By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

The main fear triggered by the prospect of a sequel to Sherlock Holmes is that it would be a mere shadow of its predecessor.

Well, it’s mildly disappointing but not tragic to report that Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is less than the equal of its Holmes-sweet-Holmes predecessor, but still a respectable followup to the underappreciated 2009 original.  This is a slightly less surehanded and not quite as royally entertaining action-adventure mystery.

(2½ stars out of 4)

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law return as legendary sleuth Sherlock Holmes and sidekick Dr. Watson in yet another among the countless movies that have emerged from the writing of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The second film in the new franchise picks up shortly after the first one left off.  But this time the layered narrative does not include the supernatural, instead focusing on the death — and apparently the murder — of the Crown Prince of Austria.  One way or another, we know that Holmes will soon be involved.

With Dr. Watson about to get married, a sublimated outburst of jealousy or possessiveness on the part of the proprietary Holmes is assured.  Perhaps it will occur at Watson’s bachelor party, where Holmes meets and comes to the aid of a Gypsy fortune-teller played by Noomi Rapace (the star of the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels), which is also attended by Holmes’ older brother Mycroft, played by Stephen Fry.

And Holmes’ abiding nemesis, the diabolical Dr. Moriatry, played by Jared Harris, turns out to be a big part of the wicked “fun,” cunningly pulling malevolent strings — first involving the fetching Irene Adler, played once again by Rachel McAdams, then the honeymooning Watsons — masterminding murders and bombings, and eventually bringing Holmes and Watson off of Baker Street, out of London, and across Europe, to France, Germany, and Switzerland as part of their elaborate, high-stakes chess game.

Downey and Law are once again effortlessly amusing with their deft comic chemistry, playful banter, and the bromance thrust of the sequel, just as they were in the previous installment. Would that the focus landed even more squarely on their byplay.

The man in the director’s chair, as he was for Sherlock Holmes, is Guy Ritchie (Snatch; Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels; Swept Away), who keeps the pacing breathless — too breathless: the film is at its best when it slows down — and again brings vigorous and admirable if overblown action and combat sequences to the fray, undercutting but not entirely ruining the film’s crucial cerebral underpinning.

As in the first film, the modernization of classic material is stimulating and rewarding without being dismissive of, or insulting to, the source material or the target audience. But Richie is still far too enamored of explosions, rat-a-tat editing, and slow-motion flourishes in a vehicle that is supposed to be about ratiocination and deduction.

The script by husband and wife screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney addresses the theme of greed in a time of techological change in an offhanded way that denies it a resonant kick, but the bigger problem is the frustrating deference to action sequences, which keeps us removed from watching the sleuth arrive at the truth.

Ritchie has a game cast at his disposal, his leads as well as his supporting ensemble, but he underemploys them by seeming much more interested in the technical pyrotechnics than thespian delights. And thus this time he makes a mistake — not a grievous mistake, but a mistake nonetheless — that he avoided last time out: his directorial style gets in the way of the material. After all, we’ve arrived at Baker Street to see Holmes, not Ritchie.

But enough of value remains for us to make the trip.  Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a stand-alone sequel: you needn’t be familiar with the 2009 film to follow or enjoy this one. But, in messing with the formula, Ritchie has lowered the bar a bit. The result: he won’t win over detractors of the first film.

As for us, we’ll deduce 2½ stars out of 4 for the according-to-Doyle sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Although it’s admittedly in the general vicinity of the original, this Holmes isn’t quite where the heart is.

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