-rich location to the next, following a convoluted but uninvolving plot, as Harris—who delivers an unexpectedly flat performance—stays one step out of reach. Ritchie has made a film that’s so busy, it starts to become boring. As if realizing he has to make up for it somehow, he keeps throwing stylistic flourishes into the mix that look cool, but contribute nothing. (Most notable: A retreat through the forest that keeps sliding in and out of slow motion for no particular reason.) All that might be more forgivable if he’d let the characters come to the fore a bit more, or if Game Of Shadows built to anything but a shockingly unsatisfying anticlimax. That’s almost an accomplishment: So many explosions, but it still finds a way to fizzle out.