For a continuing franchise it's so often the quality of the villain that makes the series longevity. The hero never changes, or we think that is the case. It's a good villain that pushes the protagonist to the edge. This is the case with the introduction of Professor James Moriarty into Guy Ritchie's steam punk version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great detective.
Moriarty was only hinted at in the original, but here he is played with intelligent ruthlessness by Jared Harris (TV's MAD MEN). Holmes (Robert Downey Jr., IRON MAN) has linked the university professor to a series of bombings that have been attributed to an anarchist group. His longtime beau Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams, THE NOTEBOOK) is still working for the man who has no qualms murdering to meet his goals. But what are his goals? Holmes boldly confronts him, which makes the dastardly schemer attack Holmes where it matters.
Dr. John Watson (Jude Law, A.I.) has just gotten married to Mary (Kelly Reilly, PRIDE & PREJUDICE). On the train to their holiday, they are attacked, but Holmes is there to save the day and ruin their honeymoon. In an effort to thwart Moriarty's plans, the duo team up once again to get to the bottom of the bombings. They receive help from Holmes' politically connected brother Mycroft (Stephen Fry, V FOR VENDETTA), who is half elitist and half nudist. A recovered letter will lead them to gypsy fortuneteller Madam Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO), who is good in a fight.
The scenes between Holmes and Moriarty are golden. Their battle of wits is fun like watching two expert duelers. Michele and Kieran Mulroney's script creates a memorable conclusion where Holmes and Moriarty are playing chess while "Holmes" is still in another room trying to stop a political assassination. While the idea of them playing chess seems obvious, the sequence has multiple layers and brings together all the conventions of the characters and this particular franchise.
Moriarty makes this film better than the first. But that's why I wanted more of him. While Holmes is always on his trail, he doesn't seem omnipresent. This is mostly due to long stretches were he is absent and Holmes and Watson are in search of Heron's brother, who of course will have a role to play in the larger plot. Moreover, the slightly bloated film seems bogged down a bit with slow-motion fight scenes where Holmes thinks things out ahead of time and other slow-motion action scenes where we watch bullets explode trees so that we can watch every splinter fall. And let's not even get into the stuff that would be better suited in a sci-fi film than a detective actioner set in 1895.
Nonetheless, Downey Jr. is a joy to watch as the flippant detective. The repartee between he and Law's Watson is downright lovable. These partners in fighting crime are set out against a grand manipulator who can match wits with Holmes. But what makes him more dangerous is that he knows how to get at Holmes. He's like the Green Goblin dangling Mary Jane over the edge of the bridge. Holmes is presented with lose-lose choices. But he's always prepared.