A film review by Craig J. Koban January 5, 2010


2009, PG-13, 128 mins.


Holmes: Robert Downey Jr. / Watson: Jude Law / Lord Blackwood: Mark Strong / Irene Adler: Rachel McAdams / Mary: Kelly Reilly

Directed by Guy Ritchie / Written by Michael Robert Johnson, Anthony Peckham and Simon Kinberg / Based on the stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Okay, I am going to come out front here and calm all of the concerns of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle fundamentalists out there that have been frothing at the mouth ever since trailers for Guy Ritchie’s SHERLOCK HOLMES went online.  

Yes, I will acknowledge that when Doyle published his first Holmes yarn - A STUDY IN SCARLET, in Beeton’s Christmas Annual in 1887 – that he did not quite envision his master sleuth as a kick ass, trash talking, and gravity defying action hero.  The enduring popularity of this legendary pulp character derives largely from his cerebral powers, not his brawn.  In Guy Ritchie’s unflinchingly bold and revisionist HOLMES, there seems to be a larger focus on both his intellectual aptitude and his physical might. 

That is not a bad thing, nor is it an act of bastardizing a literary icon.  If anything, this new SHERLOCK HOLMES is an entertaining amalgam of lavish, large scale, Hollywood action epics and the more thoughtful detective procedural that is paramount to Doyle’s canon.  The trailers, if anything, have completely misrepresented the film: Ritchie does not inanely dumb down the legacy of this character, nor does he feel completely slavish to him either.  His HOLMES is far, far more respectful to the lore and popular mythology of Doyle’s most famous creation than the previews would otherwise let on.  What struck me the most about this new HOLMES adventure (and I emphasize “adventure”) is that it is brimming with reverences to the famous – and not-so-famous – traits of this iconic detective, but it also allows the character to breathe with a bit more flair and a sense of newness; this is not easy task for a persona that, according the Guinness Book of World Records, has been the most portrayed character in the history of the movies: 75 actors over 211 films. 

Anyone that doubts Ritchie’s authenticity to the source material, just consider the traits that Doyle himself overtly - and sometimes subtly – described in Holmes: a brilliant intellectual and master of deductive logic and reason; an eccentric bohemian with little regard for manners, tidiness, and respect of others; a base of operations at 221B Baker Street: a strong aptitude for disguise and acting: an occasional user of addictive drugs (legal by 19th Century English standards) that were used to free his mind to tackle tough cases; a semi-fanatical and self-indulgent ego that frequently alienated those close around him; a genuine disdain for seeking fame and/or for being in the public spotlight; a willingness to bend the truth and/or break the law to get the crack the case; and, yes, a pistol carrying tough guy that was a formidable fighter and  adept user of the martial arts.  All of these attributes are here in loving abundance in Ritchie’s film, especially the latter physical qualities that many readers seem to have forgotten about or ignored (there are ample references in the Holmes novels and short stories of the detective’s ability to handle himself, not to mention his aforementioned socially stunted behaviour and eccentricities). 

SHERLOCK HOLMES opens with an action-packed bang as we see him (Robert Downey Jr.) and his trusted sidekick, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) apprehending their serial killing arch nemesis, Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) before he can finish off his latest victim.  Blackwood is a vile, sneering, and wholeheartedly contemptuous antagonist that seems to be dabbling in strange, occult-like powers, which has befuddled the police, but not Holmes.  Blackwood is indeed taken away and is abruptly hung for his crimes against humanity, but just before the noose is put around hid neck he creepily professes to the detective that his death will not end his killing ways and that the mayhem will continue past the grave.  After he has been “executed” it does in fact appear that Blackwood has cheated death and is now gathering up all of his supernatural abilities to unleash a nasty, world dominating plan that is the stuff of James Bondian villain lore: he will eradicate Parliament, secure England for his own nefarious purposes, and will from there eventually reclaim the colonies in America that are “rightfully” England’s to secure a new, larger nation as the ultimate power on Earth.  

Hmmm…a foreign power invading the U.S. without probable cause…how doubly ironic. 

While Holmes and Watson attempt to make some sense of the sinister reappearance of Lord Blackwood, Holmes finds himself knee deep in other personal dilemmas.  For starters, he seems to take great ravishment in attempting to sabotage Watson’s impending nuptials to the love of his life, Mary (which is highlighted in the film’s most wryly written and acted scene where he deduces all of the skeleton’s in Mary’s closet just by glancing her over, much to the deep charging of her and Watson).  Beyond that, Holmes must also deal with an old flame returning into his life in the form of an American criminal named Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), who appears before him with a prospect of a simple case that needs to be solved.  What bothers the sleuth to no end is that the case seems too easy, thus, there must be some sort of catch to it all.  His fears are confirmed when – while investigating Blackwood’s evil scheme – it also appears that another villainous fiend is manipulating Adler. 

