Back in ’06, I was really rooting for that Robert Downey, Jr. comeback. When I was a kid, I dug the guy in Hearts and Souls and Air America. In high school, I even found things to love in his drug-era days (Bowfinger, Gingerbread Man.) But never was I more in love with an actor than when Downey got his gusto back with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, A Scanner Darkly, Zodiac, Iron Man, and Tropic Thunder (not all perfect movies, but all perfect performances.) Since then, though, Downey’s celebrity star has largely been trapped in the Avengers and Sherlock Holmes films (minus the comic dud Due Date.) And after Sherlock Holmes 2: Game of Shadows, it’s starting to feel like Downey needs to put away the super-smart, consistently snarky animated characters, lest he wind up the new Johnny Depp.
Forgive me if it seems like I’m forgetting everyone else’s hard work by making an entire movie review mainly about one man, but let’s be honest – the Sherlock Holmes movies wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t for RDJ. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to undermine the classic literary character, and I know he’s found new life in recent novels, the popular BBC series, and the upcoming (and terrible-looking) U.S. show, Elementary. I admit – there’s interest in the guy. But the entire reason there’s room for a massive, big-budget, psychotically-Guy-Ritchie-directed version of Holmes at movie theaters is only because Downey agreed to put his newfound star power there. And when it starts to feel like he’s just going through the motions, you start wondering why you’re taking 2+ hours out of your life to sit through this flick.
Not to say Game of Shadows is all bad. In fact, the plot could have added up to something fantastic. It finds the world’s greatest detective tracking his most infamous nemesis – Professor James Moriarty – as a number of recent bombings in England seem to point back to some grand plan of Moriarty’s. The search leads Holmes and Watson through the pinnacles of high society as well as casinos, underground anarchist movements, weapons factories, and weddings. It makes for a lot of stunning set pieces and big action beats, but the movies feels overly stuffed, none of the action or plot twists given enough room to really be felt by the audience. And while any Sherlock mystery needs to be a dazzling display of confounding events, tiny details, and shocking revelations, most of the twists here feel piled on, random, and inelegant. Yes, they’ll surprise you, but there’s a good chance you won’t give a shit anyway.
To ease up on Downey, he’s not particularly bad here. If you enjoyed his Holmes in the first Sherlock, he retains that same spunk. But it’s all attitude and not a lot of depth; and much like Iron Man 2, the writing seems to leave out the jokes this time, hoping Downey’s routine can satisfy the audience all on its own; it can’t. Jude Law also remains solid as Watson – devoted but eternally frustrated – but the duo’s relationship plays out almost identically, to the point you start to think Watson is a bit of a dumbass just for putting up with Holmes. The big question here seemed to be how Jared Harris would fare as Moriarty. He’s good – but a villain of Moriarty’s stature and a film production of this magnitude demands more than that. Harris’s grizzled age gives Moriarty some gravitas, and he does deliver the role with a cold, calculating demeanor. But to stack up to Downey’s antics and the rest of the film’s volume, it seems that Moriarty needed something just a bit more to make you feel his threat.
I would be lying if I said Games of Shadows was an overt dud (if nothing else, it is better than Iron Man 2.) But with big-budget sequels constantly crowding up the calendar, and star power like Downey’s being one of the few things that can get interesting movies green-lit in Hollywood, the film just feels that much more unnecessary. And while Guy Ritchie’s whole “let’s show that Holmes actually knew martial arts and can kick ass!” idea might be inspired, the whole slow-mo action sequences become full-on grating by the film’s end. So unless someone can find some way to inject some genuine piss and vinegar into this franchise – and maybe dial back the explosions and focus on the mysteries – it feels like it’s time to let the BBC handle Sherlock and get Downey to move on to something better.
Josh has studied film at the Universities of Missouri and Florida, and he is currently studying horror film and popular culture in the Communication and Culture program at Indiana University. He has previously worked with the True/False Documentary Film Festival and the Ragtag Theatre in Columbia, Missouri, and he served as short-term production assistant on This Film Is Not Yet Rated. He is currently working on a dissertation on independent horror, horror film festivals, and horror fandom; feel free to contact him to discuss any of the above! He is also studying Dark Carnival Film Festival (www.darkcarnivalfilmfest.com).