Guy Ritchie, best known for his style-over-substance Cockney gangster films, doesn’t seem like the most natural choice for director Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr. seems like a counter-intuitive choice for the great detective as well. Everything about this production makes it seem like they had set out to spit in the face of Doyle’s legacy. But the reverse is actually true, and while Sherlock Holmes isn’t anywhere near as smart as it really ought to be, it makes up for it in other rather clever ways.
Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.), along with his frequent companion Dr. Watson (Jude Law) manage to apprehend Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), a serial killer who seemingly uses black magic to aid in his crimes. Months later, Blackwood is executed by the government, but just days later he apparently comes back to life and commits some high profile murders. Holmes is drawn into the case yet again, but must this time contend with Watson’s impending engagement, a dangerous old flame coming back into town, and a vast conspiracy that could bring London to its knees.
The movie’s Holmes is unlike any film previous film incarnation, but remains oddly faithful to the character. Doyle’s stories would often present contradicting facts about the characters, and Ritchie simply picks and chooses the traits that would best suit his sensibilities. The movie picks up on the mention of the obscure martial art of bartitsu in one of the stories to turn Holmes into a capable fighter. It plays on the mention of his addictions, and pushes the character further in that direction. This Holmes thrusts himself into the world of logic and deduction to escape from his own self, his keen observational powers a shield for his own issues. It’s all really clever on a character level, and the decision to develop the relationship between Holmes and Watson gives this film much of its narrative juice.
It does fail to provide a compelling mystery. Too many of the film’s answers hinge on some sort of mysterious substance that no one knows anything about. It’s a little lazy on that front, and the elaborate explanations are more grating than anything else. The film makes up for it with plenty of Guy Ritchie style. The Victorian London of the film is gritty and grimy and totally wonderful, a perfect little picture of a world that’s ready to change. Hans Zimmer’s rather unique score sets the stage equally well. Ritchie’s speedy cuts give the film plenty of oomph, every scene practically barreling into the next. His direction really comes into fore when he visualizes Holmes’ thinking process, guiding us through the connections that only the great detective can see. The film goes pretty overboard with its set pieces, but it all comes together reasonably well.
I suppose we should get it out of the way that some people feel that it’s sacrilege to cast Robert Downey Jr. as the great detective. I would suggest that they try to get it over it. Downey is a great actor, and this version of Holmes is perfectly suited to him. Downey finds parallels in the eccentricity of the character, and lets the depth of his experience bring the character into the full three dimensions. Through it all, Downey makes sure to make it all look fun. Jude Law is cast perfectly as Watson as well, able to switch between the two sides of the character with ease. Mark Strong plays it a bit too cartoony as the film’s villain, but it sort of fits as well, given how his character is given to setting deathtraps and blowing up his hideouts.
It’s probably going to be difficult for most purists to accept this new incarnation of Holmes, and not without good reason. The film’s mystery just doesn’t work that well, and the gratuitous explosions certainly feel plenty overboard. The film just isn’t as smart as it pretends to be. But past all the obligatory blockbuster swagger of the film, it’s actually faithful to the material in its own geeky way, the two main characters more fleshed out than they’ve ever been, the stray details of Doyle’s stories made flesh in two fantastic actors.