Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, is a surprisingly entertaining reinvention of the classic detective, featuring a likeable on-screen duo, immaculate production design, and a playfulness with the material that is all around satisfying.
The film opens with Holmes and Watson as they’re set to solve a case wherein a young woman is about to be sacrificed in an arcane ritual by Lord Blackwood. Infiltrating the secret chambers of the lord and his followers, Holmes proceeds to save the day in a rousing display of know-how and action. The great detective considers how he will take out his opponent – in minute detail – and then proceeds to swiftly follow his battle plan. The overall effect is not unlike watching someone playing a video game.
After a nifty credit sequence, we rejoin Holmes several months later. Here, the film reveals Holmes as a man who is bored with the minutiae of everyday life. Without a case to solve, Holmes tries to build a silencer and find different ways of almost killing the dog. Watson, meanwhile, is making preparations to leave Baker Street behind and settle into a new life with his bride-to-be Mary. However, there is one loose end remaining to their career together: Lord Blackwood’s execution. The good doctor has agreed to preside over the villain’s final moments and pronounce his death.
The day after the execution, Lord Blackwood’s body goes missing, his tomb apparently opened from the inside. The game, as it were, is afoot. Holmes and Watson find themselves in a plot involving chemical weapons, secret societies and the House of Lords. Holmes, all the while, manages to be cleverer than everyone else in town, even if he seems to stumble a bit or find himself at a loss.
Unlike previous efforts with Holmes, this film recasts the character as something approaching Batman, his famous cleverness backed up by his fists. While the detective has a new-found physicality, he is also more outwardly complicated than the popular image film and TV have presented the character. This Holmes is so desperately in need of stimulation that he loses basic notions of hygiene or appetite when not on a case. One scene which illustrates this tic of Holmes’ incredibly well comes early in the movie, as Holmes awaits Watson and his fiancee Mary at fancy London restaurant. While waiting, Holmes allows himself to be overcome by the sensory overload of the establishment. Every little glance, whispered word and tingle of silverware is a chance for excitement, with Holmes closing his eyes just to listen to the rush of information.
Except for the character’s occasional trouble with cleanliness, every odd quirk is based in the original stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, but scrubbed of the stuffier veneer the character has accrued since his first film outing a hundred years ago.
Robert Downey Jr. brings his effortless charm and boundless energy to Holmes. In any other actor’s hands, Holmes could easily spin into an unpleasant mess, but Downey makes the audience forgive a lot of the characters shortcomings, simply through the twinkle in his eyes.
Watson, often portrayed as a stocky oaf, is slim, sleek, and quite competent with his wit, cane and pistol. The film makes several references to Watson’s military background and the blade concealed within his cane. He is a quick shot, and in the form of Jude Law, a perfect companion for Downey’s Holmes. The rapid-fire retorts between the two are a delight to watch and often lift what would otherwise be stock scenes into something special.
Special mention should be given to Mark Strong. As Lord Blackwood, he is a delightfully theatrical villain with a booming voice and the apparent ability to materialize out of thin air. He is a completely worthy upper-crust type bad guy for the tone of the peace and, early on, establishes his credentials by making Holmes’s detached manner crumble. Strong pulls off this key moments, and while we lose Lord Blackwood as a speaking part for a good number of minutes, his face is never far from the viewers’ memory.
The look of the film is impressive, presenting moviegoers with one of the best renderings of Victorian London in a major motion picture, with unpaved roads, dirt and grime always present. At the same time, the London of the film has a very consistent, almost video game quality to it. The walls are almost too pristine, even when grimey; the vistas a little too perfect. However, this actually works due to its consistency, making the occasional special effect look more a piece of the world than a computer generated image laid into the scene months later.
Director Guy Ritchie, known for hyper-flashbacks and asides in films like “Snatch” and “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” reins in his frantic style for a more straightforward, but still kinetic, film. Ritchie still uses his favorite storytelling techniques, but in a less frequent fashion. giving his actual use of them more of an impact. Ritchie’s style also is perfect for the moments when Holmes plans out how to take down opponents; a device which also adds to the film’s somewhat odd video game feel.
For some viewers, the movie might feel as though it runs ten or fifteen minutes too long. The interaction between characters mitigates this for the most part, but the plot does seem to stop dead for a short while as Ritchie maneuvers all of the players into their positions for the finale.
Another issue is the part of Irene Adler. Played by Rachel McAdams, Adler is delightful, though her part in the story is somewhat hazy. She is clearly meant to be a romantic interest for Holmes, but the finished film is somewhat reluctant to commit to that idea. McAdams also disappears for great chunks of the story, and while the film ultimately presents a good explanation for her vanishing, she plays quite well with the boys and it would be nice to see her more directly connected to the plot.
These flaws, however, are fairly minor, with the film generally managing to overcome them. Instead, it involves you in the mystery, which never even pretends to be a “whodunit.” “Sherlock Holmes” is an enjoyable film that breaks the perception of the character as a stuffy, chamber-dwelling talker. While respectful of its source, it is not afraid to shake things up, achieving the a key goal of any new potential franchise launch: investing the audience in the characters enough that they crave a sequel. The film very clearly sets up a subsequent plot for Holmes to solve, and with its particular mix of detail, performance, and direction, “Sherlock Holmes” easily earns that follow-up.