I find it peculiar that Guy Ritchie would be a studio’s first choice to helm the screen adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories of the famous British detective, Sherlock Holmes. The vast majority of the director’s films are about skin-headed London roughnecks and gangsters who spit inexplicable gutter slang and beat each other into bloody pulps. His work seems to be the working class antithesis to Doyle’s British-genteel pop mysteries, and his characters the unwashed counterparts to an intellectual criminologist like Holmes.
Instead of changing his style to suit the source material, Ritchie has molded and manhandled the material to fit his own brand of ultra violent, British grunge cinema. Audiences responded favorably to the alterations in 2009’s original Sherlock Holmes film, so for this sequel, Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, Ritchie focuses even less on the mystery aspect and more on Holmes as a pugilistic combatant with a heightened sense of meticulousness and intuition. Game of Shadows has all the intelligence of a soccer hooligan’s ninth pint pontificating. It’s a pub-crawler’s Who Done It?
In this episode, Holmes’ Scooby Doo mystery involves foiling the plan of an arm’s dealer named Moriarty (Jared Harris), who seeks to use the late 19th century’s burgeoning Anarchist movement to goad Europe’s industrial nations—notably France and Germany—into global war. After he dispenses with the competition, Moriarty will be free to supply both sides with the weapons they need to annihilate each other.
Ritchie’s energy infused, but pallid style—including his drab and colorless Victorian London—shows a complete disregard for Holmes’ famous investigatory particulars. Richie’s not a director of fastidiousness, but of headlong pace and knuckle-to-nose brutalities. Luckily for him, he has a star with enough charisma and class to pleasantly fill the lackluster gaps between all the fisticuffs. Robert Downey Jr. is again cast as Holmes, and the actor plays the iconic Scotland Yard sleuth with a cadence of rapid fire, delirious eloquence and eyes that look dilated and possessed to the point of hyper vigilance. “I see everything, it’s my curse,” he whispers.
This side of Johnny Depp, no one plays a better half-drunk eccentric than Downey Jr. His Holmes is a master of clinical insight (he sees life like a chessboard, always ten steps ahead) and a master of disguise, but he’s forlorn, even if he’d never admit it. He clings to his tumultuous partnership with one Dr. Watson (Jude Law, an actor who’s proven most adept at playing sidekicks and villains), who professes to want rid of his narcissistic companion so he can marry his sweetheart Mary (Kelly Reilly). That doesn’t stop Holmes from hijacking their honeymoon and forcing Watson to accompany him on his mission.
Game of Shadows is enjoyable in measures, mostly due to the banter and interplay between Downey’s Holmes and Law’s Watson, the clown and the straight man, respectively. As the movie clips along, hitting several highly charged climaxes, it becomes difficult to overlook its perfunctory plotting, shallow characters, and choppy construction. Of course, asking for elegance or depth from Guy Ritchie is like asking for a soufflé from a chef who specializes in two quid meat pies: You get what you pay for. Alas, I think my money is worth a little more than what Game of Shadows so brutishly concocted.