Opening all over the place tomorrow, the first heavy hitter of the Christmas film season arrives as Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law put on their thinking caps again for Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows.

Christmas 2009 was very much the season of Avatar, crushing all comers in its wake and going on to be the biggest film of all time. However, that’s not to say that this was all anyone on the entire planet went to during that time as Warner put what was seen as a potentially tricky proposition out against it and did well for themselves. With a director who was still in a bit of career rehab, Guy Ritchie, and marketing that said this was certainly not your parent’s Holmes this was no sure-fire thing at all but thanks to a method of visual storytelling which combined Ritchie’s flashy direction with a character whose mind needed to be laid out on screen ina  unique way and also winning performances from both Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, Sherlock Holmes became quite the hit itself, grossing over $500 million internationally off a budget of less than $100 million and proving to go down fairly well with the critics, the film earning a 70% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film’s ending very much set-up this sequel which sees a number of pitfalls itself. Downey Jr is certainly risking being overexposed as he finds himself toplining a number of huge films, the now usual 2-year break between franchise installments meant that things had to fall into place pretty quickly for the film, something that often trips up blockbuster films, you need only look at Downey Jr’s own Iron Man 2 as an example, but crucially here we have the other truly famous person in the Holmes world, Professor Moriarty the only man Holmes ever felt truly matched his wits and after a well publicised trawl through “name” actors, the filmmakers settled on relative unknown Jared Harris, who had the not exactly easy job of going against Downey Jr. Does all this make a case so hard even Holmes can’t crack it?

Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr) is busy investigating what he thinks could be the biggest case the world has ever seen and does all this right in the middle of John Watson’s (Jude Law) impending marraige to Mary (Kelly Reilly). The case? Attempting to prove that well-respect friend of the Prime Minister Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris) is actually the mastermind behind a series of unusual events which could lead to something much bigger but something Holmes can’t figure out. Holmes enlists Watson one last time to defeat Moriarty and soon also drafts in gypsy Sim (Noomi Rapace) who finds herself at the wrong end of Moriarty’s intellect.

As I said earlier, one of the more successful elements of the first film in this series for me was the way Ritchie visually depicted the mind of Holmes which what seems to have been dubbed as “Holmes-o-vision”, a fairly reductive phrase which I’m sure Arthur Conan Doyle would spin in his grave if he’d heard. The way we seem Holmes work out exactly what he’s going to do in his mind before actually playing it out managed to let Ritchie show off his usual visual pizazz but unlike say the climactic fight in Snatch, there wasn’t much of a style for style’s sake argument to make for it, instead it flowed and connected into this interpretation of Holmes very well. This new installment continues this but also ramps up the flashiness.

The way these sequences play out now combine the slow-motion thinking sequences during the fights with a series of fast cuts which jump around all over the place while he is figuring out ways of getting out of situations. While it could be argued that this is Holmes’ rather more manic state of mind at play, and certainly he often appears to be under the influence of something in almost every scene in this one, there is a sense that this is Ritchie just mucking about a little bit but considering it all still fits into the film without calling attention to itself all that much, this is something that can certainly be allowed to slide. Saying this though, a run through the woods, that is heavily teased in the marketing, lets fly with the speed ramping and doesn’t make any sense thematically, there’s certainly little time for Holmes to do any thinking here, but in terms of style, it’s probably the coolest thing Guy Ritchie has ever filmed, a combination of speed ramping, slow-motion photography and tricks like cameras being fixed looking at someone side on as their heads bob up and down all make this sequence the real all-action climax of the film, despite there still being a good 25 minutes of the film left.

That’s not to say the film is anti-climactic though as in fact, the last section has a lot of positive stuff to say about it also as like in the first film, things unravel in a more intellectual bent as Holmes and Moriarty match wits both figuratively and literally with a well-worn technique in these films given a new lease of life and combining once again visuals with thematic material. The very ending of the film is also a real joy, while there’s little surprise in what actually happens, how it’s shown is a real delight and had me laughing loudly in all the right ways. With this ending coming after what is also an incredibly strong first act which sets up the battle between our foes very well, something which lends a great deal of melancholy to the quieter moments of the film also, and you have a film which for the most part is a pure joy to sit through.

Though as I say this is for the most part as like the first installment, the film does feel its over 2-hour runtime in portions. Not helping matters is Noomi Rapace’s character Sim who adds extra emotional baggage which in all honesty wasn’t really all that needed and while Rapace does well to give her character more personality and life than what’s on the page, the sad truth is that if her character wasn’t in here at all, we’d probably have a stronger film with a leaner runtime. I say this as someone who enjoyed Rachel McAdams in the first part, sparking off Downey Jr well and adding a bit of pep which for narrative reasons can’t really happen here in what is a slightly more contemplative beast than the original film.

Again Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law impress, the bromance of the piece taken to new heights here with more physical comedy and odd sexual tension than in the first despite Law’s character being married for most of the film and while this feels rather anachronistic, it does work in the context of this specific world, though what doesn’t are the occasional flashes of dialogue which feel a little too “now”, “Shirley no-mates” and “let’s crack on” for example never really feeling like words that should be coming out of these character’s mouths, it’s a little personal thing more than anything else mainly but it did annoy me. Jared Harris who I’ve seen do good quiet bad guy work before in Fringe manages to come out of the shadows and mightily impress with a quieter, less showy but infinitely more arrogant feel to his Moriarty, a man who always looks like he knows he’s several steps ahead, his cold-hearted logic meaning that we never get him blowing up at Holmes but unlike Mark Strong’s bad guy in the first one who sometimes felt like the was playing a role, something that admittedly felt in-character, here we are always sure that Moriarty is a huge challenge and really could at times be someone Holmes won’t be able to defeat. Also, Stephen Fry does well with what was a far more “comic relief” part than I had expected as Mycroft Holmes, Fry’s trademark being able to say and do silly things without cracking doing well here, making a character I hope we see again though also in a more useful capacity.

Sherlock Holmes – A Game of Shadows cements this franchise as a solidly made and very entertaining endeavor which could very easily lead to more in the future. With performances that stretch just about enough, a bad guy who really works and action which is bigger and bolder, though with a runtime that again feels padded and a lead female role which never quite satisfies, in terms of whether this is a better film than the original installment is a case of swings and roundabouts and for me comes out at about the same level, something I’d take any day of the week.