As a spate of anarchist bombings rips through Europe, Holmes (Downey Jr.) intercepts a letter that leads him to a mysterious gypsy girl (Rapace) and the brilliant Professor Moriarty (Harris). Meanwhile, Watson (Law) endeavours to get married...
Breezing into their next case, Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law unapologetically stick to the formula. This robust sequel doesn’t gaze intently at its navel, or require you to have boned up on a bewildering mythos or, God forbid, go darker. There is very little sense of personal growth at all in Holmes’ case. Events will sprawl from London to Paris, Germany and a well-known waterfall in the Swiss Alps, with the same gung-ho spirit of a steampunk Bond, while doffing its cap to Hitchcock and the Wachowski siblings. The set-pieces are a mix of marvels and overkill: with dick-swinging braggadocio the film keeps introducing bigger and bigger guns. What has changed is the villain.
He avoids the gurning war paint, but Moriarty is Sherlock’s Joker: a crook as indomitable as the hero. Far from lurking in the shadows, he takes centre stage. Through a series of confrontations, Holmes and his nemesis play a literal and metaphorical game of chess. There is no need for the flashy distraction of a ten-ton guest star: Jared Harris, purring over his inscrutable plans (his voice a luxuriant echo of his late father’s gravel-bed brogue), creates a Moriarty of diabolic grace — as poised as his opponent is jittery.
Downey Jr.’s antic Sherlock will still rattle the purist, but he is executing a worthwhile gambit: to both send up Arthur Conan Doyle’s solemnity and celebrate it. He remains a postmodern contraption: droll superhero (chief power: mind-mapping), wag, clown, geek and an old-fashioned romantic hero who ranks higher than the effects. Where Jack Sparrow sank beneath spaghetti plates of inedible plot, Downey Jr.’s libertine ’tec lives for the infernal case. The point is not to fret if you can’t quite catch the plot’s drift. Our view is Watson’s — you’re not supposed to have figured it out, leave that to Holmes.
Ritchie’s witty technique of roving through Holmes’ brain waves — be they fight moves (of which there are an exuberant and slightly overbearing number) or swatches of uncanny detection — is now the primary visual mechanic. A breathlessly long-winded action sequence, as Watson tries to begin his honeymoon only for his best man to throw his wife off the train, becomes a Russian doll of Holmes’ ingenious schemes-within-schemes. Clockworking back and forth in time, these flo-mo montages of deduction are a riff about filmmaking itself — the ability to warp time and reshuffle story in the edit suite. Even more than its predecessor, the sequel plays on its high-wire contradiction: a big, dumb action movie about mind-boggling cleverness — a paradox compounded by the casting of know-it-all Stephen Fry as Mycroft Holmes, who plays Stephen Fry with aplomb.
Noomi Rapace is the film’s only non-starter. It’s not her fault, poor girl; gypsy minx Sim is neither feisty nor particularly sympathetic, and isn’t even offered any romance. She just hangs around. Rachel McAdams, who returns briefly as treacherous Irene Adler, did more with less first time around. Of course, the true inamorata for Downey Jr.’s part-deranged Holmes remains Jude Law’s straight man — the sturdy Watson. It’s proving a decent role for the actor, who squeezes in a touch of sensitivity to the tension of a sensible man fighting the irresistible lure of adventure. Their bromance gathers steam, homoeroticism now less a subtext than extended routine in which Sherlock even dons full drag. While never giving in to parody, Game Of Shadows has the jovial detachment of self-mockery. Ritchie is convinced of something the ranks of blockbuster-makers seem to have forgotten — fun is not a dirty word.
A sequel confident in what it's about - bigger, better, funnier, without stretching the joke.