2009's Sherlock Holmes was not much better or worse than Guy Ritchie's other Noughties efforts (consider the list: Swept Away, 2002; Revolver, 2005; Rock 'n' Rolla, 2008), but for some reason - either brand recognition, or the lowered expectations of the multiplex crowd - it struck a chord and made off with a considerable amount of money worldwide. A Game of Shadows, or: The Inevitable Sequel - rendered doubly pointless by the BBC's successful 2010 "modern" Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman - throws more cash and energy at everything but its narrative, ranging beyond Victorian London to arrive at a late-19th century Europe where anarchists are on the loose. It would, of course, be too much to expect a major studio's notional Christmas blockbuster to explore the political dimensions of this; the film instead elects to pack its Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) off to a gypsy camp - a clear Ritchie fetish, after Snatch, and one of several by-ways and diversions along the way to a Reichenbach Falls where Moriarty (Jared Harris, channeling Robin Cook) is lying in wait.
Tagging along this time round is new addition Noomi Rapace, so terrific as Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, yet here squandered in the way only a Hollywood franchise movie can do with a hot European actress. Held over is Ritchie's usual sense women are only around to get in the way of the more important business between men; it's no surprise the director should only have gained traction in L.A. circles at a moment when the bromance is in the cinematic ascendant. First film love interest Rachel McAdams is killed off in the prologue, at least sparing the actress the indignity of having to strut around in streetwalker chic all over again, though the hero seems barely to notice, much less to care; Watson's new missus Kelly Reilly, an actress who seems destined never to find the breakout role she deserves, is for her part upstaged by a naked Stephen Fry, then by Sherlock in a dress. Only in Ritchieworld (and perhaps pantomime, which perhaps these movies are intended to be taken as) would a man in drag be considered more worthy of interest than an actual woman, and the sequence permits the film all manner of public-schoolboy sniggering.
At any rate, whether in trousers or stockings, Downey Jr.'s Sherlock remains clenched and twitchy and simply very hard to like, his eyes continually on alert for the next bit of smart-aleckry that might make it into the trailer. Prolonged exposure to the character reveals his DNA contains less Conan Doyle or Tony Stark (a role into which this actor at least appeared to relax some) than it does Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow: another loose collection of under-directed, performer-indulged tics coasting lazily by on banked audience goodwill. To be fair, Downey Jr. isn't entirely culpable. The piecemeal, incoherent fashion in which the Sherlocks have been conceived betrays this character at a basic level: the absence of clear narrative lines in these things would make it impossible for any actor to convincingly show deduction - or indeed much in the way of thought at all. This Sherlock operates as though a team of writers is standing off-camera, tossing him funny or bright ideas as they see fit, often with little concern for what's gone before, or what's to come. Those postmodernists who say it's not essential for a 21st century Holmes to heed the books are either blind to or apologists for the sloppiness and contempt at work here: getting the hero to Reichenbach and then tossing everything else Conan Doyle wrote over the top is a bit like announcing a film called Jesus Christ, using Golgotha and the Sermon of the Mount as reference points, then styling your protagonist after Joe Pasquale for shits and giggles.
Again, Ritchie reserves his energies for the fight scenes, suggesting his dream directorial assignment would have been a direct-to-video Kickboxer sequel circa 1991. These he invests with his own identifiable tics and hang-ups: the slow motion, the skipped frames, the sub-Edgar Wright editing that, taken collectively, comes to look quite astonishingly artless and lame. In the ongoing rewrite of not just the character, but the very rules of the franchise, Sherlock now apparently has ESP, and can thus predict how each ruckus is going to play out - which is handy for our Guy, because it allows him two or three passes at shooting action he cannot ever seem to get right. As holiday entertainments go, Game of Shadows is charmless, noisome, and grindingly, terminally mediocre, lacking even the flailing idiosyncrasies that mitigated against the failures of Revolver and Rock 'n' Rolla. All we can deduce from it is that Guy Ritchie still can't direct, though now he gets to prove this fact on a bigger budget, and to an audience schooled to be indifferent about such things.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is on nationwide release.