If it works the first time around, why not repeat it again and again until it doesn’t work anymore? That is the singular philosophy driving modern Hollywood, and it has been all-too-apparent during this past year of sequels, many of which failed to deliver at the box office. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why.
People love movies that take gambles and explore fresh terrain. Iron Man was a standard superhero vehicle, but it became grand entertainment under the direction of Jon Favreau, who elicited a career-rejuvenating turn out of his leading man, Robert Downey Jr. The actor’s dry wit and motor mouth delivery made him utterly impossible to resist, yet it was the character’s poignant ties to Downey Jr.’s own troubled past that made Favreau’s film more substantial than a mere escapist lark.
Aside from Downey Jr.’s audacious, Oscar-nominated comic turn in Tropic Thunder, no subsequent vehicle for the actor has proven to be a fraction as compelling. Hollywood merely seems content in offering Downey Jr. variations on his now familiar motor mouth persona, thus leading to a series of diminishing returns. Iron Man 2 was only half as fun as the original, while Guy Ritchie’s testosterone-fueled 2009 rethinking of Sherlock Holmes transformed Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective into a Tony Stark-like know-it-all.
What ultimately redeemed the original Holmes was the marvelous odd couple chemistry between Downey Jr. and Jude Law as the oft-exasperated sidekick, Watson, who is to Holmes what Pepper Pots was to Stark. Watson’s attempts at settling down with his wife-to-be are routinely sabotaged by Holmes’ hypersensitive awareness of the latest case worth cracking. There are times when one expects Watson to blurt out, “Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!” in pure Oliver Hardy fashion. For all of its convoluted plot twists, Holmes was a rollicking buddy comedy masquerading as a mystery. On that level, it worked rather well.
The sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, is a pale shadow of the original, but it’s curiously no less diverting. Perhaps that’s because there’s so little substance beneath Ritchie’s extravagant visual excess. These are mere narrative machines designed to chug along indefinitely, much like the similarly mindless Transformers pictures. Unlike the classic brain-ticklers featuring Basil Rathbone (as Holmes), who solved a series of psychological puzzles along with the audience, Ritchie’s films aren’t supposed to make sense. Sherlock is always 15 steps ahead of the viewer, so there’s little suspense in watching him solve every crime in sight.
Holmes’s powers of deduction are so ludicrously evolved that the film stumbles whenever it attempts to make sense of the inanity. This is a fantasy comprised entirely of plot holes, but Ritchie thinks that his frantic pacing and dizzying editing will distract viewers into submission. For its first half, Game of Shadows succeeds as shallow yet pleasing entertainment, with Downey Jr. and Law resurrecting their familiar banter while preparing for Watson’s wedding.
Just as Watson and his wife leave for their honeymoon, the good doctor is targeted by a slew of assassins. Jared Harris is icy perfection as nefarious villain Professor Moriarty, who was revealed (at the end of Holmes Vol. 1) as the employer of femme fatale Irene Adler ( Rachel McAdams). Though the radiant McAdams makes a few brief appearances, she’s quickly replaced by another deadly female counterpart, Madam Simza Heron, played by the great Swedish actress Noomi Rapace.
Here’s another example of how unimaginative Hollywood can be when faced with extraordinary talent. Rapace won raves around the world for her electrifying portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” series. Oddly enough, Holmes was released in mainstream cinemas just days before Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (featuring Rapace’s “Millennium” co-star Michael Nyqvist) and the American version of Larsson’s first novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” This would’ve been a perfect time for Rapace to receive a star-making vehicle in America, but sadly, Ritchie wastes the actress in a lackluster role that mainly requires her to listen as Holmes and Watson bicker back and forth.
One of Ritchie’s few stylistic choices that work to the advantage of the material is his use of slow motion, which allows viewers a fleeting glimpse into Holmes’s psyche. Before diving headfirst into a bare-knuckled brawl, Holmes thinks through the fight in his mind, thus deconstructing the chaos before it unfolds in real time. It’s a nifty trick that works equally well in the sequel, until Ritchie overuses the slow-mo effects during a protracted chase through the woods. It’s as incoherent and unpleasant a sequence as any shot by Zack Snyder.
A good actor is a terrible thing to waste, and Downey Jr. deserves a whole lot more than a third go-round as Holmes (or Stark, for that matter). He’s a vibrant chameleon on the order of Johnny Depp, but if he continues to take inflated paychecks for phoning in the same tired mannerisms, he’ll end up as dull as Captain Jack Sparrow.
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows opened Dec. 16 at the AMC Showplace Village Crossing 18, Regal Gardens 1-6 and Regal Gardens 7-13 in Skokie. It topped the box office on its opening day, earning $14.7 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It is rated PG-13.