Even though Guy Ritchie's and Steven Moffat's versions of Sherlock Holmes take place in different eras, with different characters (perhaps possessing different sexual orientations), they complement each other nicely. Viewing one series informs and enhances my perception of the other. They share humor, irreverence, the illuminating Watson/Holmes bond, and direction that lets you visualize Holmes' vaunted brilliance by giving it physical form, when his thoughts come to action on the screen.
Of course, Robert Downey's Holmes is practically a derelict, teetering on the edge of insanity and self-destruction. One begins to feel that his drug reliance does not stimulate his thought, so much as restrain it, slowing down hyper brain function that might otherwise immobilize him.
Professor James Moriarty plans to secure his fortune by causing a World War which will increase demand for the guns and ammunition in which he has heavily invested. Sherlock only stumbles onto this plot by following his paramour, Irene Adler around town as she delivers nefarious packages.
When she is killed, I hardly believe the death is real and expect her to turn up again any moment. She doesn't, but there's always the next film! Sherlock represses his reaction to her death, but Moriarty taunts him about it and threatens Watson's life as well. In a rare somber moment, Holmes tells Moriarty that giving his own life to stop Moriarty's would not only be an easy option, but a welcome one. In imparting this, one feels that it's not only that Holmes would gladly die to avenge Irene, but that part of him wants out anyway.
Watson's been away for awhile and returns on the eve of his wedding, ready for his Bachelor party fete, but Sherlock seems to have forgotten about the whole thing. He fakes it, taking Watson to a night club where he can investigate a band of gypsy rebels who may be participating in an assassination plot that will lead to the international incident Moriarty hopes will start a war. Sherlock brings his brother Mycroft along for the ride.
Watson sees that none of his friends have been invited to the Bachelor Party (and he indignantly assures Holmes that he has many) and that it's all been a ruse. Abandoned, he enjoys himself at the gaming table and winds up plastered. Sherlock, the best and, on this occasion, better man gets the wildly inebriated Watson to the church on time and the wedding proceeds. The two are set to spend their honeymoon night on a train, but learning that Watson is one of Moriarty's targets, Holmes boards the train disguised as a woman, pushes an untrusting Mary off of the speeding vehicle (she is snagged in the water below by Mycroft who has been stationed to collect her there) and enlists Watson's agreement to help bring Moriarty to justice.
We later see Mary and Mycroft working together on the bureaucratic, less bloody, side to bring Moriarty down, while Holmes and Watson traispe through the woods on horseback (which is easier for some than for Sherlock) with their gypsy allies to find the would be political assassin whose murder of a prime minister would wreak world havoc. In one funny bit Watson is first aggrieved when the gypsies steal a scarf Mary knitted for him, but later when they're all friendly and they offer him the scarf back, he waves it away and says it suits the gypsy better. Is this his way of rejecting the sedentary life marriage will offer him?
Watson is where I wish Ritchie's Sherlock was more like the BBC's, because we don't get the character insight needed. I can't complain that this movie devolves into action at the expense of interaction. The character dialogue and exchanges still remain at the heart of the movie and I don't need the void at the core of Sherlock's life laid out for me. But I would like more insight into Watson's motivations.
Why does he become so sloshed he can hardly stand? It doesn't seem like just a groom's normal "cold feet." What's he running away from? Is he questioning the institution of marriage or his choice as a bride. Is he because he craves the adventure he finds at Holmes' side and feel part failure for not pursuing it?
If so, this is not a case of a man, pressured by convention to "settle" for the conventional life, even though he lusts for danger, because despite her prim demeanor his intended, Mary, has proven that she is open-minded enough to support her husband's investigative endeavors and capable enough to assist them. She may be affronted by Holmes' rudeness, but is not threatened by Watson's allegiance to him. If Watson has pulled away from his partner, it's not at Mary's urging. Maybe he feels inferior, thinks he lacks the brain or brawn to keep up. Or, like Sherlock vocerifously resents Watson's marriage, maybe Watson feels the same about Sherlock's madness. Sherlock loves Watson and would preserve his friend's life at all costs, but not his own. He never stints his risk for the sake of those who care about him. And it's one thing when Sherlock undertakes peril to save others, but often he does it on a lark. Sometimes his goals are alturistic, but more often he's just reckless for its own sake. Sherlock's got a death wish and maybe Watson put distance between them, not because he doesn't want to be there when it all ends, but because it all has to. His loyal friendship isn't enough for Sherlock, but his love is enough for Mary. So, that's the path he takes, because he's never a full companion on Sherlock's.
This is driven home in a pivotal scene at the end of a showdown between Sherlock and Moriarty. The two men are struggling. Sherlock, whose arm is injured, has already played out the entire fight scenario already in his head. He knows that he is too weak to physically conquer Moriarty. If Moriarty lives after Sherlock perishes, Holmes fears not only for the world, but more importantly, for Watson and Mary's lives, which Moriarty has threatened. He determiness that the only way to kill Moriarty is to sacrifice himself. He has positioned himself over a railing, while clutching Moriarty as Watson enters the room. They lock eyes, then Holmes methodically pulls himself over the railing, taking Moriarty with him, the two men plunge miles down through swirling snow, into the abyss of Switzerland mountains. At that point, Watson knew not only that Sherlock had, effectively committed suicide, but that he'd done it knowing Watson was feet away and could have helped him defeat Moriarty. We can assume that Sherlock thought it best that he and Moriarty both certainly die, rather than Watson die in an attempt to kill Moriarty. But from Watson's perspective, Sherlock killed himself, without cause, willingly leaving behind someone who desperately values Sherlock's survival to witness the devastating moment. Maybe Watson doesn't choose a life of investigative work with Sherlock, because he doesn't believe that Sherlock would ever choose a life with him, over the need to indulge his demons.
The dulling look in Watson's eyes as he sees Sherlock's death fall is more poignant for its lack of shock or anguish. Watson cries in, not out, as if himself frozen in the snow that has enveloped Holmes.
Watson attends Sherlock's funeral and is penning his obituary on a manual typewriter. "The End" he concludes. Mary brings him a package. He opens it to find a small oxygen tank, one he last saw in Mycroft's home, where Sherlock was harshly admonished to put it down. Smiling, Watson realizes that Sherlock must have had the tank with him when he fell to his "death". Using it, his friend somehow survived (so he didn't die from lack of oxygen, but who knows why he didn't freeze to death, lost in the icy alps). Watson, suddenly lighthearted, leaves the room to ask Mary who delivered the package.
When he leaves Holmes, who has disguised himself as a chair in the room (!) comes to ulphostered life and moves to Watson's typewriter, placing a merry question mark after Watson's final words: The End?
A funny, clever ending. We don't see the heartwarming reunion because: (1) the script floats too lightly to do such emotion justice, and (2) in Holmes and Watson's story, as in real life, the deeper the relationship, the more impossible, and unnecessary, it is to fully articulate.