Guy Ritchie’s telling of “Sherlock Holmes” is a silly and frivolous romp, the likes of which your father’s Sherlock would hardly have bothered to study with care. It entertained me.
This incarnation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective won’t have collectors rifling through yellowed volumes for references long-forgotten. It will not evoke the emotion of the recent BBC miniseries that so skillfully modernizes the Holmes tales. This Sherlock – story, man and motivation – are all rather obvious. A mix of mythology and magic channeling through a singular, iconic figure. He could be Batman.
You know the lead-up. Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) share their London flat, minded by Mrs. Hudson (Geraldine James) on 221B Baker St. in musty Victorian England. Here they are attracted to the case of the nefarious-sounding Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a sinister fellow with a penchant for grim theatrics. The boys catch him in one such act, haul him off, toss away the key and he is hung. Watson even pronounces him. But Blackwood will not rest. And so it goes.
This is straightforward stuff filmed and performed with flair. Downey relishes every acerbic observation, cutting through rooms with his barbed tongue. Most of the time, he looks like absolute hell. Much like the city he inhabits he is grey and brown, awaiting repair. Downey gives substance to Holmes’ vulnerabilities, suggesting he could fall apart without warning. Yes, his twitchy performance is only degrees removed from his similarly unhinged and egomaniacal Tony Stark. But there are other treats for those who tire of this.
Law is mostly left to play bridesmaid but exhibits an amiable chemistry with Downey and lends the film a welcome bit of mischief. Blackwood is, of course, evil and all that. And Strong is certainly venomous enough but the character is too shallow to require much of him. Blackwood’s scheme offers few true thrills. It’s necessary only to set the plot in motion. Fortunately, Ritchie populates the edges of his picture with a brilliant collection of British character actors. Eddie Marsan as Lestrade, James, underutilized, as Mrs. Hudson and the fragrant Kelly Reilly as Mary, Watson’s bride-to-be. They make the ride more fun.
Only Rachel McAdams, as Irene Adler, Holmes’ historically enigmatic and insatiable siren, seems lost. She features McAdams’ usual pluck but appears too young, too nebbish to mystify and intoxicate Holmes, let alone stand as his equal. She leaves him precious few charms to become drunk on. Their connection feels forced.
So, too, does Ritchie’s taste for pugilism. It’s suited his other films well. But here it is ribald, out-of-place. A bullfight in a library. Rather than playing as pivotal tests, fight scenes here strike us as obligatory and calculated. Indeed, we are even shown several telestrations of Holmes’ attack methods as he considers them, a kind of preview tour through the anatomy of his jabs and kicks, before the editing flips into high gear as he executes. No Sherlock’s ever been afraid to show off. But this crosses into overkill. Like Sherlock on steroids. No doubt of his own creation.
The filmmakers show fine craft turning their London into a grubby, tattered mess. I enjoyed the many potholes, stumbling drunkards and unfinished civic projects. Oscar-winning costume designer Jenny Beavan adds aesthetic panache by keeping her hooligans as nattily-tailored as the effete, antisocial dandies are comfortable. The whole production is slick and impressive. Hans Zimmer adds a rousing score.
“Sherlock Holmes” succeeds mostly in revitalizing his legend – and adding adrenaline.
It’s briskly-paced and features a couple of unexpected and memorable henchmen. The shadow play is appreciated; the cloaks, daggers and single-bullet pistols are refreshing. And the farcical elements end up yielding a lot of fun. How else to regard a case concerning the pursuit of a ginger midget?
Holmes would see through something this transparent in a heartbeat.
It’s elementary, no question. But entertaining indeed.
Sherlock Holmes – Robert Downey Jr.
Dr. John Watson – Jude Law
Irene Adler – Rachel McAdams
Blackwood – Mark Strong
Lestrade – Eddie Marsan
Mrs. Hudson – Geraldine James
Mary Morstan – Kelly Reilly
Directed by Guy Ritchie
Written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg
Running Time: 128 Minutes.