There's less of the steampunk silliness and more straightforward (and incredibly stylized) action in Guy Ritchie's latest abduction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brilliant detective, Sherlock Holmes, and it is all for the better.
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" again bears only the most fleeting resemblance to its cerebral Victorian origins, but we like the "new" Holmes and Watson nevertheless. Robert Downey Jr. holds nothing back in his over the top (or, as Watson says, "manic, bordering on psychotic") portrayal of the overcaffeinated and coca'd sleuth, and Jude Law brings equal -- if more rational -- energy to his Dr. Watson, much more a partner than a sidekick in this adventure.
And it is a raucous time. Ritchie keeps the pieces that made his first "Sherlock" a box office beast and ditches the dreariness and distractions that dragged it down. This film is brighter, cleaner and clearer. Holmes has one goal -- to stop Professor Moriarty from inciting a world war. There are mysteries to solve along the way, but the central intrigue never gets lost among the explosions, mayhem and murders -- some of them hitting very close to home.
From Holmes' wedding present to Watson and his warning to Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) to the final encounter at a certain Swiss waterfall, Ritchie provides only the briefest moments for breath-catching -- lying on the floor of a train car waiting for bullets to explode above, relaxing under a pile of bricks waiting to be dug out, reclining in a box car while bits of log are pulled from the ankles.
As hyper-charged and explosive as the action is, it does stay mainly in its "real" time and place -- 1891 Europe, on the brink of war as France and Germany posture for power. Rather than playing with near-magical mechanical devices this time, Holmes is tickled to be tooling around the countryside in a new horseless carriage.
Holmes' "game of shadows" with Moriarty (played with nerdy sneering by Jared Harris, son of Richard) propels the film; his deep friendship with Watson -- you could call it love -- is its heart. The story lets us get a bit under their skin. Watson, irritated, argues with Holmes about his decision to marry his beloved Mary (Kelly Reilly); Holmes tries to turn it around with hoary ball-and-chain images until in the end his friend pulls out a very 21st century term: It's about having a relationship.
And so is the movie. Except for the evil professor, everyone cares about someone. Holmes' "smarter brother" Mycroft is played in looming counterpart to the diminutive Downey by a fearless Stephen Fry, who calls his brother "Sherly." Noomi Rapace, whose career went international as "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," is a gypsy who joins Team Holmes to find her brother, apparently caught in Moriarty's web. She brings along some of Lisbeth Salander's toughness but little of her drama.
And from Ritchie we see more of the cinematic overkill of his earlier, much-praised gangster movies like "Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels." He is like a kid in a candy shop when his heroes arrive at a munitions factory to confront Moriarty, giving himself a ready supply of ammo for an operatic shootout in a German forest that can stand on its own as a remarkable bit of filmmaking.
Fortunately, the carnage is balanced by more humor, the back-and-forth jollies of Holmes and Watson, and also some spot-on sight gags, including Mycroft's bizarre way of walking around the house, Holmes' opening and closing disguises, and a winning scene we will call Holmes vs. horses.
The movie isn't perfect, as few are. For genuine Holmes fans, it has almost nothing to do with deductive clue-finding, instead opting for anticipatory, action-filled crime fighting. It goes on too long (but not by too much), and Moriarty, while brilliant in his Hannibal Lector-like plotting, winds up having the most pedestrian of motives.
That's OK. It isn't him we have come to see, anyway.
The movie is all about Downey, a man firmly in the cosmos of genuine movie stars, and his co-star Mr. Law, who, like Dr. Watson with Holmes, is a good part of the reason he's there.
SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS
3 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace
DIRECTOR: Guy Ritchie
RUNNING TIME: 129 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, and some drug material.
THE LOWDOWN: Holmes and Watson travel across Europe to prevent Dr. Moriarty from inciting a world war.