All the principals return for Guy Ritchie's late period career revival attempt, trading on the first film's considerable success and upping the ante with more blockbuster action and moody set pieces. Victorian England has rarely looked as beautifully grey and dour as it does in Ritchie's vision, a washed out stage for all of his hero's free-association clairvoyance and rampant ass-kicking. Indeed, it only takes about five minutes before Sherlock Holmes (Robery Downey, Jr.) finds himself in a pickle that only his fists can get him out of, just one of many such conundrums that will befall the beleaguered detective across the film's two hour runtime.
The action picks up almost immediately where the last film left us, with Watson's (Jude Law) nuptials drawing ever closer and Holmes on a debilitatingly obsessive quest to unmask Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) as London's "Napoleon of crime," responsible for a number of bombings attributed to anarchist groups within the criminal underground. Holmes is a wreck, getting by on a diet of coffee, tobacco and cocaine; Downey plays up the fatigue beautifully, perhaps fueled by his own past experiences. Holmes is gaunt and hollowed out-his investigations of Moriarty partly responsible, but more wounded by the impending loss of his only friend to domesticity. In the spirit of celebration, Holmes drags Watson out to a stag party and ropes him into one last great adventure spanning several European nations that becomes little more than a cross-country pummeling tour with an occasional wisecrack thrown in.
What made the first installment so much fun was the nitpicking banter between Holmes and Watson; Downey and Law played off each other so quickly and sharply their Holmes and Watson seemed more hotheaded brothers than business associates. Here that back and forth is tossed off in favor of Ritchie's confusing action sequences (more than once i found myself wondering what the hell was going on) and large scale landscape shots (which i don't mind, as the art direction here is meticulous), resulting in a less-than-fulfilling experience as we accompany Holmes towards his inevitable face to face with Moriarty before he ignites World War whatever amidst a Swiss castle full of European dignitaries.
That isn't to say parts of the journey aren't thrilling or fun-they are, and there are still moments of brilliance as Holmes and Watson affectionately grate on one another (Watson's train ride to his Brighton honeymoon is especially entertaining, proving that when he's on Ritchie can fuse lightning action with lightning humor as well as he ever did in "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels"), fight (a shootout and chase through a French forest is probably the film's highlight for me, a slow-motion electric carnival of bullets and splintered wood that has to be seen to be believed) and argue their way to the film's finale. Ritchie makes us want to see Homes and Watson end up together; Holmes needs Watson to keep him sane and involved in the real world (his mapping out of potential actions in this film seems almost astral and syrupy) while Watson needs Holmes to make sure he doesn't become just another Englishman, fallen into complacency and squandering a burning talent. There's an investment in the pair that more or less ensures this series can go on indefinitely, and with the addition of an actual arch-villain for Holmes to lock intellects with there's more than enough material to strike paydirt one more time.
It isn't here, though. Ritchie's reimagining plays off witticisms and aristocratic snarkiness, and "A Game of Shadows" doesn't deliver enough of either to elevate it to the status of its prequel. Holmes' final stare down with Moriarty (over a chessboard, of course) is fun, but never quite nails the aura of desperation that we're expecting, especially considering what's at stake. Their previous encounter in an abandoned warehouse fares better, allowing us to see the depth of Moriarty's madness, but still devolves into another explosion-laden destruction spectacle. The emphasis is too much on action, not enough on fun. The big reveal here (as Holmes recounts everything he's taken notice of across the film) is fairly mind-blowing and might prompt repeated viewings to figure out if everything's actually where Ritchie says it is, but it all serves a reckless adherence to the Hollywood formula (something the first film was such an enjoyable antidote to.) I understand sequels are big business; "A Game of Shadows" certainly could have been much, much worse. It simply seems Ritchie is content to keep working, giving audiences what studios think they want, rather than what they've all actually asked for in the context of the first film. "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is better than average but disappointing in its ultimate failure to live up to its predecessor's potential. Ritchie can go further. Here's hoping round three reunites everyone again, this time with feeling.