There seems to be new trend in studio blockbusters based on popular franchises: saving the best-known villain for the sequel. It's a risky move – and any risky move is unusual for Hollywood – because if the first movie flops, then the fans will never get to see how that series will handle their favorite bad guy. But if the first movie's a hit, then the producers not only have a built-in marketing device for the sequel, they have a chance at telling a larger, more iconic story. Compare this strategy to the olden days, where hits like Ghostbusters and City Slickers, developed as standalone titles, could only reheat their original formulas when sequels were demanded.
This "save the best for part 2" model paid off for Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, and so the 2009 Sherlock Holmes followed suit by teasing at Professor Moriarty in its final minutes. How well Moriarty would work as the sequel's big villain was still up in the air, as moviegoers are less familiar with this character than they are with, say, the Joker.
This lack of name recognition may explain why Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows got off to a slow start at the box office. Weeks later, however, the film has proven to have legs, thanks to positive word of mouth. The praise is well-deserved: the film is actually better than its predecessor.
Credit goes partly to English character actor Jared Harris, perfectly cast as Moriarty. Although rumors circulated about A-list stunt casting in the role (I believe even Brad Pitt's name was thrown about), Guy Ritchie and his team did the wise thing by hiring the best man for the part, name or no. Less successful is the casting of original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace as a French gypsy(!): her involvement in the plot is ultimately superfluous; she looks good, but her talents are wasted.
Still, the filmmakers – the entire creative team behind the first Sherlock Holmes has returned, with the exception of screenwriting couple Kiernan and Michele Mulroney replacing the scenarists from the first film – know what audiences like the most: the repartee between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law). The Mulroneys give us more of the same. They even take the homoerotic subtext of the characters' relationship – toyed with in the first film – and damn near raise it to camp level: Holmes, wearing drag, says "Lie down with me, Watson"; the two gentlemen later engage in some very serious ballroom dancing together.
It's all in good fun, and Ritchie and his crew make sure all the other things that worked in the 2009 film – the split-motion "Holmes-o-Vision" sequences, the rich Victorian detail, the clever mystery – are back, but on a more epic canvas that involves chasing (or being chased by) Moriarty all across Europe. Those who hated the first Holmes will not be won over by Game of Shadows, but those who enjoyed it while longing for a bit more substance will be satisfied.
Production value is top-notch, as is Hans Zimmer's loony score and Stephen Fry's droll supporting part as Holmes's brother Mycroft. I also enjoyed the script's surprising faithfulness to the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, relatively speaking – even including some of their story points and dialogue. This is one for the fans.