Guy Ritchie’s 2009 “Sherlock Holmes” might have sent the purists into fits of dismay, but at its core was a creative, cleverly anachronistic premise: It re-imagined Arthur Conan Doyle’s dauntless, staunchly proper detective as the star of a contemporary Hollywood action blockbuster, complete with exploding fireballs, chockablock special effects and mixed martial arts fight sequences.
The plotting was herky-jerky, the comedy mostly groan-inducing. But the movie skirted by on the considerable charm of its lead actors, Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson, who kept their 21st-century tongues planted in their Victorian-era cheeks.
Well, the purists still aren’t going to be happy, but for the rest of us, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” represents a modest improvement on the original. Stepping back into their roles the way you might pull on a pair of old jeans — the kind that tend to offer a little give even when you have gone slightly soft around the middle — Downey and Law have a grand time extending the franchise’s most delicious conceit, that the Holmes-Watson relationship might have been fueled by homoerotic tension.
For their part, Ritchie and a new set of screenwriters, Michele and Kieran Mulroney (“Paper Man”), keep the plot (relatively) coherent and the action lively and lucid. “A Game of Shadows” aims low and hits the bull’s-eye.
Picking up in 1891, approximately a year after the first “Sherlock Holmes” left off, this sequel finds Holmes doing his best to drive a wedge between the impending nuptials of Watson and his fiancee (Kelly Reilly). The wedding goes off, but the honeymoon is a bust, after Holmes drags Watson onto the trail of Dr. James Moriarty (Jared Harris), a brilliant professor who seems to be the man responsible for a series of murders involving powerful European dignitaries.
Might this evildoer also be stockpiling automatic weapons in the hopes of making a fortune off an impending world war? (The excellent Harris ably keeps with the postmodern spirit of things, playing Moriarty as a kind of Bond villain who has wandered into the wrong century.)
Ritchie employs a similar visual strategy here to the first movie, especially in the fight sequences, which Holmes tends to imagine in his head before playing them out in real life — though the director also finds ways to freshen and reinvent this device. Even more effectively than he did in the original, Downey hints at the complexities of Holmes’ dark, obsessive personality — no small accomplishment in a movie that is a lot more interested in artful freeze-frames of fists smashing into jaws than actual character development. When Holmes stares at Watson and his bride with a mixture of unbridled contempt and tortured longing, the joke is funny and oddly humane — a portrait of a man who simply can’t understand why anyone would place matters of the heart over matters of the mind.
Where “A Game of Shadows” comes up short is with its female lead, a Gypsy fortune-teller drawn into the investigation, played by Noomi Rapace, who starred as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish-language film version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Wearing a flowing skirt and an ill-fitting hat that makes her look like Joni Mitchell in a remake of “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and poorly lit by the normally ace cinematographer Philippe Rousselot, who makes her skin look blotchy and washed out, Rapace didn’t have much of a chance to begin with.
But as the story races across Europe, and Holmes and Watson don goofy costumes and engage in all manner of misdirection, it becomes embarrassingly clear that this movie has little interest in inviting women into its boys’ club. (Rachel McAdams, who was a game foil in the first movie, appears briefly here, but not long enough to balance the scales.) Fun and fleet as “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” often is, it leaves the sour taste of misogyny in your mouth.