*Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
When Sherlock Holmes made more than $200 million in 2009, a sequel was inevitable. It was far from inevitable, however, that those creating that sequel would make any effort to improve the product. Never mind that Sherlock Holmes was kind of a mess; you don't generally mess with (financial) success.
Give director Guy Ritchie credit, then, for tweaking the formula in A Game of Shadows, and concocting something considerably more satisfying than its predecessor.
Firstly, screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney deliver a more streamlined plot for Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law). In 1891, a series of bombings have pushed Germany and France to the brink of war. Holmes suspects that Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) is involved, but requires assistance in his investigations. It's difficult to persuade Watson to participate since he's about to wed Mary (Kelly Reilly) and retire from the criminal-chasing business.
Another significant advantage Shadows has over the first film: the presence of the great detective's greatest enemy. Moriarty lingers on the sidelines for much of the film, but when he gets involved, he's a terrific, stakes-raising antagonist. Sherlock Holmes deserves better than the spunky ex-girlfriend and occult-promoting nobleman he was stuck with in the first film, and he gets it here.
Ritchie also appears to have figured out what works in his attempt to create a Victorian-era James Bond setup. In true master-villain tradition, Moriarty gets a worthy henchman, the sharp-shooting Col. Moran (Paul Anderson), who's nearly as threatening as the head honcho.
The action set pieces go big when Ritchie wants them to — Holmes and Watson fighting off a squadron of assassins on a moving train; Holmes chasing down an acrobatic Cossack through a multi-level gentleman's club — but except for a mortar-bombed escape from a munitions factory, they're rarely poured on so thick that nothing else can escape their pull. It's also an admirable nod to the history of the characters that the climactic showdown between Holmes and Moriarty takes place almost entirely within their minds, as they plot and counter-plot how the showdown is likely to play out before any confrontation occurs.
It's also noteworthy that despite the presence of Noomi Rapace as a gypsy who assists our heroes, Holmes has no romantic interest in Shadows. That's because the film commits rather boldly to its identity as a more-than-casual bromance between Holmes and Watson.
Downey has fun with Holmes' subtly petulant response to being abandoned by his partner, and it seems no accident that when Holmes is rescuing Watson during his honeymoon, he's disguised as a woman. The two men even share a formal dance as they try to sort out the details of Moriarty's plans. The smart focus on their nebulous connection keeps the characters and their crisp banter at the center.
Ritchie being Ritchie, the action he includes often feels more frantic than truly exciting, chopped into micro-fragments of punches and gunshots. Some of the supporting characters are wasted — including Rapace and Stephen Fry as Holmes' brother, Mycroft — and Holmes' triumphant explication of his cunning plan near the end makes no chronological sense, really.
But for significant stretches uninterrupted by pointless bombast, Shadows is fun, witty and, perhaps most shocking of all, occasionally restrained. It's almost enough to inspire anticipation for a couple of years from now, when the game once again will likely be afoot.