When Sherlock Holmes raked in more than $200 million at the box office in 2009, it was only elementary that Hollywood would realize a sequel was inevitable. It was far from inevitable, however, that the sequel would improve the product. Never mind that Sherlock Holmes was kind of a mess, its last hour overloaded with fights, explosions and that fast-slow-fast visual style that has become so achingly trendy. You don't mess with (financial) success. Give director Guy Ritchie credit, then, for tweaking the formula in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and coming up with something considerably more satisfying.
Screenwriters Kieran and Michele Mulroney have provided a more streamlined plot for Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). In 1891, a series of bombings has pushed Germany and France to the brink of war. Holmes suspects that Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) is involved, but he requires assistance in his investigations. It might be difficult to convince Watson to participate, since he's on the verge of retiring from the criminal-chasing business.
Ritchie appears to have figured out what works and doesn't work in creating a Victorian-era James Bond setup. In true master-villain tradition, Moriarty gets a worthy henchman (Paul Anderson) who's nearly as threatening as the head honcho himself. The action set pieces go big when Ritchie wants them to - Holmes and Watson fighting off assassins on a moving train; Holmes chasing down an acrobatic Cossack through a multi-level gentleman's club - but they're rarely poured on too thick. 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 confrontation is likely to play out.
It's noteworthy that despite the presence of Noomi Rapace (from the Swedish Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as a Gypsy who assists our heroes, Holmes has no romantic interest in A Game of Shadows. That's because the film commits rather boldly to a more-than-casual bromance between Holmes and Watson. The smart focus on their nebulous connection keeps the characters and their crisp banter at the center.
Ritchie being Ritchie, the action he does include often feels more frantic than truly exciting. Some of the supporting characters are wasted, and Holmes' triumphant explication of his cunning plan near the end makes no chronological sense. But for significant stretches, A Game of Shadows is fun, witty and - perhaps most shocking - occasionally restrained. It's almost enough to inspire anticipation for a couple of years from now, when the game once again will most likely be afoot.