Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows doesn't rip enough yarn. Sure, it reaches into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's deep well and pulls out a tangle of raw material for an evening with the pipe-smoking sociopath. But though the film features Holmes' fiercest villain and a plot partially cribbed from "The Final Problem," one of Conan Doyle's most beloved stories, the sense of mystery has gone missing. A most heinous crime has taken place.
The fun, too, is nowhere in evidence — it's been replaced with a slog about anarchists, European heads of state and Watson's marriage, about which Holmes seems more concerned than anything else. (Of course, the two do bicker enough for 10 couples.)
The film's tempered, suspenseful third act finally returns to form, and it's thrilling, as always, to watch a master detective brush up against what seems like certain doom. But by that point 90 minutes of damage has been wrought. The game's afoot -- who is the dastardly culprit behind the film's middling muddle? We must consider all suspects, even those that seem far-fetched.
Speaking of, why not start with Holmes himself -- or with Robert Downey Jr.? On the surface, the star would appear to simply be reprising his 2009 role as he races to stop arch-nemesis Professor Moriarty (a sneering Jared Harris) from unleashing industrialized weapons upon a war-poised Europe. (Odd that another Downey persona, Iron Man arms dealer Tony Stark, would approve wholeheartedly of Moriarty's business plan.)
But Downey, donning many superfluous disguises, has reduced Holmes to his eccentricities: twitching, squirming and demanding constant attention from Jude Law's Watson. Holmes has become a Looney Tune, an exhausting, manic buffoon who keeps almost dying before bouncing, bright and chipper, back to life.
Suspect the second: A script that categorizes every scene into either comedy, action or mystery, with never a tone balanced among them. Screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney -- brother and sister-in-law to actor Dermot Mulroney -- seem to have pilfered each scene from a different draft, so the film lurches violently between three different interpretations of the same material. The order in which these scene-themes surface is so haphazard that one wonders if Holmes himself could have found a pattern.
Suspect the third (and here we may well find the perpetrator): A lack of proper engagement with the central puzzle. The occurrence of seemingly inexplicable phenomena was what made the 2009 movie worthy of the brand: Holmes' adversary had appeared to rise from the dead through the powers of occult magic, which is certainly a large hurdle to overcome for an investigator who prides himself on using only the most logical powers of deduction. Shadows has political theater aplenty, along with the icy-eyed presence of Swedish actress Noomi Rapace (minus the dragon tattoo) as a Gypsy fortune teller, but director Guy Ritchie has neglected to stoke the initial flames of human curiosity with a suitably impossible case.
What are we dealing with here -- explosions? Newfangled automatic weapons? Reconstructive surgeries? Works of a devious criminal mastermind, certainly, but nothing that would immediately strike the casual observer as an impossible feat. Sherlock Holmes stories depend first and foremost on exactly that: an element that beguiles the untrained eye.
The Holmes deduction that follows can be as convoluted or elementary as necessary to move the story along, but there needs to be that initial gasp from the audience that says, "Oh, my! How is he going to solve that?" What Shadows too often inspires is more along the lines of, "Oh, guess he solved that."
Oh, indeed. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.