Brawny is certainly not the first word one would expect to describe a Sherlock Holmes movie, but it’s probably the best word for Guy Ritchie’s tonally modernized take on the world’s most famous detective. What’s amazing is that a slight bit of research will show that the screenplay – written by a mob of men that includes Simon Kinberg, Lionel Wigram, Anthony Peckham and Michael Robert Johnson – actually takes very few liberties with Holmes as a character. Yes, that scene of Holmes in a bare knuckle boxing match is supported by the canon, and quite explicitly.
Of course what makes the film brawny is the way the canon is interpreted. There’s no doubt that the specifics of Holmes and Watson are correct, it’s more the attitude that feels anachronistic; the entire tone and pace of the story is modern, and there’s a 21st century ironic level to the relationship between Holmes and Watson (I’m not sure that you could call this stuff gay subtext, as they all but make out in the course of the film). None of these things irked me all that much, and the film’s pace actually worked. Instead of finding clues this Holmes finds set pieces – any investigation is sure to end in fisticuffs or explosions or the destruction of half a shipyard by a giant Frenchman. If Sherlock Holmes were a coke fiend, as has been speculated, this movie would be like his coke-addled version of his own adventures.
All of this could have gotten extraordinarily tiresome – and it threatens to do so at many points – if not for the charisma of Robert Downey Jr. There’s an alternate reality where Downey didn’t fuck up his career for a decade and Hollywood is a very, very different place. Downey’s a very fine actor, but what he really is is a great movie star. He’s magnetic and personable and rascally and plain old charismatic. He dominates every minute of this film, and by the sheer force of his own will elevates it from well-meaning pablum into something much more engaging and fun. And less shameful than it might have been with someone else in the lead.
He’s more than ably assisted by Jude “Box Office Poison” Law, who is the stalwart Dr. Watson. The two actors have a chemistry that’s palpable and fun, which makes the film’s decision to keep them apart as much as possible hard to understand. The dynamic between the two is, on paper, standard – Holmes is the childish, wacky one while Watson is the semi-uptight, constantly exasperated one – but in action it’s an example of that movie alchemy that can take the lead of a script and turn it into the gold of a movie. The two leads are also very funny, and knowing Downey’s penchant for tinkering with scripts I wonder how much of Holmes’ best business originated with the actor. At any rate, Sherlock Holmes is, thanks to these two, a very, very funny movie, which goes a long way towards covering up its other faults.
Chief among these faults is the script. I’ve heard it referred to as a big Scooby Doo episode, and while it’s true that Arthur Conan Doyle really did pave the road upon which the Mystery Machine would ride, this film does err on the side of cartoony. There’s deduction on display here, but it’s often on the Encyclopedia Brown level, and one of the main plot points revolves around a plant that was used to make Gilligan appear dead on one episode of Gilligan’s Island. The argument, of course, is that this is an olde fashioned story, but it’s not really being told in an olde fashioned way, so why use such tired shit? The mystery plot itself is kind of dumb, and in service of a goofy ‘taking over the world’ plot that feels really out of place and like it might have stuck from a previous, steampunkier draft.
Still, the leads carry the day. Guy Ritchie’s direction tends toward the generic here, but he does get a couple of signature shots in, including slo-mo sequences where Holmes plans out fights down to the last bone broken. That’s some entertaining stuff, and I would have liked more of that, a view of the world through Holmes’ unique and particular POV. The Conan Doyle stories were almost always written at a distance, with Watson observing and relaying the tales; this film is undoubtedly from Holmes’ view, so having the audience sit outside of his head while he does his deduction magic on Watson’s new fiancee is weird. We should be seeing what he sees.
There is another side to the story’s triangle. Rachel McAdams is Irene Adler, a woman who looms over Holmes lore, and the only person to ever really best the great detective. So of course he’s obsessively in love with her. This role continues my long tradition of not really ‘getting’ McAdams, because she seems often blank and empty. She’s certainly out of her league up against Downey, who all but evaporates her when they share the screen. I certainly never felt that this was Holmes’ equal. It’s not helped by the fact that Adler never feels integral to the story – she’s a MacGuffin on two legs. Mark Strong plays the baddie (who is not Moriarty), and while he brings a certain relish to the role it’s a wildly underwritten part. The character is maybe a black magician, but since it seems obvious that a Sherlock Holmes story wouldn’t have much room for black magic, there’s not much menace. And the script relies on menace, keeping the villain in the shadows for much of the running time. Still, Strong makes up for it all in a bridge-top battle sequence where he goes for ham with gusto.
That final sequence, which you’ve undoubtedly seen in the trailers, is just one of the many CGI-heavy sequences in the film. Holmes’ London is as much a computer generated world as Avatar‘s Pandora, although there’s something slightly cartoony here. It occurs to me that large CGI vistas often look like CGI, no matter how you cut it, and there’s a certain point where we have to just accept it and start saying these things look ‘painterly’ as opposed to ‘phony.’ Big sections of Sherlock Holmes felt like Matte Painting: The Movie to me, but I’m sure some making of doc will prove me wrong. The main point is that there’s a sense of artifice everywhere in this film, and I could never suss out if it was on purpose. There’s an inorganic quality to the sets and the street scenes that would be charming if I thought it was on purpose. I guess it’s charming either way.
Yeah, nitpicks. Sherlock Holmes is a movie that is wide open to nitpicks, but it’s the kind of movie whose general good will can carry you beyond them. I spent the whole movie on the edge of my seat not because I thought something bad was going to happen to the characters but because I thought the film would finally tumble over the ‘stupid’ line on which it had been treading. Thankfully Ritchie takes the movie home without ever quite crossing that line; it’s not that I would call Sherlock Holmes ‘smart,’ as I don’t think it ever truly is, but rather ‘not stupid.’ In many ways it’s the Sherlock Holmes movie for jocks, a movie where Holmes’ ability to take and throw a punch is just as highly prized – if not more so – than his ability to crack a case.
7 out of 10