Never mind the tweed jackets, bowler hats and turn of the century accouterments. The "Sherlock Holmes" franchise is all about the bromance between Sherlock Holmes and his faithful sidekick, Watson.
In "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows," said bromance blooms in new directions. Holmes dresses up like a lady to stay in disguise while the two pals even share a dance late in the film.
But what makes "Shadows" more than merely a "count the receipts" sequel is the addition of Moriarity, Holmes' cerebral arch-enemy. Holmes demands an enemy equal to his intellectual gifts, and actor Jared Harris makes sure the new cinematic Moriarity more than fits that bill.
The inestimable Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey, Jr.) and faithful sidekick Dr. Watson (Jude Law) suspect the mind behind a series of terrorist bombings is none other than Professor Moriarty. But the slick professor isn't sloppy enough to leave any evidence to prove that suspicion. So Holmes and Watson must outsmart the mastermind before more innocents get killed.
That short summation is far more clear-eyed than the film itself, which once more overwhelms us with the unending style palette of director Guy Ritchie. The British director's choices aren't all oversold. He's keen enough to step back and let Downey and Law banter incessantly, the former's rapid-fire line readings feel like he can't wait to share his next thought with us.
And while we cross our arms and wait for the style parade to wind down, along comes Moriarty to give us a villain of real consequence. Harris isn't a "name" actor that might have lured a few extra ticket buyers, but his intensity and arrogance is a perfect match for Holmes' flip demeanor.
By now, we know the new, improved Sherlock Holmes is a pugilist of the first order, But the sequel doesn't give him enough secondary characters with which to scrap. His love interest from the first film, Rachel McAdams, appears just long enough to illustrate just how cruel Moriarty can be to an innocent. And the addition of Noomi Rapace as a fortune teller whose brother figures into the knotty plot adds virtually nothing to the proceedings.
Who needs supporting players when Downey and Law are swapping gentle jibes with such alacrity? Holmes' affection for his mate is appealing, and while Watson is desperate to marry his longtime squeeze it's clear he'll have far more funny scampering around England with his best bud Holmes.
The duo's connection, a source of surprise the first time around, is played for knowing laughs here. That's a hearty sign for the franchise - it feels comfortable in its own skin.
And while most popcorn movies run out of imagination long before the final battle, "Shadows" wraps with a grand intellectual cage match and some first-rate humor.
"Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" won't make anyone forget the classic Holmes tales of yore, but it's cheeky spirit makes it a welcome addition to the holiday movie parade.