Let’s get it straight right away: Sherlock Holmes, directed by Guy Ritchie, is quite a riot and one of the most entertaining movie of the year. To be honest, I was quite mortified when I learned that Guy Ritchie ended up at the helm of the movie. Ritchie had been misfiring badly since the awesome Snatch all the way back in 2000 after all. Here, he gives us a movie which suffers from a sloppy screenplay and overbearing editing but is action packed, gorgeous looking and quite funny.
Synopsis: Just fresh off capturing and witnessing the hanging of Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), an occult serial killer, Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. Watson (Jude Law) are stunned to hear rumors that he has resurrected back from the dead and resumed his killing spree. To complicate matters, Watson is planning to get married to pretty Mary Marstan (Kelly Reilly) and move out of good old 221b Baker Street to Holmes great despair. Holmes, hilariously resolved not to let that happen, attempts to sabotage his friend’s proposal while hunting down Lord Blackwood. Holmes perks up considerably though when his tempestuous old love interest, the fetching Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) pops back in town for some mysterious business.
Some “purists”, who should probably re-read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will complain that the movie is not true to Sherlock Holmes’ essence. However, it is made clear in the written stories that he is a martial art expert and an avid boxer (“The Adventure Of The Empty House“). Why would a man who often puts himself in danger not come into some physical confrontation at one point or another and you know… use his fighting skills? Next, it is often described that Holmes tends to come alive when his mind is kept busy with enigmas but he tends toward depression when his mind idles. Watson is his closest friend so it would not be so far fetched for Holmes to disapprove of Watson’s impending marriage for his own well-being. Guy Ritchie only attempts to break the old preconceptions of the characters while staying faithful to the material, which is actually highly open for interpretation. People have this preconceived image of this stern detective in a deerstalker hat, smoking a pipe, and saying “Elementary, my dear Watson” (which he never does in the novels by the way). I’m glad Ritchie gave a modern face-lift to the character because the original work itself is extremely conducive to a successful movie franchise and would bring a new generation of people to get interested in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work.
Many things are already assumed as the movie begins, keeping Ritchie from having to go through a laborious introduction of every single aspects of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. The best thing going for Sherlock Holmes is the lively homo-erotic relationship between the eccentric Holmes and the proper Watson. The two have been best of friends and been cohabiting for the longest of time. Hence, the upcoming proposal by Watson to Mary Marstan throws a big wrench into that idyllic picture in Holmes’ mind. The casting of the lead roles was simply perfect. It was daring for Guy Ritchie to cast an American actor to play a quintessential British figure and the charismatic Robert Downey Jr doesn’t disappoint: An articulate and quick-witted performer, he is one of the few actors who can play an eccentric genius convincingly. His Sherlock Holmes is unkempt, arrogant, socially awkward and has his vulnerabilities especially his feelings toward Watson and Irene. Holmes is also street-wise, larger than life, and a genius badass altogether. Jude Law gives a strong performance, holding his own opposite Downey. Without Watson, there is no Sherlock Holmes and this describes their relationship in the movie as well. Watson is not pictured here as some inferior acolyte like in most previous interpretations. He is a smart and tough cookie, an Afghan war veteran who knows how to take care of himself. Downey and Law obviously had great fun shooting the movie and it shows. Together, they have excellent chemistry and absolutely nail the hilarious and constant cat fights they have over anything and everything.
The near-total focus on Holmes and Watson hurts the supporting cast who tends to get lost in Ritchie’s frenzied excess. Nevertheless, the always reliable Eddie Marsan is perfectly cast as Scotland Yard’s hapless inspector Lestrade. Lestrade is rigid and does everything by the book which puts him at odds with Holmes unconventional methods. Lord Blackwood presents an intriguing case because of the arcane and supernatural aura of his character which challenges Holmes’ rigorously scientific mind. British actor Mark Strong showcases another solid job as the character in a role that could easily have been one dimensional. Strong has a deep booming voice which makes him ideal for bad guy’s role and it helps him here to turn his thinly written character into a somewhat worthy adversary.
