Wither the rollicking verve and whip-crack humor in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows? Guy Ritchie goes for tedious commotion over cheeky comedy or cleverness in this depressingly flaccid follow-up to 2009's Sherlock Holmes. Cacophony reigns supreme in this thoroughly muddled adventure, which mistakes intricacy for mystery at every turn, pitting Holmes against his arch-nemesis Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) in a cloak-and-dagger duel of wits defined by insidious dullness. Social and political unrest that might lead to European war is the backdrop for writers Michele Mulroney and Kieran Mulroney's tale, in which Holmes goes in pursuit of his mysterious adversary because he suspects the evil genius to be behind a series of anarchist bombings. Despite such superficial geopolitical context, however, A Game of Shadows has no interest in anything other than simplistic storytelling devoid of authentic historical heft, falling back on bland war-profiteering as the driving aim of its ne'er-do-well villain and giving Holmes no motivation except his egomaniacal desire to prove his own intellectual acumen—narcissism that, unlike in Sherlock Holmes, comes off as a grating affectation courtesy of the film's inability to find a single scenario that ably exploits Downey Jr.'s gift for melding dashing confidence with roguish insouciance.
The primary blame for that failure lies at the feet of the Mulroneys' unwieldy script, a hodgepodge of hectic set pieces featuring chases through gambling houses, forests, and city streets that are periodically interrupted by long, complex conversations in which the scruffy, hyper-manic Holmes and his incessantly exasperated sidekick, Dr. Watson (Jude Law), discuss intricate case details that are superfluous to the general narrative thread. Holmes and Watson's banter remains that of chummy brothers whose admiration for each other is equaled by their vexation, but their rapport, like Hans Zimmer's jaunty fiddle-heavy score, is consistently more rat-a-tat-tat overstuffed than genuinely inspired. As with so much of the film, the duo's verbal sparring is busy without almost ever being rewardingly amusing or exciting, and Ritchie's choreography is similarly far less assured than in his prior installment. The director drenches skirmishes in darkness and whiplash edits that obscure the combat prowess of its hero (a master martial artist prone to cracking limbs when provoked), miring the hand-to-hand mayhem in a murky haze that—instead of taking advantage of the material's London and Paris settings' atmospheric mistiness—simply degrades any fleeting sense of thrilling physicality.
Unfortunately, such aesthetic sloppiness is compounded by Ritchie's penchant for bullet-time-ish slow-fast-slow effects shots—usually for Holmes's strategic pre-fight visions of how to fell his forthcoming opponent, or moments that visualize his preternatural deductive reasoning skills—that are so overused and jumbled to the point of incomprehensibility that momentum grinds to a standstill. As Holmes's nominal beguiling female accomplice, Rapace boasts one blank expression, with her performance underlining Ritchie's mistake of dispatching with Holmes's original, feisty love interest, Irene (Rachel McAdams), after the spirited intro. More catastrophic still, however, is that while Downey Jr. and Law continue to be a jolly bickering couple (and the former is blessed with one inspired gag involving his “urban camouflage” disguise), A Game of Shadows manages to squander Mad Men's debonair Harris in a role that's been reconceived with none of the heater-shelter madmen energy that defines Downey Jr.'s Holmes. Rather, he's just a stock super-smart baddie with a beard and mustache fit for twirling—a lack of imagination that, when married to substandard plotting and generic CG-enhanced action highlighted by an embarrassingly out-of-place gunfire-and-cannons shootout, leaves this sequel feeling dreadfully elementary.