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Guy Ritchie repeats winning Sherlock Holmes formula with ‘Game of Shad

IN 2009, Sherlock Holmes made a boffo transition to the 21st century as a wise-cracking action hero, cracking as many heads as cases.

IN 2009, Sherlock Holmes made a boffo transition to the 21st century as a wise-cracking action hero, cracking as many heads as cases.

Some purists were offended on behalf of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but my guess is that Doyle would be thrilled to have invented a character this durable and elastic. Never out of print, inhabited by dozens of different actors in multiple decades, re-imagined for each new generation.

The 2009 Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) was one-half of a buddy comedy team filled out by a smarter, tougher Dr. Watson (Jude Law).

This formula worked so well two years ago that director Guy Ritchie has decided not to tamper with it - the sequel "Game of Shadows," is a near replica of the 2009 reboot.

The movie has the same leads, the same soot-charred look, same Holmes/Watson chemistry, same balance of comedy and action, and the same gimmick of Holmes envisioning the mechanics of his beat-downs before he enacts them.

It carefully conforms to audience expectations, but there is one thing absent from the sequel - the fun of seeing Holmes radically made over yet again.

The only thing really new here is the villain - Doyle's go-to mastermind Moriarty, Holmes' equal in intellect, but beset, alas, by "moral insanity."

It would have been nice to see him played by reigning U.K. villain Mark Strong, but Strong was killed off on the last movie, so the job goes to Jared Harris, and he's fine - hatching a plan to instigate the first World War, and to profit from it.

Another new face, Noomi Rapace from the original in the "Dragon Tattoo" series, is a gypsy sidekick. This is a problem, since Holmes already has literature's greatest sidekick, so Rapace, as the British say, is without portfolio.

Comic tension builds around Holmes' pursuit of Moriarty and his desire to draw newlywed Watson into the fray - we again have a jealous Holmes interfering with Watson's romance. Ritchie makes the joke explicit here by having Holmes don Jack Lemmon's outfit from "Some Like it Hot," and supplant Mrs. Watson during an elaborate train stunt.

The movie is lively, but in grave danger of feeling repetitive. You'll only mistake it for a first-rate action movie if you haven't seen the new "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol."

Ritchie's movie has the feel of the frenetic action franchise that uses noise (visual and aural) to cover story weakness, but it never fully surrenders to that impulse. Props to "Game of Shadows" for having an actual Doyle-ish plot, one that rewards your investment of 128 minutes.

The ending, a tweak of one of Doyle's classic Holmes/Moriarty images, will trouble Doyle buffs as much as the 2009 original, but aficianados share more with Ritchie than they realize.

All parties agree: Sherlock Holmes is eternal.