Well, well, well, what’s all this then? A smart action movie? I’m already suspicious. Just what are you hiding Holmes? Padding in the second act? A lazy dénouement? Come on, out with it! Since when does an action movie respect, nay, intrigue its audience? Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes may not exactly be cerebral, but it’s surprisingly thoughtful, articulate, and dare I say it, clever. In a year in which actioners featured robots with arthritis and sinking ice, Sherlock Holmes might as well be considered a work of genius.
Ritchie’s take on Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic literary figure Sherlock Holmes is energetic and vivacious. In fact, the story of the great detective feels less like a police procedural and more like a James Bond film. Makes sense really, as Ritchie’s Holmes is about as different to previous adaptations as Casino Royale was to its predecessor in the Bond series, Die Another Day. The style is indeed uniquely Ritchie (plenty of slow-motion; expanded explanations of scenes that took place earlier) yet it always feels faithful to the source material. Perhaps that can be attributed to Doyle’s rich slate of characters, each of whom have been on life-support for too long and have finally been given a shot of adrenaline to the heart.
The film begins with detectives-for-hire Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) stopping the dastardly Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) from murdering another young women in the name of black magic. Blackwood is a worthy foe – just not worthy enough it seems. Having wrapped up their final case, Watson is ready to move away from Holmes and begin his life with fiancée Mary (Kelly Reilly). Holmes doesn’t dislike Mary, but he certainly doesn’t like the way in which she’s stealing away his other half. Having early retirement imposed upon him, Holmes retreats into his bedroom to experiment on gunpowder, flies and his dog – that is when he’s not bare-knuckle boxing with overbearing brutes. Consider it a mid-life crisis for a mad genius.
Blackwood is hung for his crimes and is soon declared dead by Watson himself. But, as is the case with all movie nasties, the dead don’t stay dead long. Blackwood is (supposedly) living large and loving it, causing havoc and spreading fear throughout the streets of London. Holmes and Watson’s final case is reopened, and even though widespread chaos and unspeakable evil threatens the lives of all in England, Holmes is more than a little excited to be back in action with the reluctant Watson in tow. The audience is then treated to the duos impressive powers of deduction and a mystery that is genuinely mysterious.
Robert Downey Jr. applies himself to the role of Holmes with aplomb. It’s an intriguing alternate take on Downey’s stable of frantic, sarcastic, aloof heroes. He could have easily given us Tony Stark with an English accent, but he doesn’t. Stark is overjoyed with his own intellect; glad to be smarter than everyone around him. Holmes is similar; except that he seems angry that no one else comes close to challenging his brilliance. I could imagine Law perhaps once being a frontrunner for the role of Holmes, but I feel he would have been too smarmy or even too charming. He’s a revelation here as Watson, reminding audiences that he was always at his best in supporting roles (The Talented Mr. Ripley, A.I., Road to Perdition).
Mark Strong and Eddie Marsan (as Inspector Lestrade) position themselves as two of the best character actors working today. Rachel McAdams, as Holmes former love and con-woman Irene Adler does not fare as well as the other cast members. For someone supposed to be Holmes’ equal, she never seems quite as quick, or frankly, as devious as he. McAdams is a talented actress terribly miscast; imagine if the far feistier Carey Mulligan or the smouldering Melanie Laurent had scored the role instead.
The mechanics of the plot feel organic and genuinely surprising, which is the least we should expect from Sherlock Holmes and more than we should expect from an action film as exciting as this. The fight sequences and action set pieces are gripping and plentiful; perhaps only the final showdown is a disappointment. The film is far from perfect; the Irene Adler subplot is tiresome, the finale is somewhat unsatisfying and there are moments where the script could have been funnier, as it too often relies on the charm of the stars for laughs. But Sherlock Holmes is worth celebrating. It heralds the return of a literary giant as well as a formerly beloved director. It is also a homecoming celebration for Downey Jr., who finally certifies himself as a bankable leading man; an intensely watchable action star, comedian and dramatic actor. The only crime here is that it’s taken him this long to arrive.