Cinema would be no worse off without Guy Ritchie. No, no! you protest. He gave us Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — then generously gave it to us again and again under other titles. He unleashed producer-turned-director Matthew Vaughn on an innocent planet. He made a star of Jason Statham. Yes, exactly — that's the CV of a man permanently at break-even with movie karma.
On the other hand, with Vaughn and Zack Snyder ascendant, and Brett Ratner and Michael Bay still bankable, Ritchie's thick-skulled approach to action now seems almost ... intelligible. For this unexpected development and its latest demo reel — the overlong, overcooked, overcocked Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows — Ritchie owes Robert Downey Jr. and Christopher Nolan. He was already in hock to Downey, whose committed vamping made 2009's Sherlock Holmes feel smarter than it was. The actor is more burlesque than brains in this sequel, but the point now is to give Warner Bros. another franchise to milk after Nolan's Batman goes dark next year.
So Game of Shadows spends its budget in Nolan-y ways: on frame-busting crowds darting through CG steam clouds, impossible vantages overlooking ominous structures, a rib-rattling sound design. Shared detective roots aside, though, this is no Dark Knight, and Ritchie's idea of movement remains regrettably his own: kinetoscopic slo-mo, weaponry POV (really, weaponized POV), bluntness where ballet is needed. (Ritchie also owes Nolan's go-to composer, Hans Zimmer, whose sonic boom-and-bustle again elevates the proceedings with a sly self-awareness otherwise beyond the movie's grasp.)
The principles of sequeldom mandate the amplification of whatever is least appealing in the original, so Game of Shadows unspools in a Europe of phallic towers and cannons waiting for dick-joke close-ups, and the byplay of its Holmes and Watson (the doctor is again played by Jude Law's mustache) stops just a few inches from "Did one of you fellas order a pizza" territory. Just as homoerotic but much more satisfying are Downey's brief duets with Jared Harris (born to play Moriarty) and Stephen Fry (a big, gay Mycroft Holmes, just right). Noomi Rapace (the original Lisbeth Salander) is also here somewhere, looking for actual work.
If Ritchie keeps some of his habits in his pants for the inevitable third Holmes movie, he might turn out to be ... nah.