Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows begins with an explosion, followed by a bone-crunching fistfight, followed by a lot of bullets being fired in slow motion. It picks up right where the last film left off, in other words, and literary purists who sniffed at the application of 21st-century snark to Arthur Conan Doyle's 19th-century character will find themselves sniffing still. But once you come to terms with the fact that this is an entirely different mind-set from the traditional one -- once you succumb to Robert Downey Jr.'s exceedingly Robert Downey Jr.-ish way of playing Holmes, and Guy Ritchie's very Guy Ritchie-esque method of directing -- you can have a fair amount of fun with it.
In the 2009 film that relaunched this franchise, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) was engaged to be married, and Holmes was anxious over the impending loss of his crime-solving partner and bromantic other half. All of that is still true now, as the action commences the day before the wedding. Holmes has not gotten used to the idea -- if anything, he is more petulant than ever -- and his mile-a-minute brain is occupied with thoughts of Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the American criminal he once loved, who now seems to be working for Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris). Holmes doesn't trust the esteemed university professor, and with good reason.
While Watson is celebrating his last night of premarital freedom by drinking and gambling, Holmes becomes entangled with a gypsy fortune-teller named Simza (Noomi Rapace), who has a target on her back because of her brother's connection to an anarchist group. Europe is on the verge of war at the moment (when isn't it?), and a string of bombings perpetrated by extremists is making tensions worse. Holmes suspects Moriarty is part of it all, though he can't prove it yet. Three guesses whether he's right.
And thus Watson is abducted from his honeymoon to assist Holmes and Simza in saving Europe from whatever dastardly business Moriarty has in mind, leading them to a gypsy camp near Paris and a variety of other exotic locales. Tangentially involved -- and not involved enough, if you ask me -- is Sherlock's brother, Mycroft Holmes (Stephen Fry), an amusingly fatuous blowhard who's as keen on observing tiny details as Sherlock is. An adventure in which both Holmeses teamed up would be something.
While the usual pattern with sequels is to take whatever people liked in the first one and amplify it, A Game of Shadows is actually more restrained. Instead of being louder, sillier, and more chaotic, this installment is more tightly focused, and more plausible in a real-world sense. (Don't get me wrong -- it's still pretty far-fetched.) The screenplay was written by a husband-and-wife team, Kieran Mulroney and Michele Mulroney, which is an improvement over the lengthy list of scribes who took turns hacking at the other film. Ritchie loves slowing down action scenes to show us every detail, a trick that is usually cool to look at and sometimes even beautiful.
But despite this fine-tuning, A Game of Shadows suffers in other ways, most prominently in the area of battle fatigue. There are many, many fight sequences, and they start to feel hollow and exhausting before long. Meanwhile, the scenes in which Holmes uses his brilliant powers of deduction to solve mysteries are few and far between, nuggets of gold lost in the sea of guys punching each other. But the rapport between Holmes and Watson is still funny, and the film has several excellent sight gags to complement the verbal sparring. The series isn't flat-out great yet, but it's heading in the right direction.