Well, that was certainly...loud.
The second installment in the franchise introduces the Napoleon of Crime himself, Professor Moriarty, who turns out to be at the heart of a mega-conspiracy to profit from World War One. As the year is 1891, he is somewhat ahead of schedule. (He is also somewhat out of line with the previous film, which was set around the time of the US Civil War. But who needs chronological continuity when you want to get WWI going?) In the meantime, he builds his shadow empire by offing significant businessmen, opium traders, doctors, and goodness knows else. Moriarty is aided in his endeavors by wicked sharpshooter Col. Sebastian Moran and an armory of before-its-time weaponry, along with some equally anachronistic innovations in the field of plastic surgery. Holmes, meanwhile, finds himself torn between tracking Moriarty to his lair and dealing with Watson's marriage (hint: do not ask Holmes to arrange your stag party). For some reason, he also has the assistance of his brother Mycroft "Mikey" Holmes (Stephen Fry, rather too skinny), who genially addresses Holmes as "Shirley," wanders about his home in a state of undress, and keeps a superannuated butler named Stanley. Also for some reason, Holmes and Watson wind up with a female sidekick concocted out of an embarrassing run of gypsy stereotypes (fortune telling! theft! dirt!). Although Holmes wants to prevent Moriarty from blowing Europe to smithereens, he is actually more interested in preventing Moriarty from "creatively" murdering Watson (oh yes, and Watson's wife). Everything climaxes in a castle built right over Reichenbach Falls, where the expected happens.
In many ways, this film owes far more to the Rathbone/Bruce WWII propaganda films (e.g., Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon ) than to the canon: Holmes and Watson are out to save "Western Civilization" (the film's term) from Doom. Doom's methods bear some resemblance to modern terrorism, and there's also a pointed nod to (ahem) interrogation techniques; however, Doom has no particular ideological purpose, other than to make a lot of money out of "industrial warfare." War is good for private pocketbooks, it seems. Like the previous film, which counterpointed the villain's nefarious scheming for control of the Empire with the decrepit state of the urban landscape, Game of Shadows suggests a world in which there really isn't much in the way of moral content; Moriarty is evil, but as he coolly tells Holmes just before being schlepped over the Falls, it's not clear that his evil is all that unwelcome to the Higher Powers. After all, he correctly points out, WWI is coming anyway. This lends the film a certain noirish sensibility, even as it also suggests that European politics has declined into meaningless balls and state dinners. That, however, is the end of the film's pretensions to serious thought.
Technically, the film looks very much like its predecessor, featuring lots of fight sequences shot with rapid cuts (distractingly so) and a fatal overdose of bullet time. The opening, with Watson typing up the manuscript of "The Final Problem," hearkens back to 1930s and 1940s adaptations of classic novels; the Switzerland scenes also look suspiciously like a nod to the Lord of the Rings films, and at one point a made-up Holmes resembles the late Heath Ledger's Joker. But there is surprisingly less exterior London, although for once somebody remembers that the city would not have been inhabited solely by white people. Frustratingly, there is even less of Sherlock Holmes being, well, Sherlock Holmes; while there's nothing wrong with Holmes engaging in fisticuffs (he was a good boxer, after all), the ratio of things blowing up/being shot up/being punched to Holmes using his mental powers is awfully disproportionate. If anything, the real inspiration for director Guy Ritchie and his writers appears to be TV Tropes: they hit everything from Ascended Fanon ("John Hamish Watson") to Room Full of Crazy, with, of course, extensive time spent in Ho Yay. In fact, unlike the previous film, where Mary Morstan's appeal was at least reasonably obvious, this time around actress Kelly Reilly has been directed to simper endlessly, leaving Holmes and Watson to wrestle suggestively and, for some reason, dance unremarked around a ballroom floor. If we must have a third installment, the filmmakers will no doubt find a reason to stick to canon and send Mary to her grave, leaving Holmes to cheer poor Watson up. As Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law actually spark nicely off each other, that might improve matters somewhat; the film's (few) best moments consistently involve them just talking to (and/or flirting with) each other. Perhaps more of that and less of mass set destruction?