Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes
Part buddy film and part Indiana Jones, director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes follows the eponymous detective (Robert Downey, Jr. sporting his convincing English accent for the first time since his Oscar-nominated turn as Chaplin) and his partner-in-crime-solving, Dr. John H. Watson (Jude Law), as they help Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan) unravel a dastardly plot that threatens to destroy England.
Holmes and Watson must race against time to stop the treacherous Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong, who looks like Andy Garcia’s British twin), a former member of Parliament turned black magic-wielding occult leader who has apparently returned from the dead. During the course of his investigation, Holmes’ path once again crosses with that of the duplicitous Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), the American beauty who broke his heart years before. Holmes must not only contend with Irene, and whatever her ties are to his case, but also with the imminent break-up of his partnership with Watson, who is getting married and moving out of the 221B Baker Street flat they’ve long shared. Things hardly seem “elementary” for this Sherlock Holmes.
Guy Ritchie has made the most exciting, eccentric and accessible film version yet of the world’s greatest detective (sorry, fellow Bat-fans, but Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth held that title long before the Dark Knight). Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes is a breathless action-adventure that hits the ground running. While it often borders on the absurd (if not downright over-the-top), Ritchie manages to keep things on an even keel, just avoiding the cartoonishness that sank that other Victorian literary superhero romp, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. He mixes the brawling and grittiness of Snatch with the cheekiness and briskness of a Mummy or Indy movie. It really shouldn’t work, but for the most part it does.
Thanks to the artwork of Sidney Paget and the Basil Rathbone films, the general public has long had the image stuck in their heads of a beak-nosed Holmes in a deerstalker cap with a portly, exasperated Watson in tow. Downey and Law may finally shatter that perception, and they are the biggest reason why the film still entertains even in its less effective moments. Downey’s Holmes is perhaps the most vulnerable and possibly manic depressive screen incarnation of Doyle’s detective, and also the most physically adept. But it’s still Holmes’ exquisite mind that makes him a great and lasting hero, and Downey is one of the few actors smart enough to believably play a genius. There’s a devious brilliance behind his eyes that convinces us he can see things others don’t notice and put together the pieces faster and better than anyone else.
Equally effective, but in a far less showy way, is Law as the Afghan war veteran Dr. Watson. With Law, we finally get a Watson who is more a partner than a sidekick for Holmes. Watson could very easily have been blown off the screen by Downey’s Holmes, but Law’s intensity and own dashing qualities keep that from happening. He also acquits himself well in his many fight scenes, explaining why such an effective detective would even need a partner to begin with. But beyond all that, we understand why these two are friends. They complement each other, with one preventing the other’s demons from getting the better of them. They love each other, dammit, and always have each others’ backs, regardless of how close or often they come to splitting up. Think of it as sort of a ye olde bromance.
Unlike Law, unfortunately, McAdams is often overwhelmed by Downey. She’s a talented actress and vibrant screen presence, but she’s simply outgunned (which is surprising considering that she held her own with Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren in State of Play). Irene Adler is never handled well here, either on paper or by the actress playing her. Is she a reluctant femme fatale? A villainess who could have a change of heart? We never quite know, and because she’s not convincing at being either a female version of Sherlock or a good bad girl, it’s tough to believe that Downey’s Holmes would fall so hard for her. Irene needed to be the Vesper Lynd to Holmes’ Bond, but instead it’s as if Halle Berry’s Catwoman were pitted against Christian Bale’s Batman. You just don’t buy it.
Strong is serviceable as Blackwood, but he’s a more interesting idea for a villain than he actually is as a character. It’s not really Strong’s fault; he’s a fine actor, but the character is neither gruesome nor broad enough for him to really sink his teeth into, so he’s simply relegated to scowling for most of the movie. It also doesn’t help that his plot, while interesting as a war on terror analogy, is essentially a Scooby-Doo-level ruse. That scheme, along with the mishandling of both Irene and Blackwood, is what prevents the overall rollicking fun Sherlock Holmes from garnering a higher score. On a technical level, Ritchie, production designer Sarah Greenwood and the visual effects team vividly recreate late Victorian era London as it enters the modern age, and composer Hans Zimmer delivers yet another memorable score.
Ritchie’s new school take on an old school icon is respectful without being overly reverential, loud and fun without becoming dumb and hollow, talky but never slow. Despite its shortcomings, Sherlock Holmes is nevertheless damn entertaining, and bodes well as another ongoing franchise for Iron Man’s Downey.