I'm not sure whether Guy Ritchie's second Sherlock Holmes film, A Game of Shadows, is more or less successful than his 2009 take on Arthur Conan Doyle's universally known detective. On the one hand, there's less action and more talking, particularly in the film's climax; on the other hand, the action scenes are more bombastic, louder, and full or more editing and camera trickery in ways that, frankly, didn't interest me in the slightest.
Unlike many Holmes purists, I'm willing to accept the concept that Ritchie has re-envisioned the mysteries as an 1890s equivalent of "buddy cop" movies. The execution isn't close to Doyle, but at least Ritchie is willing to keep one element faithful: the relationship between Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor John Watson (Jude Law) continues to be the consistent thread of the stories the films are (loosely) based on. Law and Downey banter, trade barbs, and function as equal parts of a team - it's no wonder that Holmes is so troubled by Watson's impending nuptials with Mary (Kelly Reilly).
Harris, as Moriarty, has all of the credibility as a villain that Mark Strong seemed to lack in the last film, and his ability to strike without raising a finger is demonstrated early on when he (SPOILER) abruptly kills Irene Adler (the returning Rachel McAdam's) while never moving from his teacup. His influence and intellect is more than a match for Holmes, and it's nice to see the two of them in a battle of wits (during a literal and figurative chess match) in the climax of the film. In fact, that's coupled with detective work elsewhere by Watson and Madam Sizma Heron (Noomi Rapace), a gypsy searching for her brother - who may or may not be part of the assassination plot Moriarty hopes will light the fuse on his war.
Alas, this moment is also where A Game of Shadows takes an unexpected turn, and not for the better. I'm fine with having Moriarty as the villain of the second Holmes film, but to jump so quickly (POSSIBLE SPOILER) to the ending of The Adventure of the Final Problem after having introduced his nemesis so early struck me as foolish. It was clear that Holmes wouldn't actually die (it is only the second movie in what will, no doubt, be a long series), which invokes The Seven Per-Cent Solution in suggesting that Holmes fakes his own death. However, it's something of a cheat to have Holmes and Moriarty plunge to their deaths if neither one of them really dies.
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned Noomi Rapace much in this review, and that's because she doesn't have much to do in the film. After demonstrating she can hold her own in a physical struggle with an assassin (one trying to clean up Moriarty's "loose ends"), her role becomes nothing more than a person who gets Holmes and Watson from "here to there" - in this instance, from France to Germany.
She doesn't really have anything else to do except be another body running from the weapons of war on display in the film, giving Ritchie an excuse to blow things up and tear trains and trees apart with machine gun fire. This brings me to the "big" action setpiece of the film that just doesn't work: Holmes, Watson, Heron, and other gypsies are running from German soldiers and Moriarty's hired sharpshooter, Colonel Sebastian Moran (Paul Anderson). Ritchie employs a series of speed ramps, cgi shots of bullets being loaded and fired, slow-mo explosions, and auditory overload for what feels like forever, only for our heroes to escape on the train we knew they'd escape on. There's no tension, just gimmickry without purpose.
For a while early in the film, it feels like Ritchie and Downey are trying too hard to recapture the "manic" nature of the first Sherlock Holmes; his pursuit of Adler at the beginning of the film lacks any charisma or "pep," and Downey's many disguises border on ridiculous as the film wears on. Only when Moriarty enters the picture does business begin to pick up, although Jude Law and Downey do their best to keep things fresh in the meantime.
So as not to end on a sour note, I thought it fair to mention the stroke of genius on Ritchie's part to cast Stephen Fry as Holmes' older brother, Mycroft. He brings an eccentricity and sense of mirth to the film that's desperately needed, as well as a more direct underscoring to the homoerotic tones between Holmes and Watson. I'll even overlook the nude scene, which is reminiscent of Austin Powers and not entirely necessary - I'm certain Mary would have been equally uncomfortable with Mycroft's attitude rather than the fact he was naked. Still, Fry brings an energy that seems to be missing early in the film and is a welcome addition to the extended cast.
The question remains: should you see it? Well, that depends on how you feel about the last film. Did you like it? Were you entertained, if intellectually left desiring more? You probably will feel a little better about parts of Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, but the cons do even out the pros, leaving a film that is in many ways a step forward and a step back simultaneously. You probably won't regret the overall experience as popcorn entertainment goes, but we'll need to wait and see if a truly great Holmes film from this team is in the cards.