SHERLOCK HOLMES is the best looking Holmes film to date, and Ritchie has gathered together top-notch artisans to make 19th Century London feel impressively tactile and grungily lavish.  Production Designer Sarah Greenwood and supervising Art Director Niall Moroney (both of whom worked on the impressively immersive ATONEMENT) and Visual Effects Supervisor David Wickery (who worked on THE DARK KNIGHT, CHILDREN OF MEN, and some of the HARRY POTTER films) have all combined to make London feel grimy, ominous, and thoroughly lived in.  This is not a claustrophobic, backlot presentation of Holmes’ famous home town, but rather a sprawling, Victorian metropolis in the making that becomes a tertiary character in the film.  SHERLOCK HOLMES, as a result, is brimming with a vivacious, cobblestone atmosphere and luster.   The visual effects too are kind of thankless, as they integrate and transport the actors to a London physically removed from any London we know today.   

Of course, this new HOLMES is very heavy on death-defying action, frenetic gun fire, bare knuckled fisticuffs, fiery explosions aplenty…and that’s okay, because Ritchie’s version, as stated, is loaded with the canonical allusions that should keep Doyle purists very satisfied.  Ritchie’s Holmes – despite his raw, animal and comic book-like physicality that would easily rival Batman – is still shown as an absolute surgeon when it comes to the art on sniffing out the most minute of clues that are all but elusive to everyone else.  Ritchie even finds a rather ingenious manner of balancing Holmes’s prodigious deductive superiority with his equally commanding self-defense skills: A remarkably inventive montage early on – during which Holmes is involved in a sweaty, bloody, and winner take all fist fight – shows the shrewdly analytical detective engage in quick inner monologues where he literally thinks out a dozen punches, kicks, and countermoves in his mind before actually engaging in them…then we see the results in blistery fast real time.   There is also an equally sly and thrilling action sequence later where Holmes – while trying to fight off a substantially larger opponent – discovers how to make what just might be the world’s first taser gun.   

Yet, as much gusto and testosterone as Ritchie infuses in his action sequences, he still manages to hone focus on the central relationship between Holmes and Watson, and the script is smart and savvy in terms of making these characters feel like tangible, lifelong comrades.  Of course, this is greatly assisted by the likes of Downey and Law, who fit into their respective roles like proverbial gloves: Law’s portrayal of Watson in particular is a welcome sight: he’s not a bumbling, one-note sidekick character forever in the shadow of Holmes: Law and the screenplay suggest a more interesting, pragmatic foil to Holmes: Watson is a man that was a former soldier, a doctor, and perhaps just as equally tough and rugged as Holmes himself.   He’s also a charismatically self-actualized sidekick, often trying to act as Holmes’ moral compass, which fleshes the character out that much more than I was expecting.   

Yet, this SHERLOCK HOLMES is Downey’s to harness and utterly command, and it is the actor’s gifts for flirting with and embodying the mischievous, impulsive, arrogantly intelligent and witty aspects of his characters that makes him a perfect choice for the detective (his accent is also spot-on).  Gone are the deerstalker hat, the cape-like trench coat, the large magnifying glass and pipe (although the latter element is there, in smaller form), and heavy usage of the word “elementary” and instead emerges a Holmes that is edgier, sexier, more aggressively rugged, whimsically impulsive and coldly logical than ever before.  And he’s a cocky and smug bugger too, a man that is not weary of engaging in petulant insolence if it means getting the upper hand over friend and foe alike.  It’s clear that Ritchie and Downey are attempting to make this Holmes less a prim and proper Basil Rathbone protagonist and more of a modern day, sardonic and acidic tongue SOB that knows how smart he is and frequently boasts about it.  Make no bones about it, when Downey is on screen, he is a magnetic and devilishly capricious Victorian super hero.  

The other performers are wonderful too: Mark Strong can play seductive and sinister edge perhaps better than anyone (as he did in BODY OF LIES) and the sparklingly fetching Rachel McAdams creates an assured and spunky – albeit somewhat underwritten and perfunctory – heroine/love interest.  The actual love story between Holmes and Adler is the least satisfying element of HOLMES (it's sketchily defined, but Downey and McAdams have a palpable chemistry on screen together), not to mention a conclusion that inopportunely feels like the first ten minutes of the sequel (Ritchie does not seem to know when to say, er, “when” and get the film satisfactorily to the end credits), but this re-imagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest character is boldly and rambunctiously entertaining.  Making a New Age Holmes that both appeases literary diehards and modern blockbuster film aficionados is no easy task.  However, Ritchie not only infuses much adrenaline-pumped thrills and spectacle here, but he also gratefully pays homage to the character and never heartlessly misrepresents him.  

It’s quite elementary, dear readers: This is a Holmes that feels simultaneously old and new, and it’s a revisionist cocktail that's surprisingly well stirred.   

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