Making a great Sherlock Holmes film should be elementary. You get an acerbic and
commanding character to play the deductive genius, and a faithful and avuncular
type to be his Dr. Watson. You bring in a dastardly villain, set a devilishly
clever plot in motion, turn Holmes’ logic loose and, well — the game’s afoot.
But the beautifully produced yet unsatisfying “Sherlock Holmes” shows it’s
harder than that.
The film stars Robert Downey Jr. — yes, a Yank — as Holmes and Jude Law as
Watson. There is, it seems, a devilish nobleman running about London, half
Aleister Crowley, half Jack the Ripper, whom our heroes have to bring to justice
— which they do, with stiff-upper-lipped courage. Except that a few days after
his hanging, the dark lord is up and running around again.
This feels, at first, a little more Hammer horror than Holmes, but be patient
with the heebie-jeebies monster stuff, all the black masses and men in cowled
robes. All will be explained at the end — and in this case at length, and rather
dully. But there are other problems. They don’t include, surprisingly, the idea
of Holmes as action hero. That change caused the biggest stir, when early photos
showed Downey brawling and stripped to the waist, like the hunk of the
But it was the movies that made Holmes into an aesthete in the first place. Go
back to the canon and you’ll find a good shot, excellent boxer and student of
judo. (You don’t think Moriarty threw himself over that cliff?) Yet even as this
film restores Holmes’ athleticism, it removes some of his charm and singular
Downey is a fine actor, admitted, but he’s a modestly-sized man with soft
features and a quiet delivery; I miss the assertive, hawk-like presence of Basil
Rathbone or Jeremy Brett. (Daniel Day-Lewis could have done it, but then Daniel
Day-Lewis can do anything.)
And Jude Law quite rightly rescues Watson from the Nigel Bruce cliché of
harmless old duffer; after all, the good doctor is brave enough to have seen
service in Afghanistan, and smart enough to be Holmes’ friend. But Law still
seems a little too common, a shade too ordinary. The two actors work well
together, and gamely do a variety of fight scenes. Yet when they appear, never
do you think, yes, perfect. And both, unfortunately, are trapped in a Guy
Ritchie began his career in the ’90s as a sort of Anglo answer to Quentin
Tarantino. His films featured frantic camera movements, lots of talk and an
immersion in lower-class crime. Full of cheap attitude and lager-lout manners,
they were like moving Maxim magazines, leering and jeering and strictly for
adolescent boys. And for all its lush production values, “Sherlock Holmes” is
not much more sophisticated.
Although the script brings in Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler, a Jersey girl and
an adversary whom Holmes respectfully referred to as “the” woman, but it has no
idea of what to do with her. Her motivations are obscure even when they’re
explained, and her relationship with Holmes has no humor or life.
And the movie itself is overdone, full of ridiculously delayed slow-motion
action scenes (or, even more boring, action sequences shot twice — first, with
Holmes’ predictions of what he’s going to do, and then again, with him doing
it). The whole film doesn’t feel so much like Holmes as a strange and unwanted
cousin to Will Smith’s “Wild Wild West. It's a broad action comedy that does
roughly for Victorian-era mysteries that “Pirates of the Caribbean” did for
swashbucklers--i.e. jazz up a seemingly moribund genre with flashy special
effects and a truly singular central performance from an actor who is clearly
having a blast going way, way over the top.
The film seems already prepared for its own sequels; not every villain is
brought to final justice, and yes, that is Moriarity himself, occasionally
lurking in the shadows. (Very deep shadows; apparently they’re waiting to see
how this film does before casting the Napoleon of crime.) But everything here is
more frantic than fun. What went wrong first, and how could it have been fixed?
It’s a mystery fit for the great detective himself..