(Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Eddie Marsan, Kelly Reilly, Robert Maillet, Geraldine James, William Houston, Hans Matheson, James Fox, William Hope, Clive Russell. Directed by Guy Ritchie
Certain literary characters are nearly sacred in their place in the human psyche, from Ebeneezer Scrooge to Tom Sawyer. Few have maintained the epic hold on our imagination as the great detective, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
In the first Holmes movie to reach American theaters in two decades, Holmes (Downey) and his faithful companion Dr. Watson (Law) foil the attempts by the very wicked Lord Blackwood (Strong) to murder an innocent girl in a ritual with Satanist trappings. Arriving just in time to make the arrest is the bumbling Inspector Lestrade (Marsan).
All is not well at 221-B Baker Street, however. Watson is engaged – well, very nearly – to marry the pretty Mary Morstan (Reilly) and leave the somewhat chaotic environment for home, respectability, marriage and medical practice. He has one last duty to perform – the medical declaration of death after Blackwood is hanged, which he duly performs. Case closed, right?
Except that it isn’t. It turns out that Blackwood is, in the immortal words of Monty Python, not quite dead yet. Complicating matters is the appearance of Irene Adler (McAdams), a master thief with whom Holmes has had affection for over the years. She hires Holmes for a missing person case, which turns out to be related to the Blackwood affair. It also turns out that Blackwood has a monstrous plan in mind to bring the British government to its knees in one fell swoop, allowing a secret cabal of ministers dabbling in black magic to take control and restore the Empire to greatness, which seems a bit of overkill considering that this was the period in which the sun never set on the British Empire. Still, you can’t blame a megalomaniac for trying.
Director Ritchie is better known for his superb gangster films like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels but after years of making good movies in England, he finally gets a shot at making a big-budget, high-profile tentpole release that Warner Brothers is no doubt hoping to be the start of a moneymaking franchise for them. The results are a little mixed – elements of the movie work very well, and others less so.
First of all, Holmes purists are going to be absolutely apoplectic over this interpretation of their beloved character. Gone is the fastidious Holmes, the deerstalker cap and Meerschaum pipe is nowhere in sight and to a certain extent, the slim, aesthete that we have always seen Holmes to be in the movie is jettisoned in favor of a buff, muscled Holmes who gets into bare knuckle prizefights and uses cattle prods to subdue enormous foes like Dredger (Maillet). While there are plenty of obscure and sometimes cheeky references to previous Holmes canon, Ritchie and his writing team prefer to create their own. I have no objections to re-inventing established characters, but it’s a bit like having Alan Quartermain subdue a foe with tae kwon do. It takes a bit of getting used to.
While Ritchie creates a suitable Victorian environment, with comfortable drawing rooms, dodgy back alleys and industrial grime, there are also some maddening inconsistencies. For example, Lord Blackwood makes reference to an American government still reeling from the after-effects of the Civil War, which ended in 1865 and yet Holmes also refers to radio, which wasn’t invented until 1897. Sorry guys, but while the American government had its issues in 1897, the Civil War wasn’t one of them.
I have to admit that the special effects were subpar in places; the climactic fight on the under-construction Tower Bridge, while well-choreographed, looked clunky and unreal. Perhaps I got a bit spoiled by Avatar but certainly the effects team could have done a better job of making the effects look seamless.
Ritchie does get some fine performances however. Downey, who is certainly one of Hollywood’s best leading men and a fine actor to boot, nails Holmes here. You get a sense of his attention to detail and the workings of a mind that is quicker and more focused than ours ever will be. Law is solid as the second banana, creating a Watson who stands out on his own and is less an appendage to Holmes. He never stammers or natters, he kicks down doors and as would befit a former British military man, kicks ass when he has to. Thankfully, Holmes never utters the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” (although there is one “the game is afoot”). McAdams is beautiful and deadly as Adler, although she doesn’t really seem to be the equal of Holmes in anything and it makes one wonder what Holmes sees in her besides the obvious.
Is Arthur Conan Doyle spinning in his grave? Probably so. This isn’t the character he created and it isn’t the kind of story he would have written either. However, if you look past that and consider this on its own merits, it comes out as solidly entertaining, easily worth the price of admission and two hours of your life. Just keep in mind that it is imperfect and as long as you try not to dissect this movie like Riordan’s frog, you should have an enjoyable experience.
REASONS TO GO: Ritchie captures the period of the film nicely, although there are some chronological inconsistencies. Downey is compelling as Holmes and Law holds his own as Watson.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the CGI on the film is clunky and noticeable. From time to time, there are visual conceits that reek of “Look Ma, I’m Directing.” Holmes purists will cringe at the liberties taken with the character and canon.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and some sexuality, but nothing that will bother the average savvy 10-year-old.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie released in the United States and directed by Ritchie not to carry an “R” rating.
HOME OR THEATER: I’m torn on this one. Some of the scenes certainly bring to mind the drawing room dramas of past Holmes movies, but there are plenty of big screen eye candy opportunities to be had. You make the call.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: The Lives of Others