The film picks up pretty much exactly where the first film left off, with Holmes (Downey) channeling his OCD attention to detail into one case after another while Watson (Jude Law) gingerly attempts to extract himself from their partnership and be with his future bride Mary (Kelly Reilly). After the duo successfully thwarts a terrorist attack, the two men part ways and Watson goes on his honeymoon while Holmes enlists his brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry) to help pore over suspects and evidence. But when Holmes visits the man he holds responsible, the impossibly calculating Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris), he discovers that their new adversary is as unscrupulous as he is brilliant. Racing after Watson to rescue him and Mary from assassination, Holmes quickly falls into an escalating game of cat and mouse with Moriarty, and the former partners are forced to reunite in order to stop their foe’s dangerous machinations – which may have global implications if they come to pass.
Unfortunately, part of that mystery is driven by a lackluster sense of urgency, or perhaps more accurately, the distracted focus of a filmmaker himself gifted more with a keen eye for character details and plot digressions than dramatic momentum and narrative cohesion. Between reintroducing the characters, setting up relationships whose dynamics most viewers will already be familiar with, and creating a couple of effectively exciting action scenes, it takes a solid hour for the story to find its focus, which feels like a little too long, and it may be why some viewers are slightly confused – surely I’m missing something important, right? (Sadly, you aren’t.) Meanwhile, Ritchie fetishizes supporting roles and smaller details that enrich the world he’s creating, but they don’t always enhance the intensity of what’s actually supposed to be happening, or clarify why you should care.
But again, the characters and their relationships with one another are so strongly conceived – or perhaps more accurately, inherited – that you’re seldom at a loss for something fun or entertaining to watch. By now, Holmes and Watson’s friendship has become the stuff of homoerotic fan-fiction, with Holmes as the jealous companion who feels cast aside for another. The film’s acknowledgment of that, if not indulgence, almost creates the movies’ first post-bromance, a bittersweet celebration of two male friends who struggle to recognize that there are other companions who will eventually have to take priority. And it certainly helps that Downey and Law are fully committed to playing that emotional dynamic in a way that viewers can imprint it with whatever interpretation they choose.
Ultimately, 'Game Of Shadows' is more complex than the first film, but it’s also a little less focused, and while the two qualities seem at odds with one another, the end result feels like a solid ‘70s or ‘80s movie where the filmmakers just aren’t in as much of a hurry, rather than a contemporary action-thriller that lacks steam or energy. Of course, it remains to be seen whether audiences as a whole will agree with that assessment – they’ll either embrace the bromance or balk at its context – but as a whole, Ritchie’s film rewards fans of the first film without merely duplicating its choices. Overall, “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” doesn’t quite qualify as a great film, but it’s a solid, engaging sequel, and the right sort of antidote to the season’s stuffier competition. [B+]