The only reason to put yourself through Guy Ritchie’s overblown, inelegant Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows is to see Jared Harris, who plays Professor Moriarty, in a chilling low key. As Holmes’s nemesis, Harris suggests a short, unprepossessing brainiac who was mercilessly taunted in prep school, with the result that he is now a bitter nihilist, quietly determined both to trigger a world war and supply the weaponry. I wonder if Harris, who grew up knowing he’d never cut as dashing a figure as his leading-man father, Richard, dipped into his private well of bitterness for his scenes opposite Robert Downey Jr., whose Holmes is in the capering, somewhat fruity mode of … Richard Harris. In any case, Downey is only good when face-to-face with Harris: grounded, alert, angry instead of peevish. Opposite Jude Law’s Watson, he flaps his arms and carries on in his high-school Henry Higgins accent as if he thinks he’s the cat’s pajamas — or, more improbable, Sherlock Holmes.
Ritchie and his writers had one decent idea for their souped-up Holmes: to make the detective a resourceful action hero not because he’s in especially acrobatic shape but because he can visualize the fight moves in advance, like a chess master. Ritchie precedes Holmes’s many skirmishes with slow-motion montages in which Holmes narrates the coming thrusts and parries, but the storyboarding is muzzy and the fighting, when it comes, a hash. You’ve been shown in advance how the battles will go and you still can’t follow them. The rest of the time, Ritchie goes for maximum clutter. His busy, boisterous frames suggest Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers films but without Lester’s prankishness.
Two other actors are of interest besides Harris. As Holmes’s brother Mycroft, a shadowy government figure with some of Sherlock’s compulsive pathologies but none of his exhibitionism (a precursor of John Le Carre’s cryptic gentleman’s club know-it-alls), Stephen Fry is harmlessly dotty — neutered. The Swede Lisbeth Salander, Noomi Rapace, has the underwritten role of Holmes’s gypsy sidekick and looks about as comfortable as those cleft-palate kids in magazine ads. You want to send her money.