In almost every way, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is functionally identical to the 2009 film Sherlock Holmes with which it shares almost all the important people on both sides of the camera, except for the writers (and the writers, I think we can most of us agree, are not actually very important people in the making of these pictures); and in almost every way, A Game of Shadows is also modestly, but observably better. Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law are both considerably more comfortable in their characters' skin (Law particularly), Guy Ritchie's direction, while still way too jumpy and manic for a Victorian period picture, has settled down considerably and leave the movie considerably more visually coherent - I do say more visually coherent, for it is not really visually coherent per se, but baby steps - the sets and props look a little bit more like something that might actually exist anywhere that's not a soundstage; the story is more sensible and easier to follow and more rewarding for having followed it; and most gratifyingly, if not most importantly, there's quite a bit less steampunk and quite a bit more Conan Doyle this time around. Why, a dedicated Holmesian could even tell you which handful of the original Holmes short stories are referenced in the story that isn't really "adapted" from any of them - the aficionado need only hear the word "Reichenbach" to guess where things are going to end, and maybe even feel a twinge of enthusiasm - and that's anyway quite an improvement from the last time we visited Ritchie's singular vision of late 19th Century London, which is a whole lot like his vision of 1990s London only with more CGI coal smoke and the kind of dialogue that a high schooler would come up with if given the single descriptor "old-fashioned".

Some time after the events of the initial movie, which cunningly dropped hints that immensely brilliant and modestly sociopathic consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Downey) had just tugged at the first thread of a web containing the most venomous spider in England, we return to find him gone pretty much the rest of the way to insane in tracking virtually every crime of scale committed in Europe back to a mathematics professor, James Moriarty (Jared Harris). The motive and depth of Moriarity's crime empire is the stuff of the movie's plot & thus not worth spoiling, but it plainly involves a tricky diplomatic nightmare brewing between France and Germany, raised to a fever pitch by a series of unexplained terrorist bombings. Things come to a head the night before the wedding of Dr. John Watson (Law), Holmes's former sidekick, who is dragged with a great deal of irritated grumbling into the continent-spanning investigation when Moriarty targets him and his new wife to get to Holmes.

That sounds, maybe, more like a scenario than a plot; but really, A Game of Shadows isn't a good enough film to need more than just a scenario. It's still kind of stupidly enjoyable, for what it is, and this has less to do with Ritchie's none-too-fleet handling of the relatively straightforward mystery plot (the film is over two hours long, and feels it), and sweet fuck-all to do with his thuggish handling of the action setpieces, which are firstly much too fractured in the editing room - not Bourne-style chaos-as-aesthetic, but more the absolute terror that we might be, for some brief period of even two seconds, bored if the camera doesn't jump like a scared rabbit - and secondly much too deeply in love with racking the framerate. In a particularly ghastly example, characters running from an exploding forest sometimes drop into slow-motion and then back and then to slow and then back, not because something is particularly "cool" and Ritchie wants to focus on it - the reason Zack Snyder does that sort of thing - but simply because the technology exists to do such a thing, and why on earth not? Truth be told, whatever ingenuity he displayed in bright and playful Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or even in the derivative but largely decent Snatch has been boiled off, and it is a bit shocking how actively bad he turns out to be at the basic mechanics of film grammar and visual storytelling. There is a point where a filmmaker can be accused of taking three shots to do what can be accomplished one shot, for example, and this is frequently called excessive, or indulgent, or the like. Ritchie, bless his soul, would rather do in three shots not what could be done in one, but which could not actually be done in three, without giving every action the feeling of being stretched out to a nasty thinness. It needn't take four separate shots to demonstrate e.g. that Holmes is looking at Watson. And yet, it does.

But I was talking, wasn't I, about how A Game of Shadows is, in despite of itself, a fun movie, or anyway a fun-ish one; it has to do mostly with the actors, who combine in all sorts of absolutely delightful ways. The first movie's annoying little game of poking fun at how much Holmes and Watson kind of seem like a gay couple, in a very laddish, Guy Ritchie way, has been replaced by the indifferent acknowledgement that they're basically a gay couple, with Holmes's catty sniping at Watson's new marriage providing most of the film's conflict, while double entendres that sort of only have a single intent litter the screenplay. It's no less laddish, but Downey and Law have a lot more fun with it, and both seem much more alive than before. Then there's Downey's handful of smart asshole competitions with Jared Harris, who is the best possible casting choice for this film's interpretation of Moriarty (kind of a compliment and kind of not); and further on, in a small but welcome performance, Stephen Fry plays Holmes's profoundly arrogant and profoundly lazy brother Mycroft; he's a little bit more bitchy than Conan Doyle ever wrote him, but it's probably the closest that the film comes to capturing the actual spirit of the actual stories, and it is satisfying.

The fun character dynamics that make even the densest parts of the film slide by without too much pain do not extend to the film's scant few women: Rachel McAdams briefly returns for absolutely no damn reason, and Noomi Rapace makes her English-language debut with the flat character of a gypsy girl who advances the plot and doesn't have much personality beyond "spitfire", or any chemistry at all with the other actors. Weak female characters being the perennial hallmark of Ritchie's filmography, this is not surprising at all, but worthy of notice regardless.

It doesn't solve the biggest single issue of the first movie - it is a story about a genius, that shamelessly panders to the audience segment that cares only about punchy style and easy quips - and there's no fun quite as shallow as the fun of watching actors goof with one another, which is pretty much the single card that A Game of Shadows has to play. But dear reader, I am of no use to you nor anyone if I am not honest, and the honest truth is that I was amused. Only a little, and partially as a defense mechanism. But sometimes that's enough to keep a wintertime popcorn movie from being a complete waste.