Sherlock Holmes (United States/United Kingdom/Australia, 2009)

December 22, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sherlock Holmes Poster

Schlock Holmes is too brutal. Call it instead The Adventure of the Da Vinci Code Knock-off or The Adventure of the Missing Ending. Either would be equally appropriate. This original story, which borrows heavily from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "canonical" tales, contains multiple Easter Eggs for Holmes fans but fails in the bigger picture: developing a credible narrative. Unduly influenced by both comic books and The Da Vinci Code, Guy Ritchie's "re-interpretation" of Holmes feels more spastic than kinetic. The camera rarely stops moving and, when it does, the weaknesses of the script become apparent. Conan Doyle wrote 60 adventures starring his famous detective (56 short stories, four novels). Some were preposterous, but none were quite as silly as this one, which at times feels more like overwrought fan fiction than a fully developed Sherlock Holmes tale.

The trailers and commercials misrepresent Guy Ritchie's vision of Holmes, which is actually more faithful to the Conan Doyle version than the "action hero" he is made out to be in Sherlock Holmes' promotional material. Admittedly, this interpretation of Holmes is more action-oriented than that of either Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, but none of the physicality (bare-knuckle boxing, fencing) is out-of-character with Conan Doyle's Holmes. Ritchie plays up the action in order to satisfy modern audiences who might find a more subdued portrayal to be too dull, but he doesn't perform character assassination. In fact, the area in which this Holmes diverges most obviously from the literary source is in the overtly romantic relationship with Irene Adler.

Sherlock Holmes opens with Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and his faithful sidekick, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law), apprehending serial killer Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) before he can claim his sixth victim. By the time the police arrive, led by Inspector Lestrade (Eddie Marsan), Holmes and Watson have the situation under control. Before Blackwood is hanged for his crimes, he predicts to Holmes that the mayhem and murder will not stop with his execution, and this statement is prophetic. When Blackwood appears to have risen from the grave, the case takes a macabre turn. It gets stranger when it's revealed that Blackwood was dabbling in the occult and was a member of a secret magical society. His goal: to destroy Parliament, take over England, and move on to world domination. Typical Blofeld stuff...

Meanwhile, Holmes is dealing with some personal issues. Watson is moving out so he can marry his beloved Mary (Kelly Reilly) - an act that leaves Holmes feeling lonely at 221B Baker Street. He is visited by old flame Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who comes to him with a seemingly simple case - one so straightforward that Holmes immediately senses something sinister. His suspicions are well-founded, since Irene's re-appearance in Holmes' life is being orchestrated by an individual whose identity will surprise no Holmes fan.

Sherlock Holmes concludes without a satisfying ending. Despite an overly generous running time of 130 minutes, the movie fails to wrap up a significant secondary plot thread. Although it's sensible for a production like this, which has a goal of launching a franchise, to include some "hooks" that could be used for a sequel, being this blatant may result in viewers feeling cheated. Since there's no guarantee there will be a Sherlock Holmes 2, it's a poor storytelling approach to leave major subplots unresolved. The Golden Compass is a case study of how this sort of ill-considered approach can leave audiences unfulfilled.

Although Downey's Holmes won't make anyone forget Jeremy Brett any time soon, this represents another intriguing performance by one of his generation's best actors. Downey isn't the perfect embodiment of Conan Doyle's coldly logical protagonist, but most of the traits are in evidence, albeit filtered through the film's hyperactive style. Downey's Holmes is impulsive, intelligent, arrogant, occasionally petty, and almost always amazing with his deductive reasoning. He never once says the word "elementary" or wears a deerstalker hat, but he does mention once or twice that "the game's afoot." Curiously, his interaction with Jude Law's Watson seems to owe more to the House/Wilson banter from the T.V. series House (the character of House is based on Holmes and Wilson is House's Watson) that it does to the relationship in the Conan Doyle stories. Law is fine as Watson, but he frequently ends up in Downey's shadow (a not altogether unexpected development).

Early in the proceedings, Ritchie does something interesting in an attempt to fuse Holmes' physical and intellectual prowess. On two occasions, he provides access to internal monologues in which the detective plans the sequence of blows he will deliver to disable an opponent. Unfortunately, after the boxing scene in which Holmes dispatches McMurdo (an event alluded to in "The Sign of Four"), Ritchie abandons this approach even though it would have added a little variety to some of the generic fight scenes to come.

Much as the 2009 Star Trek paid homage to the series' past, Sherlock Holmes incorporates many elements of Holmesian lore; in the process, it comes dangerously close to seeming like overzealous fanfic. Although Irene Adler appeared in only one of Conan Doyle's 60 adventures, she remains a popular source of speculation and interest in fan circles. Here, she's more of a traditional love interest than The Ideal Unattainable Woman she was in "A Scandal in Bohemia." In addition to Irene, Sherlock Holmes features appearances by and/or references to other well-known Conan Doyle creations: Mycroft Holmes, Mrs. Hudson, Mary Morstan, Inspector Lestrade, and Professor Moriarty.

Clearly, a great deal of effort went into jettisoning Sherlock Holmes' reputation as a stodgy intellectual and transforming him into a swashbuckling hero who would feel perfectly at home in his own comic book. Downey's take on the character, while considerably different from that of any of his illustrious predecessors, remains within Conan Doyle's parameters. The reason Sherlock Holmes fails at least as often as it succeeds is because more effort and attention was lavished upon the concept than upon the script. Given a worthy story, Downey's Holmes might have been memorable. Here, he's an interesting character in search of a worthwhile story. Perhaps the seemingly unavoidable sequel (at least in the filmmakers' eyes) will deliver what this one does not.

Sherlock Holmes (United States/United Kingdom/Australia, 2009)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2009-12-25
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1