Holmes and Watson are back on the case in director Guy Ritchie's sequel to the 2009 hit Sherlock Holmes. But while the stakes, humor, and style of that first installment are all ramped-up considerably in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, the mystery here isn't nearly as compelling, and, from the back-alley brawl that gets the action underway, Ritchie compensates for a fairly pedestrian script with total stylistic overkill.
Brilliant detective Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) matches wits with the nefarious Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris) after uncovering a diabolical plot to destabilize the entire Western world. A criminal mastermind without a conscience, Moriarty is Holmes' worst nightmare -- a brilliant madman who uses his incredible intellect to commit acts of unspeakable evil. When the death of the crown prince of Austria is ruled a suicide, Holmes suspects that it's part of a grander scheme. But little does he realize that Professor Moriarty is about to commit a crime that will shock the entire world, and that proving his guilt may be a deadly endeavor. Meanwhile, Holmes' faithful sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) has just wed Mary (Kelly Reilly), but their honeymoon gets cut short by an explosive assassination attempt. When the trail of clues leads the sleuthing duo to mysterious gypsy Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace), all of Holmes' worst suspicions about Dr. Moriarty are confirmed, and the race to head off a war of unprecedented scale begins.
Aside from Downey Jr.'s eccentric interpretation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's brilliant detective and Ritchie's vitalizing direction, one of the primary factors that made 2009's Sherlock Holmes such fun was the "supernatural" angle of the mystery. Though anyone even remotely familiar with the Holmes mythology likely knew from the very beginning that the more fantastical aspects of the story weren't as otherworldly as they initially appeared, the fact that we never quite knew what Holmes was up against made watching him piece together the puzzle all the more intriguing. Here, Holmes engages in a high-stakes battle of wits against his most-famous nemesis, Professor Moriarty -- a malevolent genius played with diabolical relish by the talented Harris. The problem is that we know precisely who Holmes is up against from the moment we see a photo of Moriarty pinned to the detective's wall (directly connecting him to a series of suspicious deaths) early in the film, and thanks to some not-so-subtle clues dropped early on, it doesn't take long to figure out precisely what Moriarty is planning. So while Moriarty's plan may be much more destructive and grander in scale than that of Lord Blackwood's scheme from the original, it sorely lacks the enigmatic punch that kept us guessing throughout that first film and leaves us with little to do but laugh at Downey Jr.'s over-the-top performance.
When Watson has his first encounter with Holmes in the sequel, Holmes' befuddled landlady Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James) reveals that the detective has been sustaining himself on a steady diet of coffee, cocoa leaves, and booze. Immediately after, we see Holmes slurp a glass of embalming fluid with barely a flinch. And while these explanations may go a long way in justifying Holmes' heightened idiosyncrasies, Downey Jr.'s cartoonish flourishes threaten to become the film's greatest distraction, rather than its greatest asset. Admittedly, this has quite a bit to do with the script as well (in the back-alley brawl that opens the film, it appears that Holmes has actually become a psychic rather than simply a skilled observer), and ultimately it's the buddy chemistry between wild-eyed Downey Jr. and staunch straight man Law, not the main mystery, that rescues Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows from being a complete disaster. Sadly, co-stars Rapace and Rachel McAdams are all but wasted in thankless supporting roles, though Stephen Fry still manages to get a few big laughs as Sherlock's brother Mycroft Holmes, who proves that quirkiness runs in the family.
With returning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot giving Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows an even richer visual texture than the first film and composer Hans Zimmer appropriately expanding the themes to a more majestic scale, it's easy to get caught up in the style and action of this sequel and overlook husband-and-wife writing duo Michele and Kieran Mulroney's intricate yet clumsy screenplay. Perhaps if Ritchie can keep his core team together and recruit some new screenwriters who actually know how to craft a satisfying mystery, there's a chance of turning the Holmes films into a successful trilogy. Otherwise, it may be wise to leave well enough alone, and take pride in the fact that at least they got it right the first time around.