By Marty Mulrooney
I haven’t read any of the original book in years (or the countless short stories), but I always remember thinking that Sherlock Holmes had never really been done justice when being translated to film. Instead, to many he had become little more than a pipe-smoking, cloak and deerstalker cap wearing detective.
So when I heard that British director Guy Ritchie was going to put his own unique spin on things, I was intrigued. Would this simply be ‘Lock, Stock’ set in the late 1800’s? Or would the iconic detective finally get the visual treatment he deserved? The answer seems to lie somewhere in-between the two…
Visually, this film is a triumph. Sure, there are moments of dodgy CGI, but mostly this film really nails the feel of 1891 London and I couldn’t have been happier. I like it when effects are not the focus of a film; overall, that seemed to be the case here.
The streets feel gritty and realistic, perhaps due to extensive location shooting (including Manchester, London and the docks of my hometown, Liverpool) matched with highly convincing sets, computer effects filling the gaps. Indeed, the opening shots of a wildly galloping horse and carriage, clattering over pebbled streets with noticeable urgency, draws you into this dark and dangerous past world at breakneck speed.
Robert Downey Jr. (an actor I have no shame in saying I have loved for a number of years) is certainly an interesting choice as the titular detective. As we get introduced to him, we are immediately shown not only his brains, but his brawn. The 1800’s Sherlock Holmes version of the bullet-time effect in the Matrix, we are immediately shown Holmes mentally ticking off his actions against a larger opponent in a deserted building (a hit to the throat stopping any shouting, a thud to the ribs bringing the victim to his knees) before the whole spectacle is shown in glorious real-time, with audible crunches to boot.
Fedora replacing the deerstalker cap, bohemian clothes betraying a quite frankly borderline nut job persona that is prone to moments of genius, Downey certainly presents the complete opposite of what many would expect from the stereotype of the detective. He even does a passable British accent.
Jude Law as Doctor Watson is another pleasant surprise. I am not a huge fan of the actor (although I have liked him in certain roles, particularly as a creepy crime-scene photographer in Road to Perdition) yet here, he is highly likeable as an English gentleman, Holmes’ reluctant sidekick and an overall nice guy.
He plays it straight so that Downey Jr. can run wild: it works very well. The banter between Holmes and Watson is the highlight of the film, without exception. Arguably, without the performances of Law and Downey Jr. the film would have suffered tremendously, to the point of becoming a huge waste of time and money. The casting here is spot on though, at least for the take on the franchise that they were aiming for.
Sadly, the storyline (wondering why I hadn’t mentioned that vital ingredient yet?) is only so-so. Mark Strong, an actor who I always enjoy seeing perform, makes a passable villain as Lord Blackwood, rumoured black-magic dabbler. After killing several women as human sacrifices, he is captured at the beginning by Holmes and Watson. Yet, even though sentenced to death, it seems that he has risen from the grave. His plans have only just begun…
The storyline is intriguing, don’t get me wrong. Yet the film falls into that same old holiday movie trap of having an action scene every 10 minutes. Holmes bare-knuckle boxing feels almost real and brutal at one point (kind of like Brad Pitt in Snatch); to see him later fighting several bad guys (including a huge brute), getting punched in the face time and time again with no visible damage, is disappointingly cartoonish.
Rachel McAdams as Irene Adler provides some nice eye-candy for male viewers, yet her back-story is sadly only ever hinted at. She holds her own against the boys, yet this is Downey and Law’s show, 100%.
She has some nice moments with Robert Downey Jr. later on in the film certainly, but it is difficult to care about her constant side-swapping and romantic endeavours when overall so very little is actually revealed about her in the end.
Over two hours long, Sherlock Holmes thankfully never outstays its welcome. It is a fun, light and breezy romp through Guy Ritchie’s surprisingly toned-down (his first ever non-R-rated film) version of 1891 London… just don’t expect anything too close to the source material. This is more of a reimagining than a faithful adaptation.
On a positive note, the soundtrack by The Dark Knight composer Hans Zimmer is superb. Squeaky violins and slightly out of tune pianos raucously stampede alongside the visuals with admirable gusto.
The annoying thing is, the main characters feel like they just needed a better story to walk around in: so much was done right here after all. The inevitable sequel will follow, and for Law and Downey Jr. alone I cannot wait. I just hope they bring an actual film with them next time, rather than a stretched out proof of concept. Cautiously recommended.
7 OUT OF 10