The first victims in action movies, when it comes to cutting scenes, are usually the women and Guy Ritchie does the ladies no favors with terribly underdeveloped roles for the Irene Adler and Mary Marstan characters. Their story line could have been more compelling if they didn’t disappear for large chunks of the movie at a time. In the stories, it is made clear that Holmes has no interest or respect whatsoever for women except for his weird admiration for Irene Adler, the only woman to ever outwit him fair and square (“A Scandal in Bohemia“). She is here reinvented as an American adventuress with a personal agenda who randomly pops in and out of the movie and it is obvious from the trailer that several of her scenes were left on the cutting room floor to keep the movie at a reasonable duration. Her motives are kept mysterious throughout the movie but it is implied she is being used by some powerful man (guess who?) who is obviously the real bad guy. Aside from looking delicious, poor Rachel McAdams is completely wasted in a thankless supporting role but finds the resource to rise above her lady-in-distress part. She blends her femininity with guile, feisty mischief, and some affecting vulnerability but ultimately isn’t given much of anything to do!!! (Yes, I want to smash my screen with the keyboard). This may be a trick to expand on her character organically in the sequel but it’s not a good one at all!!!! In the meanwhile, the lovely Kelly Reilly is just as underused and given little to work with. Thankfully, she manages to give a spirited turn as Watson’s love interest in a nondescript role.
It’s true that Guy Ritchie has always been more about style than substance and this doesn’t change here as the movie starts with an eye-opening action sequence. Ritchie and his writers, however, were patient and smart enough to stay true to the original material. Sherlock Holmes’ fans will notice the numerous nods to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s material such as Holmes’ prized picture of Irene he stole in “A Scandal in Bohemia” or the references to Holmes’ defining traits and past experiences. The action unravels at a frenzied pace and are a nearly unrelenting mix of action and chase sequences. Much like in Snatch, the action scene progressively ramp up and when you think that you can’t possibly go higher, Ritchie tops it off with an even more extravagant sequence. In terms of solving the mysteries, Ritchie also avoids the laborious dialogues that have become so cliche and uses nifty visual flashbacks instead to great effect. At the end of the day though, it is the lively banter between Downey, Law and McAdams that keeps Sherlock Holmes together and the movie tends to slow down dramatically when Holmes is by himself.
The intermittently sagging and overlong screenplay, written by an army of scribes (ok, more like 4), doesn’t take anything seriously which makes it tough for the viewer to believe that the main characters are ever in serious harm’s way. The plot is easily the weakest part of the movie and felt overly intricate and yet too simplistic for a Sherlock Holmes story. You know what? It’s all right if everyone has no idea what’s going on as long as it unravels neatly because it’s the same way with the written stories. Please don’t dumb it down to the level of a 4th grader. On a good note, the screenwriter did a nice job of setting up the next movie by leaving some parts of the plot open-ended. The movie has a feel reminiscent of Batman Begins in that it’s only a stepping stone to establish the main trio, a couple side characters and the world they live in.
The weakness in the plot are somewhat compensated thanks to award-worthy production values. The movie was shot in and around London and its Victorian recreation has a brilliant Gothic feel with the city shown as a slimy, filthy, and murky place. The action sequences are well shot and the climactic scene above the Thames River is a highlight. The costumes and period sets are so painstakingly detailed that they merit a mention. Sherlock Holmes’ costumes are rumpled and bohemian looking to emphasize his lack of personal care. On the other hand, Watson’s clothes are neat and very proper to reflect his military background and his discipline. Irene’s dresses and suits are particularly colorful and detailed to highlight a woman ahead of her time, living on the edge of the law and straddling the line between love and distrust in her relationship with Holmes. The sets were carefully built and if you only take your eyes out of the action for a minute, you will notice the incredible details in the background which contribute to create a breathing, living world. On a final note, the musical score by Hans Zimmer is original, ostentatious, strangely memorable and completes the action on the screen well. I would almost call it a work of genius.
Despite some screenplay flaws, Sherlock Holmes is a fluffy but entertaining action-oriented interpretation of the beloved characters which will please its targeted 15-30 male-based audience. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law form one of the most entertaining action duo in recent memory and give the audience a nice Christmas gift. Has a new franchise begun? Elementary, my dear Watson!
Notes: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some startling images and a scene of suggestive material. 128 minutes.
Related Links: Sherlock Holmes Basics (Yes, I thought of you)