"Diminishing returns" is a description that applies to many film series. "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is a delicious exception. The second outing for Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law is a thing of mad, whirring glee. An international crime tour with sets, battle scenes and performances of exaggerated dimensions, the film lampoons the James Bond action template while delivering all the thrills.
Downey and Law have settled comfortably into their roles as the Odd Couple of Victorian espionage. Watson is still trying to break free of his possessive friend; Holmes uses every ruse to sabotage his departure. Trapped between them in their never-ending tug of war is Watson's fiancée, Mary (Kelly Reilly).
Holmes has traced a web of killings and munitions movements to the hand of his nemesis, Prof. Moriarty. He can't fathom why Watson would prefer settled matrimony to the thrilling, life-or-death adventure of thwarting a criminal mastermind. To protect the couple from Moriarty's assassins, Holmes replaces Mary in Watson's honeymoon railway carriage. The fact that he's chosen a full-on transvestite disguise with scarlet lipstick is one of the film's repeated gags about the real nature of the detectives' partnership. The furious Law tackles Downey, ripping off his drag costume in a comic wrestling match that looks as if they are rolling down Brokeback Mountain.
Downey's performance is a one-man highlights reel, an ingenious parody of a genius. His Holmes is all eccentric charisma, drug-induced agitation and racing impulses. His body language blurs the line between masculine and feminine. A flicker of laughter darts across his eyes when he outwits an opponent. Meeting a lesser intellect, he projects condescension and charm simultaneously. In his verbal duels with Jared Harris' brilliant, precise Moriarty, he is wary, like a championship fighter in a rare encounter with an equal. Harris' dry-ice menace is a perfect foil for Downey's rococo exuberance.
Returning director Guy Ritchie has a gift for ravishing visuals. He labors over every element of this late-Victorian world, from Holmes' peacock wardrobe to the state of the characters' fingernails. When Holmes goes for a comic horseback ride, his steed is perfect. There are inspired visual gags about Holmes' newest invention, indoor camouflage. When the detectives race through a forest that is being blown to splinters by artillery, every flying toothpick has been exhaustively art-directed. The film exalts deranged hyperbole. It makes pandemonium gorgeous.
The bedlam extends to the screenplay, which hangs carefully worked-out jokes on a gobbledygook plot. When it comes to keeping the story clear, the script never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
There's an undercurrent of misogyny in the way women are dismissed or knocked around here. That may be true to the setting, but it's disappointing to see gifted actresses squandered. Rachel McAdams is here and gone in a flash. Noomi Rapace, electrifying in the Swedish "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," has nothing to do but dodge bullets and listen to Downey's ratchet-jawed Holmes.
In contrast, Stephen Fry, as Sherlock's older brother Mycroft, gets meaty scenes. Fruity ones, actually, ripe with camp innuendo that would have tickled Oscar Wilde. Where the Holmes and Watson partnership goes from here is a tossup, but I wouldn't blink if they ultimately reprise the finale of "Some Like It Hot."