“Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows’’ is as merry a forced march as sequels get, and it has its pleasures, chief among them Robert Downey Jr. But the light has gone from the star’s eyes and the thrill is gone from this franchise. It and he are brands that need protecting, and so we have a movie that keeps selling itself long after the sale has been made.
Guy Ritchie is back in the director’s chair, which means that macho men will banter lovingly and the camera will climb the walls like a speed freak. The first installment, back in 2009, reinvented Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective as - well, as a Victorian-era Robert Downey Jr. This Holmes was debauched and much smarter than you or me but also antic with his own genius, unexpectedly athletic, and aware of the silliness he has to wade through. Irony is a gift Downey likes to share with audiences - it’s a survivor’s irony now, less glib than it was before his troubles with drugs and the law - and his casting as Holmes seemed like a rare dovetailing of part and persona. More than Iron Man, Holmes seems like Downey’s idea of a superhero.
You can tell the star’s just the least bit bored, though, even if he plays it as Holmes’s boredom. “Game of Shadows’’ introduces the hero’s great nemesis, the “Napoleon of crime,’’ professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), and because we expect bigness from our seasonal blockbusters, the villain’s plans involve maximum munitions and other things that go boom. The scenes between Downey and Harris are the film’s sharpest; they click with the agility of intelligent actors playing brilliant rivals.
By contrast, Jude Law’s Dr. Watson - a muscular playmate rather than the men’s club duffer of classic Hollywood - is relatively marooned this time out. An early sequence in which Holmes and a Cossack assassin battle each other around the balconies of a London pleasure palace represents an energetic use of parkour in a steampunk setting, but Law’s stuck on the sidelines. Later he gets to fire a Really Big Gun as if to make up for the affront to his manhood.
(And if Law has little to do, what about poor Noomi Rapace in the nothing role of a gypsy fortune teller who helps the duo? This is what the star of the Swedish version of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’’ gets for her breakout performance: a part as a Victorian-era Bond girl.)
The laborious plot involves Moriarty working hard to jump-start World War I some 25 years ahead of schedule, but, as expected, it’s the verbal and visual fripperies that stick - Holmes disguising himself as a sofa, say, or Downey’s way with the phrase “a glorious hedgehog goulash.’’ Every so often, the blessed Stephen Fry wafts through as Sherlock’s pear-shaped brother Mycroft, mostly useless, occasionally nude, always welcome.
He’s the only free spirit in a movie that feels deadlocked and soulless, even as it works overtime to entertain. “Game of Shadows’’ uses the bullet-time/freeze-frame effect so often that the movie threatens to turn into a screensaver, and the relationship between the two leads is pregnant with locker-room homoeroticism even before Holmes dresses in drag and lies on top of Watson. At times, the scenes grind to a halt and the characters just stand there, the hollowness of the whole enterprise revealed.
For all that, the conceit of Holmes pre-visualizing his punches and scissor-kicks remains a neat trick. The final 15 minutes of “Game of Shadows’’ take the idea to its outer limits, as Holmes and Moriarty bark chess moves at each other and wage hand-to-hand combat in their minds. It’s an enjoyably demented meta-finale, the rivals showing what they could do if they ever bothered to actually do it.
And Downey still brings an appealing weariness to Holmes’s compulsive noticing, noticing, noticing. “What do you see?’’ the gypsy girl asks him. “Everything,’’ Holmes replies. “That is my curse.’’ If Downey has a curse, it’ll be called “Sherlock Holmes 3.’’