Sherlock Holmes is one of the most cerebral detectives in literary history–not that you’d know it from the eponymous movie that opened this weekend, in which he seems much more like a boxer who happens to own a violin.
In what feels like a ploy to re-market an action flick about a Bow Street Runner, Guy Ritchie hacks away at Holmes canon with smug abandon until nothing’s left but the fighting. His Sherlock Holmes is an explosion-riddled, poorly-plotted mess that feels too forced to be fun and that, despite the best efforts of its brilliant leads, leaves us with an investigator more suited for the LXG than Baker Street.
In a cinematic case that Doyle’s original detective would probably not have encountered, Sherlock Holmes and erstwhile partner Dr. Watson defeat the nefarious Lord Blackwood, who with a name like that was probably contractually obligated to be a practitioner of dark magic. Unfortunately, his hanging doesn’t take, and he seemingly rises from the dead, throwing London into a panic. At the behest of Lord Coward (Guy Ritchie: Not Subtle), Holmes reopens the case, which puts England in danger (somehow) and is about unbearable mysteries (sort of), and consists of 10% evil plans that make no sense and 90% breaking expensive Victorian paraphernalia.
All I’m saying is, when one starts longing for the comparative narrative sophistication of Shanghai Knights, something is wrong.
It is to the great credit of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law (Holmes and Watson, respectively) that you don’t really notice, and even if you do, you might not care. Downey brings his usual darkly-comic intensity to the role, creating a Holmes that is non-canon but compelling–a portrait of a genius always on the edge of cracking. Law, as Watson, has finally gotten past the uncomfortable leading-man phase of his career, and hits his stride as the cantankerous Watson, loyal to Holmes almost despite himself. They carry the movie almost entirely on their chemistry. (And chemistry is the right word; for anyone who’s ever wondered about the subtext of Holmes and Watson living together for so long, it’s not subtext any more.)
There’s even a commendably subdued performance from Mark Strong in a role that could easily have hit Tim Curry levels of ham, and Rachel McAdams does everything she can with an ingénue role even more plot-fodder than usual for women in Guy Ritchie. Unfortunately, the script doesn’t give anyone much to chew on (though we get a glimpse at Victorian England’s first “your face” joke), and there’s not much room between fights for more than exposition and the occasional groan-worthy big reveal.
Luckily, if you like fights, Sherlock Holmes has plenty, even though it’s the sort of over-edited split-second fight in which all the actors’ hours of combat prep are wasted. Ironically, Holmes’s actual boxing scene has three sly character beats in it and has a place in the context of the film; in a movie that had fewer of them, it would have been powerful. Instead, it just feels like an excuse to justify the senseless plot by pointing out that Holmes enjoyed a bit of pugilism. It’s these near-misses that frustrate; if the creators knew so much about Holmes, why didn’t they bother to write him a decent case?
Director Guy Ritchie hoped to make the detective more fun, perhaps; this Holmes is certainly more physically robust than usual and, thanks to his quasi-romance with Irene Adler, sexier. But it all feels too calculated to be enjoyable. (Even bits used to good effect–such as Holmes’s initial split-second fight assessment of a target–wear out their welcome or are abandoned entirely.) And the film itself moves from one steampunky set to another, leaving no room for artistry, so Ritchie brings his standard faster-is-better aesthetic to an incarnation of the detective that best suits the sort of Sherlock Holmes fan who always thought they would like him more without all that pesky reading.
Sherlock Holmes is a movie for its age, a smug romp that pays lip service to its more quality forebears in between its bigger-is-better slapfight set pieces. For better or worse, this is the shape of the new classic; I guess you might as well enjoy it, since this movie’s blatant sequel-bait and booming opening-weekend box office mean that we can expect more (and more, and more) of the same.