Rapid Review: Sherlock Holmes
It’s elementary, my dear movie lovers (I know, I know, but I couldn’t resist…). Sherlock Holmes is, well, a bit of a mixed bag. Still, it is a sharp little handbag that goes quite well with a party dress.
Trying to re-invent a classic cannon such as the Sherlock Holmes mysteries is a tough challenge, and director Guy Ritchie has always been a bit of a wild card when it comes to his choice of material. Ritchie, in Sherlock Holmes, returns to the gritty, seedy London he has portrayed before, only this time he captures uniquely the stark, dirty Victorian streets and those who inhabit them. The art direction here is quite dandy, and in some cases it almost steals the show. Ritchie presents a re-envisioned Holmes who is at home when traversing the lower class haunts, and he moves swiftly and keenly through its dank, sooty underworld.
Holmes works best when it is at its most fast-paced and chaotic. Marketers did well to portray it in the previews as exactly what it is: an action-adventure buddy film that just coincidentally happens to be a period piece. The mystery of the movie has to do with an apparent necromancer’s evil plot to control the universe, but that’s all smoke and mirrors. When the movie focuses on the unraveling of this convoluted pretense, it almost grinds to a halt under its own perceived cleverness. It’s best not to look too closely at the details and focus instead on the parrying back and forth between the movie’s protagonists.
The movie’s first half suffers from what most first films in a projected series suffer: a need to painstakingly establish character dynamics and setting. The movie’s second half, however, is a rip-roaring gem of a chase and well worth the wait.
Essentially, all of this boils down to several nicely polished performances by the lead and supporting actors.
Ritchie’s first film, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, was a frothy, whip-smart riff of a gangster film, but just like cotton candy, tended to evaporate once the initial sugar rush was over. It was fun, but fairly forgettable in the overall pantheon of movie history. These days, Ritchie is known more for his personal life and former marriage to task-master Madonna than as a serious film-maker. He no doubt viewed Sherlock Holmes as a chance to remedy this perception. He made a fine first step by recruiting his leading man.
Robert Downey, Jr. is one of the most intriguing and charismatic actors working today. In Iron Man, he managed to make a guy in a clunky metal suit the sexiest, most caddish superhero on film. Here, Ritchie counts on him to tackle a legend that, in the literary world, was a bit of an asexual prig, more suited to Masterpiece Theatre than action-adventure. Holmes, in the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is a deeply analytical genius who lives an essentially hermit-like existence when not solving his many elusive cases. Downey plays him more like a bi-polar cartoon, eyes gleaming with controlled madness. He’s also, among other things, a savvy pugilist with a sadomasochistic streak.
Jude Law is relegated to the sidekick role of Dr. Watson, but never fades into the background. His Watson is self-confident, forthright and torn between his love of gambling (in all of its forms) and a possible shot at a tranquil home life with his sharp and savvy new fiancee. Kelly Reilly’s Mary Morstan, Watson’s love interest, is on screen for at most ten minutes, but I look forward to seeing her again in the inveitable sequel. She’s a delight, and the writers did well to make her Watson’s equal.
At its heart, Sherlock Holmes is really a “bro-mance” for the ages. The chemistry between Watson and Holmes is what breathes life into the film.
Rachel McAdams’ Irene Adler is still the only woman to ever stump Holmes (Adler is a fan-favorite character, and the primary foil to Holmes in the original story “A Scandal in Bohemia”) , but in the film her role is superfluous. Holmes is too introspective and preoccupied with his own genius to really be a romantic interest, and Watson is already his most trusted trusted and amusing partner, so where does that leave Adler? Well, nowhere, to be exact. McAdams is a charming and fun spitfire, but the role is written with such ambiguity that it’s hard to know what purpose she serves, other than to provide the obvious segue into the next chapter of the Holmes saga (sequel alert). She’s a puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit. It’s too bad, because it is a waste of an otherwise interesting actress.
Mark Strong, who plays the villain of the piece, Lord Blackwood, might not be known yet to American audiences, but he’s a standout British character actor I’ve had the pleasure of seeing in many a BBC production. He was a smarmy, scheming Earl of Northumberland (the man largely responsible for why his relatives Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard ended up headless) in the 2001 production of Henry VIII, and that character could very well have been a fitting inspiration for his portrayal of Lord Blackwood. It’s a shame that the mystery behind his antics isn’t more finely-tuned. It’s as if the writers wanted to dazzle us with a great scene-chewing performance to disguise the fact that the mystery itself is a bust.
Overall, Sherlock Holmes is a fun race through the hectic and fascinating late- Victorian London streets. Is it one of the best movies of the year? No. Is it unabashedly fun? You betcha.