Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) and Dr John Watson (Jude Law) deal with mayhem, murders and a marriage in this stylish and superior sequel © 2011 Warner Bros

Director Guy Ritchie’s tongue-in-cheek 2009 Sherlock Holmes reboot may be the most unlikely half-billion-dollar blockbuster ever, even taking into account that it starred the apparently still Iron Man-hot Robert Downey Jr. In addition to having only a so-so original storyline, a 19th-century Victorian setting and a bizarrely re-interpreted classic character, the movie looked as chilly and dismal as an English winter.

What that first outing had going for it was the offbeat odd-couple chemistry between Downey’s outrageously unconventional Holmes, who was as obsessive-compulsively goofy as he was ingenious, and Jude Law’s reluctant, rational and frequently exasperated Dr John Watson. While those cartoonish interpretations may not have thrilled devotees of creator Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Holmes stories and novels, they undeniably established the re-imagined detective as one distinctly different from previous incarnations.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows - Jared Harris
Maniacal mastermind Dr James Moriarty (Jared Harris) hopes to start the first world war more than two decades early © 2011 Warner Bros

This fun followup improves on its predecessor with more quirky camaraderie, a better plot and a more worthwhile adversary. Classic Holmes arch-nemesis Dr James Moriarty (Jared Harris), the hidden puppetmaster in the last movie, is front and center here as the mastermind of a scheme to start the first world war 23 years early. Harris’ Moriarty is properly professorial and arrogantly intelligent, with a low-key confidence that’s a counterpoint to Holmes’ showy antics.

The elaborate antique-postcard look of the movie appears less gloomy this time, and Ritchie’s trademark use of abrupt speed-ramping is impressive as ever (especially during a high-firepower fast-slow-fast pursuit through a forest). The sets and locations, both real and computer generated, are stunning. And the high-calibre special effects, such as a lengthy shootout with occasional explosions on a moving train, are movie-mayhem magic.

Holmes’ elusive and unreliable love interest Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) returns only briefly, but Watson’s likably unflappable fiancee Mary (Kelly Reilly) gets more to do. New cast member Noomi Rapace (who played Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) is appropriately exotic as a Gypsy named Sim, and Stephen Fry is flawless as Holmes’ oddball older brother Mycroft.

The amusing and action-packed screenplay by Kieran and Michele Mulroney is a pleasant surprise, considering that the duo’s last feature — the unwatchably precious writer-with-issues dramedy Paper Man — topped my 10 Worst of 2009 list. Fans of the literary Holmes will be either apoplectic with indignation or impressed by the sheer audacity of the Mulroneys’ literally over-the-top treatment of a certain Reichenbach Falls incident from the Doyle canon.

The central plot about a devious fiend seeking to profit from international conflict is classic James Bond stuff that works equally well no matter the era, but the movie’s weirdly charming version of Holmes and Watson is what makes the movie special. This is a Holmes who announces that he finds horses “dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle,” then is seen bouncing along astride a pony so tiny the detective’s feet barely clear the ground.

It’s a goofy sight gag — but like nearly everything else about this eccentric and unlikely adventure, it works.

[Rating: 4 stars]

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows gets its theatrical release on Friday December 16, 2011

James Dawson

Jim is Film Review Online's Los Angeles based reviewer.